How Can You Fix What You Didnt Understand in the First Place?

Title: How Can You Fix What You Didnt Understand in the First Place?
Date: March 2, 2015
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This article wondered if chemistry and synergy are issues that can be rediscovered once lost, since they’re intangible and difficult to understand.

It took me a long time to get started when I sat down to write this. I knew the general tone of what I wanted to say, which is just something I’ve tweeted out a few times when the Toronto Raptors have struggled this year:

When your success is based on an ethereal chemistry that can’t be described or quantified, it’s sudden disappearance is difficult to remedy.

But I couldn’t get going. I toyed with the idea of writing an entire diatribe about the team’s recent struggles using lyrics from Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, Alkaline Trio and other bands of that ilk. I thought about doubling down on a mid-January piece about the team’s across-the-board defensive struggles. I thought about just bailing on the 9 a.m. slot altogether.

The difficulty with beginning to write something that tries to figure this team out amid an abjectly terrible five-game losing streak is that I never quite knew how to write about them when they were succeeding.

It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot over the last 14 months, as the success of the Raptors has caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance on my part.

I firmly believed, as many did, that the trade of Rudy Gay was the beginning of a tear-down. I liked Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson enough, but I definitely didn’t think the deal made the Raptors appreciably better. The 2013-14 season was the most fun I’ve had in seven seasons blogging about the team and I fully embraced it as it was happening, but there were times I was left debating myself about their true talent level.

In the macro picture, I don’t love the way the Raptors play. Their offense can be uncreative and repetitive, and it’s hardly an aesthetically or philosophically pleasing way of operating. A talented player beating a defender one-on-one is kind of the core of basketball, but the game can be so much more beautiful, strategic, and entertaining than that.

Much as fans have enjoyed comparing the Raptors’ offense to the San Antonio Spurs, the comparison is wholly laughable. The Raptors move the ball sometimes, but they run Loop 4, a few wrinkles out of their standard horns set, and a handful of other pet plays and otherwise design their offense around clearing space for one-on-one attacks. They rank among the league’s most ball-dominant teams and they don’t do a noticeably effective job creating efficient looks for each other.

Disliking their style is a personal preference, and the Raptors have succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations playing as they do. That’s where some dissonance has come in. It also creeps in because I don’t really believe how they operate on offense is all that sustainable.

Teams appear to be figuring things out, and those talented players the team relies on so heavily have been struggling. Kyle Lowry, Lou Williams, and DeMar DeRozan have taken the most shots on the team this season and have shot a combined 40 percent. The next two highest in shot totals – Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez – are shooting 40.6 and 40.5 percent, respectively. That’s not good, and it’s been even worse for the big three since the turn of the calendar.

Field goal percentage isn’t a very good way to evaluate an entire offense. Williams, DeRozan, and, to a lesser degree, Lowry, are among the league’s best at drawing fouls and getting to the line. Williams also hits threes (Lowry does, too, but he’s at 31.6 percent for the year), Lowry creates for others, DeRozan has grown as a facilitator (recent forcing of shots not withstanding), and all three players turn the ball over less often than they notice Jonas Valanciunas with a mismatch in the post, which is to say they rarely turn the ball over. These reasons are why the offense has succeeded despite poor overall shooting marks.

The issues with such a strategy are several fold, and it’s concerning that warts are already being exploited in February. Come playoff time, teams will have stronger individual defenders for one-on-one battles and stronger team defenses overall. They’ll also have the benefit of detailed scouting, which will make those assignments even easier. A first-round opponent is going to be shading Williams heavily to drive left, and they’ll have a rim protector ready to employ the concept of verticality every time Lowry sets up for a high pick-and-roll at 35 feet for his north-south acometida. Not that he’ll get the ball much, but teams will also know that Valanciunas reacts to double teams in the post like George Michael Bluth reacting to keys being thrown his way.

Defensively, the team’s system just doesn’t fit the personnel. The success of the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense, with all that length and athleticism? That’s great, and it’s been done using basically the same defense the Raptors use. But Toronto lacks the length, individual perimeter defenders (Aside: How good is Khris Middleton defensively? Damn.), and rim protection to pull it off capably. The Bucks don’t have terrific rim protection, either, but it becomes a far bigger necessity when the Raptors’ perimeter defenders parar. For a while, the defense worked. For a much longer while, it hasn’t.

On the season, the Raptors rank fourth in offense and 17th in defense. Since Jan. 1, those ranks are 13th and 21st, respectively. They’re 37-22, second in the Eastern Conference, and on track for the best regular season in franchise history.

The current slide warrants patience, like the earlier four-game skid did. Things could very well turn around on a dime, as they have before.

The issue, I guess, is that I’ll have little explanation as to why. A lot of this team’s success has been built on an intangible chemistry, a chemistry the organization bet on in the offseason and bet on again at the trade deadline, believing the synergy between these pieces will re-emerge despite warning signs that it maybe shouldn’t have existed in the first place. The issue with anointing your ineffable chemistry as sacrosanct is that chemistry in basketball often times seems tenuous and fleeting. Chemistry is incredibly valuable to a team, but something that can’t really be explained or understood can’t really be relied upon as sustainable.

(Brief aside: I worried that introducing James Johnson into the locker room would risk messing with the chemistry, another cause for dissonance on my part. I’ve loved Johnson on this team and he’s been one of their most consistent two-way producers. But even in his case, his success is a little tough to accept on its face. He’s shooting 67.8 percent on drives! That’s by far the best mark for anyone in the league who’s made 100 drives, more than 10 percentage points higher than the next best player and 11.9 percentage points higher than LeBron James. He’s been awesome.)

There’s a cliché that what’s not broken should not be fixed. There’s not a companion cliché for what to do with something that’s broken, but you can’t describe how it’s broken, and you never had the blueprints for how it was put together in the first place. That’s where I’m at with the Raptors, wondering what to prescribe to get them back to a state I couldn’t describe in the first place.

I’ve been told I’m at times pessimistic about the team because as a writer and fan, doing so is a win-win – either they win and I’m happy, or they lose and I was right and I have more to write about. I think that might be true to a small degree, if I’m being visceral. I think the larger element at play is that I’m logical and analytical by nature, and I like things to have tidy explanations. My inability to explain what makes the Raptors work is admittedly difficult for me to reconcile at times. But I don’t know how electricity works, either, and I still believe in it.

The Raptors stumbled upon something without really meaning to, and it’s been incredible. Every moment watching the team at their high points has been amazing, enough that when there are low points, it’s easy to remember the good times and just trust that they’ll come back and that will be the dominant feeling. And that might be the case. It’s a romantic notion that the Raptors will emerge from another valley to once again become the team none of us expected to believe in a little over a year ago.

I want that to be the case. I want to be that romantic. If it does happen, I may not have any idea how they fixed it, but I’ll be damn glad.

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