It’s hard to ever doubt Masai Ujiri, since he’s improved the Toronto Raptors’ record each season that he’s been their president of basketball operations.
But this season, it doesn’t seem like the Raptors are bound to take the next step. Currently on a 3-game losing streak, they’re on path to not improving their record for the first time since 2011. They still hold the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference with a 28-16 record, but things just don’t seem the same in Toronto.
A certain intensity and spirit seems to be missing, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
Last season, the Raptors limited their opponents to only 98.2 points a game. This season, they’ve gone from 3rd in the league in opponent points per game to 15th, allowing their opposition to average 104.8 points a night.
With their leading scorer in DeMar DeRozan now having to deal with an ankle sprain, Patrick Patterson still sidelined due to injury, and Kyle Lowry’s injury history always in the distant background, the Raptors look like they’re in need of a defensive force now more than ever.
They’ve slid from the 11th best defensive rating to the 17th, while their rim protection and interior defence is practically non-existent. They’re now relying on Lucas Nogueira, who provides half of the energy of the man whose shoes he’s being asked to fill, and not to forget is basically a year removed from the D-League.
After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time, while also setting a franchise record with a 56-win season, the Raptors made their most influential move of the year during free agency. Yes, they did re-sign the player bound to break almost every Raptors’ record in DeRozan, but they also allowed the heart and soul of their defence to leave just as they had found the right formula.
While DeRozan and Kyle Lowry continue to post career-highs in points, averaging a stellar 50 points between them, the Raptors are now starting to feel the effects of not having a strong defence to rely upon as they go through their own of case of the mid-season blues. Expecting their backcourt to light it up every single night is a tough expectation, especially if they don’t have a defence to cut them some slack while hero-ball remains their best option.
Last season, Bismack Biyombo was that safety blanket for the Raptors, with them going 9-0 in games in which he recorded a double-double, and 27-8 in games in which he recorded at least 2 blocks.
“You’d get beat and you’d say: ‘Biz is there,“’ said Lowry, quickly adding: “Biz is not there now.”
Biyombo’s departure to the Orlando Magic on a 4-year/$72 million deal wasn’t his fault, instead it was the choice of Raptors management. They allowed the spark plug of their team to find a new home, only after a single season in which he changed the dynamic of their team.
Playing all 82 games for the Raptors throughout the 2015-16 season, Biyombo was their stud rim protector. He averaged 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes, the 3rd highest of any player to log at least 1000 minutes that season. With Valanciunas injured for a long stretch of their breakout campaign, Biyombo was responsible for bringing a level of intensity and energy to their team that at this point seems irreplaceable.
In the 22 games Biyombo started last year throughout the regular season, he averaged 7.2 points on 54.8 FG%, an incredible 12.2 rebounds and 2 blocks in 29.8 minutes of action. In his 10 games as a starter in the playoffs, his numbers continued to improve with him playing an average of 33.3 minutes, posting 8.2 points on 60.4 FG%, 11 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game.
In that process, he also set a couple of Raptors’ franchise records; his most memorable one being the 26 rebounds he collected in Game 3 against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, helping propel his team to a win over the eventual champs. He would follow that performance by a 14-rebound outing, to go along with a combined 7 blocks throughout the pair of wins he was able to deliver for Toronto.
The Raptors eventually lost to the Cavaliers in 6 games, but their biggest loss would come months later when they made the mistake of giving up Biyombo.
His hustle, finger-wagging, and daily high-flying rejections at the rim still never take a back seat whether he’s a starter or coming off the bench. It was clear that he wanted to stay in Toronto, even saying that he would take a hometown discount, but it wasn’t enough to keep his place on a team he had changed for the better.
This season, Dwane Casey continues to favour a defensive centre in Nogueira, even over Jonas Valanciunas. It makes the decision to allow Biyombo to leave seem even worse – since Casey, and basically every other head coach in the league, seems to prefer a defensive force filling in at their centre position. It’s a move that basically transformed the Raptors from having the league’s 8th worst defensive rating throughout the 2014-15 season, to having one of the most pesky defences in the league with Biyombo at centre.
While Nogueria has the length as a 7-footer and is averaging 1.8 blocks a game, he doesn’t have the lateral quickness and leaping ability to make him an elite defender. Biyombo was able to hover the floor, and get up and down the court with ease, giving the Raptors a scary threat guarding the paint at all times.
Last season, the Raptors only allowed 16 performances of at least 30 points by a player on the opposing team. Only 44 games into the 2016-17 regular season, they’re already given up 12 30-point showcases, with their latest one coming against the Suns, after Eric Bledsoe dropped 40 points last night.
As they get ready for another tough stretch, the Raptors’ biggest concern clearly lies on the defensive end. Their problems might have been overshadowed by the fact that they still hold the league’s 2nd highest offensive rating, only behind the Golden State Warriors, but now the impact of Biyombo’s departure is becoming clearly evident as the Raptors find themselves in their first 3-game losing streak since November 2015.
All stats for this article are from NBA.com and Baksebtall-Reference.com
You can follow Bryan Meler on Twitter @BryanMelo97