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Take Notice, the Toronto Raptors have Built a Modern NBA Defense

We’re living in a strange economic environment in the NBA today. The salary cap of tomorrow is what league executives are spending for today. Of course, bad contracts are still bad contracts, but they must be taken in context.

The Toronto Raptors, for example, haven’t been shy in their spending this summer. They dished out top-dollar for the likes of swingman DeMarre Carroll in the form of a four-year, $60 million contract, which made Carroll the team’s highest paid player. They quickly reached out to Toronto native, Cory Joseph, as soon as he became an unrestricted free agent, agreeing to pay him $30 million over the next four seasons. Those two moves alone will eat up nearly 30 percent of Toronto’s cap next season, but the Raptors are betting they’ll look like bargains once the salary cap explodes.

Everything Toronto’s done this offseason is not only mindful of the rising cap in the future, it’s also been done with the purpose of creating a new identity in the short-term. After all, the team went through an identity crisis over the latter half of the season, which spilled over into an embarrassing first-round exit in the playoffs.

The Raptors needed a makeover heading into this summer. No longer could they play a brand of basketball which misrepresented their coach. Yes, scoring a lot of points is great, and the Raptors excelled in that department last season, finishing as a top five offense. But a Dwane Casey coached team can’t simply ignore defense like they have in year’s past.

General manager Masai Ujiri’s plan this summer is simple: get more defense. In Carroll, the team figures to have a wing stopper, something their rotation-heavy defensive scheme necessitates. Joseph’s a well-built young point guard who will almost certainly defend at a higher level than either of the two backcourt departures — Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams — ever did. And then there’s the addition of Bismack Biyombo, a sneaky-good signing that addresses a paramount need: rim protection. Take into consideration that the team also drafted long, rangy point guard Delon Wright No. 20 overall, and Toronto’s defense-first plan becomes crystal clear.

Replacing Vasquez and Williams with Joseph and Wright sends a message that the team wants to be quicker, longer and more athletic on the perimeter defensively. To be sure, Vasquez and Lou Will provided Casey with an array of mix-and-match possibilities with his lineups, but Toronto’s headed in a new direction which prioritizes preventing buckets over getting them.

If anything, it’s the subtractions to their roster which speak loudest to Toronto’s commitment to defense. The aforementioned Greivis-Lou Will backcourt pairing is no longer; Vasquez was flipped to Milwaukee for a future first-round pick (owned by the Clippers) and the team let Williams walk (he wound up agreeing with the Lakers on a three-year, $21 million deal). Fan favorite Amir Johnson agreed to a deal with the Boston Celtics, and while Johnson was known for his reputation as a reliable defender, by letting him go, it shows that the Raptors are taking notice of the league-wide downsizing trend. It can be argued that a player like Johnson is actually “oversized” as a power forward, and with rumblings that Toronto might tinker with Carroll as a small-ball 4, perhaps the team viewed Johnson as such.

The Raptors have established a quicker, faster, smaller brand of basketball, and although it seems counterintuitive, that’s what winning defenses are predicated on. Bulky, lumbering big men are becoming obsolete in today’s NBA unless they can provide rim protection, and coincidentally, Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas is a great litmus test for this. If Valanciunas can protect the rim, his spot in Toronto is safe. If he can’t, it’ll be hard to justify paying him big money next summer even if he’s scoring 15-plus points per game.

In the end, it comes down to playing a faster style of defense. Length and quickness have never seen higher value. Carroll and Joseph are testaments of that. Additionally, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are the types of rangy, athletic wings which teams covet today. The question is whether they — more specifically, Ross — can produce.

Toronto’s roster for the 2015-16 season will look much different, and even if it doesn’t immediately pay off, the change is headed in the right direction. We saw what Toronto’s old brand of basketball got them: a couple of first-round playoff exits. With Kyle Lowry and DeRozan around, they’ll still be able to score and push the tempo, but the secret to being a truly successful team in the NBA today is to establish pace off your defense.

The Raptors are retooling on the fly here, and it’s fairly impressive. Especially considering that the Raptors finally have a buzz in the city of Toronto. They’ve gotten younger yet can still compete for a top three seed in the East. I like what’s being built here, and while some may view this offseason as a step back in the short-term, it’s setup to only make them stronger down the road.

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