Is Raptors Defense a Misnomer?

Posted on October 19, 2010 | 12 Comments

One thing that everyone has been interested in seeing is how the Raptors defense has improved. Last year, it was one of the achilles heals (unfortunately, they had more than one) and a lot of fans hoped the roster changes made over the summer would give the Raptors a chance at improving their defense.

The problem with the theory that the Raptors defense should improve dramatically is that the most of the roster changes did not, in fact, give the Raptors better defensive players.

Bosh, for all his criticism, was actually a half decent defender. He wasn’t great, by any means, but him leaving the team certainly doesn’t automatically make the Raptors a better defensive team. Bosh was never the most willing defender, but he knew how to play team defense, and that’s half the battle. If his replacement was a much better defender, then we could expect the defense to improve.

Amir Johnson IS a better defender than Bosh, but his penchant for fouling still makes him unlikely to play heavy minutes. Besides, Johnson played last season and the Raptors were still awful defensively. Ten more minutes a game isn’t going to make that much difference.

Ed Davis has the potential to be an excellent defender, but he’s a rookie and won’s see any action until November. Missing training camp will put him behind and rookies rarely make much of an impact on the defensive end. Besides, while he has the potential to be a very good team defender immediately, he’s going to struggle against stronger big men, which at this point, is most of the league. He’ll need to get a lot stronger.

Reggie Evans seems to be the current replacement for Bosh in the starting lineup, at least until Davis is ready. Evans is tough, strong and willing to throw his weight around. He’s shown to be a good interior and post defender, and has been defending most of the post players thus far (more on that later). Where he’s weak is whenever he has to step outside of the paint. He doesn’t make good decisions out on the perimeter and isn’t quick enough to defend out there. On the boards, Reggie is a slightly better rebounder than Bosh, but the difference is negligible.

No matter how Kleiza performs this season, he’ll be more well liked by Raptor fans than Turkoglu. The question is, will he be for effective? For all of Turkoglu’s faults, he wasn’t actually as bad defensively as many Raptor fans would like to think. Now, I’m not saying he was good by any stretch of the imagination. He hardly ever gave the effort that was needed and didn’t exactly have the quickest feet to stay with his man laterally. He did understand how to play defense, though, and that went a long way.

Kleiza is a more willing defender than Turkoglu ever was, but Kleiza lacks Turkoglu’s understanding. Of course, given a choice between the two, I’d choose Kleiza. While he isn’t a great team defender, he’s got strength, toughness and a willingness to throw his weight around. And he’s going to work hard.

Rebounding-wise, Kleiza has been a nice surprise. He’s a far better rebounder, especially on the defensive end, than Turkoglu ever was. And he seems to get a lot of tough rebounds, too, which is sorely needed on the Raptors team.

Barbosa doesn’t have the best defensive reputation, but that might have more to do with his playing for Phoenix. So far, he’s be actually pretty good, especially with the Raptors pressing as much as they have. He’s come up with a lot of steals and has used his quickness to his advantage. His lack of height at the SG position, where he has played nearly exclusively, hasn’t hurt the Raptors yet on the defensive end, but there are times it will. The idea seems to be that when Barbosa is on the floor, the team will press more, nullifying any height advantage the opposing team might have at the SG position.

There are a few players that weren’t replaced. Antoine Wright came into training camp with a stellar defensive reputation and left with an overrated one. Marco Belinelli was actually a decent defender, but was traded for Julian Wright, who is supposedly a good defensive player, but might not get much of a chance to show it. Nesterovic is probably the player that the Raptors will miss the most. He didn’t play a lot, but could always be counted on for good, solid team defense. This years the Raptors have David Andersen.

Now about what I’ve seen so far this season.

The Raptors seem to have a completely different philosophy this year on the defensive end, which will probably make more of an impact than the new players. Whether this is thanks to new assistant coach PJ Carlesimo, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Unlike Iavaroni, Carlesimo has coached on teams that have been very good defensively, including the NBA Champion Spurs.

I thought the idea the Raptors had last season, about protecting the house, seemed sound, but the players never really seemed to get it. This year they seem to be taking more advantage of the more athletic roster. The team is doing a lot more pressing and trapping, which is creating more turnovers and easy baskets. Last year, not one single Raptor player averaged even 1 steal a game (which in itself is a little astounding considering 57 players in the NBA averaged at least a steal a game last year). In the preseason so far, six Raptors are averaging at least a steal a game. Now I don’t expect those numbers to hold up over the regular season, but it’s certainly a good indication of a style of play.

Speaking of steals, an interesting fact I discovered was that Bosh and Bargnani were the worst starting front court pair in the league last year at getting steals. Bargnani was 40th in steals among centers (83rd in steals per 48 minutes), whereas Bosh was 37th among PFs(86th in steals per 48 minutes). Part of blame lies the style of play, which did not include trying to create turnovers, but part of it is due to the fact that neither simply force many turnovers.

The trapping and pressing style of play certainly benefits Barbosa, DeRozan, Weems and even Jack much more. They’re given much more freedom and can use their quickness and athleticism more on defense than they did last season.

Now, one big thing I’ve noticed defensively is in the front court. Reggie Evans has been starting, and guarding most of the opposition’s post players. This isn’t such a bad thing as Reggie is a good, strong post defender and not great on the perimeter. What this means, however, is that Bargnani is defending more power forwards, and they seem to be defending him more. It’s interesting because a lot of Bargnani’s defenders have claimed that he’ be better off at PF. Now, that’s essentially what he’s playing. And the results haven’t been surprising. When Bargnani was defending the opposition’s post player most of the time, as he did last year, he did give the Raptors good post defense, if not much else. In the pre-season, he’s playing less post defense and being exposed more on the perimeter. And he’s still hurting the team with his poor team defense.

In fact, I’ve noticed opposing teams focusing their drives at Bargnani, knowing he’s the weak link on the interior. The fallacy that Bargnani could be hidden more defending PFs has been exposed. It doesn’t make a difference. Opposing teams know he’s a weak link and focus their attention on him.

And Bargnani’s rebounding certainly isn’t improved with more PFs guarding him. Some people might remember the couple of flourishes he had on the boards in the last few games, but his overall numbers have remained reletively unchanged over last season.

And essentially playing PF hasn’t helped Bargnani on offense, either. But I’ll save that for the next post…

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Join the discussion: 12 Comments


  • nikita

    The first 12 games I saw of Bargnani I said to myself: “what’s a 7-footer doing beyond the arc hurling 3s?” Wasn’t he imported from Europe specifically to play defense on the post? If all Colangelo wanted was a tall dude throwing bricks from downtown he could have signed Antoine Walker for much less money. I totally agree with you that having him around is not gonna do the Raptors any good. The best thing for Colangelo to do now is to trade him to the Pistons for Jason Maxiell. Jason might not be taller but he is scrappy and can rebound. Best of all, he does not throw 3-point shots. And lastly, Colangelo should fire himself.

  • Raptorsss

    The Raptors defense will be better than last year (it can’t get worse). The problems, as you’ve mentioned, are the rotations and the transition defense.

    I think the transition defense will be the biggest problem, not the interior defense.

  • Tim W.


    I actually don’t have a big problem with what Bargnani does on offense. Sure, I’d like him to score inside a little more, but if he was a good defender and rebounder, I wouldn’t have a problem at all with him. Now, I don’t think he should ever be the 1st or even 2nd option on a good team because he relies so much on others creating for him and he doesn’t get to the line, but if he were a good rebounder and defender, I would have no problem with keeping him.


    Ya, I never mentioned the transition defense. You’re right, though. It’s been horrible so far. Ironically, though, the team they have played that has been the best at running they’ve beaten both times.

    I think the interior defense will be a little better because of the style they are playing and because Evans, and I believe Davis, are better interior defenders than Bosh was.

  • kshiz

    Had the game on tonight … wow … Raptors look awful. Bargnani is horrible – it’s like he doesn’t even play hard out there. What a waste of talent. I thought he’d be out ready to dominate after Bosh left – but his demeanor seems exactly the same. Amir Johnson – I know you like him – but he’s raw. It’s like he doesn’t know how to play ball really … Only one game but dayam.

  • JoePanini

    I just hope they play hard in the regular season. Even if we don’t have great defenders (our best defender is probably Julian Wright, that says something) but as long as everyone plays their heart out, put in every little bit of energy onto the floor then I’ll be happy. But I’m not seeing the effort. I want to see the players fight for every inbound pass, for every rebound, and just play the game. I don’t see any effort by any player, yes some may put in an occasional sprint, a huge rebounds, nice block, but there is no consistency. You look at teams like Milwaukee and Boston. You look at their roster, they both seem pretty average, Boston has a bunch of old guys and Milwaukee is filled with players who have always been “average” but both teams always play hard, even when they are losing by 30 they will still play defense, still run their offense but we don’t.

    Before we talk about our defense, we gotta get the players to want to play. They need to know that although we are not a play-off team, winning and playing the game is still our priority…

  • Statement

    Joe Panini,

    Boston does NOT have an average roster,

    Rondo is a top 4 PG in the league IMHO (Nash, Paul, Williams, Rondo)

    KG is aging, but will likely remain above-average this year.

    Pierce is an all-star

    Allen will likely remain around average

    The only “hole” they have is at centre, but they are getting Perkins bag and Jermaine O’neal is an adequate short-term replacement.

  • JoePanini

    By average I meant they didn’t play fancy basketball… :)

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  • Tim W.


    I actually missed the first part of the game, but they certainly didn’t look very good. Shouldn’t be a surprise, though. This is a team that is going to look pretty good in some games and awful in others.

    Ya, Bargnani was pretty much the same as always out there. He obviously scored fine, but as in the last game, 5 of his 7 field goals were assisted. As I’ve repeated over and over, the guy needs other to create for him. He simply can’t do it himself. On the plus side, he got to the line 7 times, which is about two or three games worth of attempts normally.

    And his rebounding and defense were, as always, pathetic. I just simply don’t understand what some Raptor fans see in this guy. I lost count of the number of times he let someone get a layup right in front of him. And 3 rebounds in 29 minutes. Ugh!

    Ya, Amir didn’t play well last night. But I think that mostly had to do with the fact he couldn’t stay on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s like that. He’ll play really well one game and then barely play the next because of foul trouble. In 18 minutes, he did grab 4 rebounds, got 2 steals and scored 8 points. At least he was productive while out on the floor.


    The disparate levels of intensity of game to game is a little odd. And I’m not sure why it happens. Not to pick on him, but having Bargnani on the floor for such long periods of time certainly doesn’t help. It’s something I have not criticized him for in the past, but his lack of energy is becoming frustrating. In the past, the team didn’t need him to play with a lot of energy, but this year, the whole team needs to. I think Triano needs to start putting everyone on a shorter leash.

  • kshiz

    Bargnani is seriously a problem. How are you going to let Brian Scalabrine – again – BRIAN SCALABRINE torch you like that?! Have you no pride?! Put a hand up at least!

    Shameful, absolutely shameful.

    I’m starting to sound like Tim W now.

    This is disconcerting.

    I think JoePanini’s Celtics analogy was insane (I think he would agree too in hindsight), but the spirit of his comment is absolutely 100% right. The Raptors don’t play with any fire at all. Or when they do – it’s inconsistent. With lesser talent, at least the fire, the passion, the desire to win must be there. It isn’t.

    And why does Calderon get any playing time, ever? He and Jarret Jack are both backups at best. Triano should just start Barbosa and Derozan at the 1 and 2 spots. They are the only 2 players that showed any type of life at all in that game.

    I am probably overreacting – I admit. Still …

  • J

    I love that I come back from a long hiatus to see what’s new on RR, and it’s the same old. Guess I haven’t missed anything, and it’ll probably be another couple months before I stop by again. Honestly, between all the negativity and the amount of stupidity spewed on the forums there, it’s enough to make anyone go crazy (though I did enjoy Arsenalist’s article on hiding Bargnani’s weak defense).

    Keep up the good work, Tim. I look forward to respectfully disagreeing with you on Bargnani until the day he is flipped for none other than Greg Oden. You know the basketball gods will make it so, in order to right the wrong inflicted upon our Raptors when the draft entry age was raised. Oden will finally be ours, injuries and all, but at least he plays defense?

  • Tim W.

    Same old? SAME OLD????? Are you kidding me? Before, we were arguing about whether moving Bargnani from PF to C would create more mismatches down low, and now we’re arguing about whether moving Bargnani from PF to C would help him on defense. Geez! Talk about apples and oranges.

    I was actually wondering what had happened to you. Believe me, you didn’t miss much over the summer. I took a bit of a hiatus, too, but I fear the IQ level (or perhaps age level) of the RR forum has dropped. A number of new posters and most of them are, well, not great at adding to the conversation. I even had to go so far as defending Bargnani on a couple of threads because the ridiculousness was getting out of hand.

    Glad to see you’re back.

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