Raptors' success will be tied to their transition offence

  • Raptors' transition attack key due to other offensive limitations

  • Internal development, continuity fuelling success

  • Rival coaches taking notice

  • Can approach hold up through 82 games and into playoffs?

Here is what we know about the Toronto Raptors: We know they pride themselves on their defence, deploying some of the best defenders in the world and one of the most aggressive defensive schemes in the league, forcing turnovers at a top-2 rate in each of the last three seasons.

We also know they like to play fast, prioritizing transition offence in part because their defence already forces so many turnovers and also because their half-court offence leaves much to be desired, ranking 26th in the league through seven games. Even with Pascal Siakam turning into an offensive dynamo, the Raptors lack secondary shooting and rim pressure, and are not going to be elite in the half court this season no matter how much chemistry the players develop together. They simply need to find other ways to score.

Last season, the Raptors did that by winning the possession battle to an almost historic degree, attempting the fourth-most field goals in the league through a combination of offensive rebounding and forced turnovers. And while it’s true the Raptors ran just about as much as any team in the league, finishing 18.6 percent of their possessions in transition, their transition offencce was actually quite disappointing on the whole. They scored 126.1 points per 100 transition possessions, which ranked 14th in the league and was actually worse than their mark during their tank season in Tampa Bay (126.8) despite being a significantly younger, faster, and more athletic team.

In other words, they left a lot of meat on the bone in transition.

This season, at least through seven games, they have left almost none, scoring incredibly well in transition and making teams pay for not getting back on defence.

There is a commonly held belief that younger teams are better in transition because they are quicker and more athletic, beating their opponents down the floor. But it’s actually really difficult for many young players to make the adjustment to the speed of the NBA game, and that includes executing in transition, when NBA athletes are chasing them down at 100 percent speed.

Plus, that idea ignores many of the more complex and symbiotic elements of transition offence, including ball handling, decision making, floor spacing, and finishing. It’s no wonder that more skilled, veteran teams are often the best at finishing in transition, demonstrated by the Miami Heat being top-5 in transition efficiency for three years running and the Raptors actually being an elite transition team in 2018-19 and 2019-20, when they were significantly older than they are now.

“I think the main thing is making a good first quick decision," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said about all the different options players have in transition. "So the ball comes out and you grab it and are you thinking score? Are you thinking pass? Is there somebody ahead of you? Is it a next play bing, bang, throw ahead? Or is it you going to draw the defence and then reading [the floor after] that?

“That does take reps and we work on that a lot in practice. Of how to score in transition and things like that. And you've got to do it quickly because if you don't, transition is over with. So I think your point about more experienced guys and the more reps they've had [being better], like in a lot of things, is true.”

Pascal Siakam and the Raptors love to get out in transition. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images
Pascal Siakam and the Raptors love to get out in transition. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images (Getty Images)

Last season, a Raptors team that was among the youngest and least experienced in the league (both in terms of games played and games played together) struggled to execute in transition, finishing the season with the eighth-worst effective field-goal percentage at 59.0 (meaning they didn’t hit many threes) and the ninth-highest turnover percentage in transition at 12.6.

The only players who consistently made good decisions in transition were Siakam and rookie Scottie Barnes, while players like Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. were too often guilty of being sped up and making bad decisions on the run. The Raptors also leaned on their starters so heavily and their bench so sparingly that they probably didn’t have the legs to finish enough of those plays.

This season, there seems to be a lot more intentionality to what the Raptors are doing in transition. Internal development from some key players and continuity with the core group seems to be paying dividends when it comes to the Raptors' transition attack. Achiuwa, for example, has developed his handle to the point where he can now comfortably attack the full length of the court and euro-step his way to the basket, while on the whole the team’s spacing is better and the roles are more defined in transition.

It’s all amounting to the league’s highest frequency at 20.8 percent of possessions ending in transition and the fourth-highest efficiency through seven games. They have an effective field goal percentage of 65.7 and are turning the ball over on just 8.6 percent of possessions. (It’s worth noting that transition offence is slightly up across the league to start the season in part due to the new take foul rule).

And unlike last season when they were fairly efficient scoring after steals but among the least efficient teams scoring after defensive rebounds, this year’s team is doing both well, lulling defences to sleep as they walk the ball up the court before flipping a switch into attack mode in semi-transition.

“It was devastating what they were able to do in transition,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Raptors beat Miami to split their two-game set earlier this season.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers was also complimentary of Toronto's skills in transition.

“They all can handle the ball. They also create a lot of turnovers. I mean, they force terms, they get their hands on the ball, they're very aggressive in their reaches,” Rivers said. “...But what makes them so different? A lot of teams have to find the point guard or the two-guard to bring the ball up — anyone can bring it up on their team.”

The Raptors are getting closer to the idealized version of the “Vision 6-foot-9” experiment, where anyone can grab a defensive rebound and rush the ball down the court in transition, no matter their size. It makes it really difficult for opposing teams to anticipate where the transition attack is coming from or, more importantly, how it is going to end. Throw in the fact that Barnes and Siakam are elite playmakers in transition, Boucher and Achiuwa can run to the rim, while Trent, Anunoby, and VanVleet are elite shooters, and the formula for success is pretty obvious.

I think we talk every day about running to the corners. Someone running to the rim and just creating spacing. I think we work on that every day. I believe and I hope that we're going to continue to get better with spacing,” Siakam said. “Because again, having someone like me or Scottie coming down the lane, we've got to have shooters in the corners and the right spacing so we can attack. We're not where we want to be, but we're getting better.”

“I just try to get the rebounds and try to be aggressive,” Barnes said of his thought process. “I know I can be lethal in transition. This team can be really lethal in transition with the length and athleticism that we have. Being young, we can be very dominant in transition. I feel like that's the easy way to get our party started, the movement started, running. I feel like that's what we can do.”

Still, as encouraging as the start to the season has been for the Raptors' transition game, it’s going to have to hold up through 82 contests. And more than that, if the Raptors want to improve on last season’s results and win a playoff series, they are going to have to figure out how to make it work in the playoffs, when transition offence has historically become a much smaller tool in the toolbox.

For now, though, the Raptors' transition attack looks and feels pretty damn lethal.

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