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The Toronto Raptors are a team with questions.
After opening the 2021-22 campaign 1-3, the Raptors went on a five-game winning streak only to follow it with a 3-10 stretch — good for a 9-13 overall record and 2-8 mark at home.
One of the most hotly debated topics a quarter of the way into the season has been the Raptors’ rebounding problems, and for good reason. For the second-straight season, the Raptors are struggling to clean the defensive glass, grabbing just 69.9 percent of defensive rebounds, which is third-fewest in the league. As a result, opponents are scoring 15.4 second-chance points per game on the Raptors, the third most in the league.
It doesn’t matter that the Raptors are the best offensive rebounding team in the league this season, grabbing 32.9 percent of offensive rebounds and scoring an average of 15.8 second-chance points themselves. This is supposed to be a defensive-oriented team, but their defensive rebounding problems are making that impossible, helping drop their defensive rating down to 110.0, which is 24th in the league.
There have even been calls for the Raptors to get “a real centre” or “a 7-footer” to shore up their problems on the glass. After all, it’s frustrating to watch a team play good defence for 24 seconds only to give up a put-back or open three that changes the momentum of the game.
However, unlike last season, Toronto’s rebounding issues are not the fault of its two centres.
Despite both being 6-foot-9 and therefore undersized compared to many starting centres around the NBA, Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa are both strong and lengthy enough to hang in most matchups and to do their part to clean the glass. Achiuwa is grabbing 21.5 percent of opponent rebounds, putting him in the 73rd percentile for bigs. While Birch’s number is significantly lower at just 11.4 percent, he is a master at box-outs and the team is still grabbing 72.6 percent of defensive rebounds when he is on the floor, which is near league-average.
Where, then, is the problem coming from?
As is the case with several of the Raptors’ problems this season, the biggest issue is health.
When both Birch and Achiuwa have been available to play, the Raptors are 7-5 with a defensive rebounding percentage of 74.1, per PBPstats, which would rank 12th in the league. Unfortunately, Birch has missed 16 games and is currently sidelined due to right knee swelling, and Achiuwa has missed three games, meaning the only two centres on the roster have been available for just 12.9 percent of their games. Collectively, they are doing more than enough to win the rebounding battle on both ends of the floor. But on their own, neither Birch nor Achiuwa is good enough to carry the Raptors through full games as the lone centre. But more often than not this season, they have had no choice but to try.
“We're almost reacting to what the [other team is] doing with that and when we have them both, we can do what we want to do, play whoever we want at any time,” Nurse said about having both Birch and Achiuwa in the lineup. “I think any game where we've had both those guys have been good games for us rebounding-wise, rim-protection-wise, and minutes-wise because it allows us to rotate the other guys down a position, nobody has to bump up [a position].”
“It's not that big a deal, but it is certainly a better deal when they're both available.”
With only one of Birch or Achiuwa available, Nurse has no choice but to match minutes with opposing bigs rather than play his rotations based on feel. Plus, it means he is forced to play small-ball lineups without a traditional big, which have been an even bigger problem on the boards, grabbing a laughable 65.2 percent of defensive rebounds in 431 possessions this season (and fouling on 21.5 percent of possessions).
Clearly, the small-ball lineups can’t keep up on the glass, which is partly also due to health, as those lineups will only work with length across the board and Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have combined to miss 18 games.
“We just got to team rebound,” Scottie Barnes said about matching up when he is the nominal centre. “Keep putting bodies on the bigs because they just plant themselves right in the paint trying to get those rebounds, but it's really just on us to be aggressive, be physical down there, and just man up… so we just try to make a team emphasis on that, but it's on us to execute.”
The other related issue this season is that it’s not just that the Raptors are giving up offensive rebounds, it’s that when they do, their second-chance defence leaves a lot to be desired. Either too many guys are going for the block, resulting in an open put-back, or they fail to match up on the perimeter and get burned from three.
In fact, opponents are scoring a mind-blowing 1.46 points per possession on second-chance opportunities against the Raptors, grabbing 10.5 offensive rebounds per game and scoring an average of 15.4 points after them. (For reference, the Raptors are scoring just 1.17 points per possession on their second-chance opportunities). Some of that is luck, as opponents are getting fortunate bounces on tip-ins and shooting well from three after offensive rebounds. But a big part of their struggles is that second-chance defence is very much based on instinct and chemistry, making it a work in progress for this young and inexperienced Raptors team. Just watch these possession from the past two games alone:
“A lot of times, when you give up an offensive rebound, to put it nicely, you’ve exhaled before the defensive possession has been finished. A lot of the times when you do that, you’re still in the exhale when they take it right back up or when they kick it out to a guy spotting up at the three,” Nurse said about the second-chance defence. “Taking the defensive possession all the way to completion has been a big emphasis [for us].
“You’ve got to re-engage and start trying to win the possession back. And just some better focus and alertness to stay in the play… You can sometimes get pulled out of the play because you think it’s going the other way. And then it doesn’t, and you’re on the wrong side of the basket and your man and things like that.”
Unfortunately for the Raptors, there has been a lot of that recently, and it feels like it’s coming at the worst times.
“It’s kind of a snowball when you’re behind a step, your rotation is a step slow, you’re out of position, they got position, they get it,” Fred VanVleet said. “But, yeah, it just feels like it's coming at bad times. We’re playing good defence for most of the possession. Just not coming up with the board.”
That last point is crucial. It’s not just that the Raptors are giving up offensive rebounds that lead to second-chance points, it’s that it often comes after they play 24 seconds of sound defence and force their opponents to get off a tough shot only to still get scored on. That can feel very deflating, leading to huge momentum shifts in games, and it can also get tiring, as the Raptors are playing at the third-slowest pace in the league due to all the drawn-out possessions.
Rebounding isn’t the sexiest stat to talk about, but it’s causing the Raptors to lose game after game right now. And the issue isn’t that they don’t have a 7-footer on the roster, it’s that they only have two players who can play the centre position in the first place, and one of them has been hurt for most of the season. For that reason, the Raptors should seriously consider adding a depth centre to the roster by the trade deadline, as those players are fairly easy to find on cheap deals.
Do the Raptors still need an elite rim-protector to take them over the edge? Eventually, sure. But right now they need to get healthy, add a bench big, and improve their second-chance defence. And they need to do it quickly.
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