Three Interesting Stats: North Of The Border Edition

Checking in on Pascal Siakam, an aggressive defense, and an emerging block machine.

In the Three Interesting Stats series, we hope to bring to light three fun numerical tidbits of information from the NBA and relate them back to what is happening on the court. Last week, in the first edition, we talked about isolation play in Brooklyn, hot shooting in Milwaukee, and a free throw machine in Philly. This time, we turn our attention north of the border- or, I suppose, to sunny Tampa Bay for the time being- to look at the play of the Toronto Raptors.

The 2019 NBA Champs (doesn’t that feel like 10 year ago?) are only 17-19 at the All-Star break after starting the year a sluggish 2-8, but have actually climbed up to a positive +1.4 net rating, per basketball-reference. There are lots of intriguing developments with this team, so let’s dive in!

Stat 1: 54.2%. Pascal Siakam’s true shooting percentage so far this season.

Let me preface this section by saying that I am personally a big fan of Siakam and his game. A Cameroon native, the Raptor forward came to the NBA oozing raw talent despite having not played organized basketball until he was nearly 18, as described in this great piece by Jackie MacMullan of ESPN. Aesthetically, he’s a player I very much enjoy watching. His sweet spin moves on drives and his daring attacks of the basket in transition are appealing.

Siakam rose onto my radar in 2018-19 when he both expanded his offensive role and bumped up his true shooting percentage, a measure of scoring efficiency that takes into account shots from the floor and free throws, to a gaudy 62.8%. When Kawhi Leonard left the Raptors in the 2019 offseason, I was curious how Siakam might play in an even more expanded offensive role. The result was a drop-off in scoring efficiency, as shown in the graph below.

For context, Siakam’s 54.2% true shooting percentage is three percentage points below the league average of this season. His usage, a measure of his offensive workload, is up to 25% from about 21% in 2018-19.

I should note that this drop-off in efficiency that comes with an expanded offensive role is very understandable. In general, players tend to become less efficient as they are asked to take on a larger role and create more of their own shots. As evidence of his larger role as a solo creator, the Raptor wing’s isolations per game have doubled from 1.5 a game in 2018-19 to 3.2 a game in 2020-21, per Synergy. Moreover, the proportion of Siakam’s made field goals that are assisted has fallen; 49% of his 2-pointers and 98% of his 3-pointers were assisted in 2018-19 but just 37% of his 2-pointers and 83% of his 3-pointers have been assisted this season, per basketball-reference.

His 3-point stroke, a revelation in 2018-19 when he knocked down 36.9% of his shots beyond the arc, has deserted him so far this year and he sits at just 29.5%. Shooting can be fickle, so perhaps some improvement may be expected back up into the mid 30%’s. At the basket, he still makes almost 70% of his shots but these make up a smaller share of his total field goal attempts, per basketball-reference.

I should note that roughly average efficiency scoring on a high volume still has value to an offense. But part of the allure of Siakam came from his potential to combine both high volume and high efficiency. That has not happened yet, though at 26 and still relatively new to the game, the Toronto star still has time to continue to improve.

Stat 2: 2nd and 30th. The Raptors’ ranks in opponent turnover percentage and opponent FT/FGA, respectively.

When you watch Toronto play defensive, you notice a distinctive style. Defenders fly around the court, aggressively helping off their primary offensive assignment to attempt to cut off promising drives and snuff out openings. Often, the goal is to prevent juicy opponent opportunities at the rim. Not only do the Raptors’ defenders readily offer help, but they also actively double team ball handlers in the post or isolation more frequently than other teams.

This aggression manifests itself in lots of different ways, but one way in particular is forcing a bevy of turnovers at the expense of giving up a ton of free throws. The Raptors rank 2nd and 30th respectively in these two Four Factors, as seen in their placement in the top right corner of the plot below.

The turnovers generated are important and grant the Raptors opportunities that they relish to play in transition; Toronto is 2nd in transition frequency per Synergy. But on the other side of the coin, it can be hard to sustain a high level defense when you allow your opponents so many opportunities to generate efficient offense at the free throw line. Overall, Toronto’s defensive rating is a very middling 112.2, 0.2 points below league average per basketball-reference.

Beyond the free throws given up, the Raptors’ willingness to help off of shooters allows smart opponents the opportunity to generate a lot of open looks from behind the arc. Ball handlers driving to the basket can expect a swarm of help defenders to leave open shooters on the perimeter, including in the corners where 3-point shooters are generally the most deadly. The Raptors allow the 4th highest proportion of opponent field goal attempts from 3 and, to compound the issue, allow the 3rd most corner 3-point attempts per game, per Synergy.

Overall, I very much enjoy watching Toronto’s aggressive defense in action! It is a refreshing change of pace from many of the more passive schemes employed in the game today. In addition to their aggression, the Raptors employ a versatile mix of schemes as described here by Caitlin Cooper for Indy Cornrows and analyzed last season by J.A. Dubin and Krishna Narsu for FiveThirtyEight.

While their results this season have been just average on the defensive end, the Raptors were the 2nd best defense last season employing a scheme that was also very active, as measured by the Aggression+ metric that FiveThirtyEight unveiled last year. The Raptors ranked 2nd in Aggression+ this season as of February 16th, behind only the Hornets, per metric developer Krishna Narsu. So perhaps Toronto will right the ship defensively while sticking to their game plan.

One thing that does stand out when comparing this year’s squad to last year’s is that opponents shot a league low 33.7% on 3’s in 2019-20. That has regressed to 37.7% this year, per basketball-reference. So I suppose one could argue that Toronto was getting a bit fortunate last season (or unfortunate this season). In addition, last year’s Raptors were middle of the pack in allowing free throws, as opposed to their worst in the league mark this year. Regardless of the results, the Raptors’ defense certainly does things differently than many other NBA teams.

Stat 3: 4th. Chris Boucher’s rank in blocks in the entire NBA.

Speaking of defense, have you seen Chris Boucher play? The long, skinny 28-year-old former University of Oregon player has emerged as a shot blocking machine! He ranks 4th in the entire NBA in total blocks with 69, per basketball-reference, despite only playing 24 minutes a game in a bench role. He trails only rim-protecting stalwarts Myles Turner, Rudy Gobert, and Clint Capella. Check out these beauties:

You can see an example in the last clip of Boucher’s preternatural talent for extending to the perimeter and blocking 3-point shots. In fact, as of late February, Boucher was recording the most 3-point blocks per 100 possessions in league history according to data pulled by Bryan Kalbrosky of HoopsHype. I think shooters sometimes don’t realize quite how much ground he can cover with his length.

On the offensive end, Boucher has blossomed into a dangerous pick-and-pop threat. Though his mechanics look a bit unconventional with the way he brings the ball over his head, the Raptor center has knocked down 44.5% of his 137 3-point attempts this season. While overall 43% of his field goal attempts have come from behind the arc, he demonstrates some ability as a pick-and-roll roll man as well.

Overall, Chris Boucher has emerged onto the scene as a formidable option off the bench in his first NBA season averaging over 20 minutes per game. I am excited to watch his development and am intrigued to see if his minutes will continue to increase. In the meantime, the block party will continue.

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