Coming into the season, the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers were vaunted by many as two of the most versatile teams in the NBA. In the era of positionless basketball, teams with players who can play multiple positions, guard multiple sizes, and handle a wide array of responsibilities are a luxury. Those types of players just don’t grow on trees and the Raptors and Clippers, in an effort to become even more dynamic, doubled down on finding these types of players, hoping that the end result would mean a wholly versatile team. To varying degrees, both teams have foregone some of basketball’s most foundational conventions in the name of ‘versatility’.
But conventions are conventions for a reason. They work. And that is a lesson both teams have learned this season.
Take one look at either team’s roster and you’ll notice one stark similarity: copious amounts of wings. That’s because wings, in theory, are more versatile, positionally, than any other type of player in the NBA. They’re not slow-footed like trotting big men so they can stay with faster players and unlike guards have the size and length necessary to not get hunted in mismatches. In a perfect world, and a world the Raptors and Clippers are attempting to live in, wings could do everything on a basketball court.
But they can’t. Rim protection, ball-handling, dribble penetration, shot creation, rim pressure – these are all things both the Clippers and Raptors (again to varying degrees) struggle with.
This is because there is a level of redundancy on both rosters. And that’s only helped exacerbate two areas that they’re most deficient in. adequate guard creation and a lack of an interior presence. More on that later.
Let’s not get confused here. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are not redundant. Neither are Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby. It’s the guys surrounding them and backing them up.
For the Clippers, Tre Mann, Luke Kennard, Nic Batum, Marcus Morris, and Robert Covington to varying degrees serve one single purpose: floor spacing as spot-up shooters, who can guard multiple positions (except Kennard who is a liability on that end). In theory, having multiple guys who can do that is great! But having multiple guys who can ONLY do those things becomes redundant.
That’s why Norman Powell has become so important to the Clippers’ offense, being the only player outside of George and Leonard that is capable of creating his own shot. Powell, despite his limitations, can apply pressure to the rim, work off of pin-downs and wide-pins, and is a very capable shooter. But still… it’s not enough diversity.
The same can be said for Toronto and their ‘vision 6’9’ system, which has Thad Young, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, and Juancho Hernangomez backing up their three-headed forward trio. None of those guys are shot-creators and safe for Achiuwa, none of them show the potential of ever developing in that department.
That puts a massive burden on Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr to serve as the shot-makers on the team – and while last season, those two proved capable of doing that, this season, both have gone through extended shooting slumps, resulting in an overall lackluster offense. And while Trent and VanVleet are both beginning to trend in the right direction offensively… it still hasn’t been enough.
What makes things even more difficult is that VanVleet and Trent, for all their shot-making capabilities, do not provide a ton of rim pressure, and as lead guards, aren’t effective at driving the ball enough to create opportunities for others.
And safe for Ivica Zubac, who has been a godsend for the Clippers, and a stretched-too-thin and way too-young Christian Koloko for the Raptors, neither team has an adequate amount of rim deterrence.
This leaves both the Raptors and Clippers in a period of stasis – unable to protect the rim and unable to apply pressure on it either, resulting in over-reliance on their wing stars, which in turn, has made both offenses struggle.
The Raptors are 18th in drives per game. 28th in effectiveness on those drives.
The Clippers are 21st in drives per game. 17th in effectiveness on those drives.
Defensively, both the Clippers & Raptors don’t give up a ton of shots in the restricted area on defense, but when they do, opponents shoot well against them.
The Clippers give up the 4th most shots in the paint, but because of Zubac’s presence (a player who becomes more and more important with each passing game for the Clips), opponents shoot a league-average 44% on paint attempts.
Meanwhile, the Raptors, who clog the paint and pinch on drives, fight tooth and nail with their wings to stop you from getting in the paint, allowing the 6th fewest paint attempts by opponents in the league. But when opponents do get in the paint and shoot it? They’re 11th in opponent field-goal percentage.
Offensively, neither team can really apply pressure to the rim in an effective way.
The Raptors are middle of the pack, 14th in restricted area attempts (19th in FG%), and 8th in paint attempts (21st in FG%).
The Clippers struggle mightly in this department. They’re 25th in restricted area attempts (27th in FG%), and 17th in paint attempts (14th in FG%).
As a result, both teams take a bunch of mid-range shots (Clippers 5th in attempts, Raptors 7th) and while the Clippers, thanks to Leonard and George stay afloat, hitting on 41% of their mid-range shots, the Raptors are dead-last in FG% on middy’s, hitting on 34.5% of them.
Naturally, with the talents of Siakam, Leonard, and George, both teams play a lot of iso ball, with the Clippers ranking 6th in iso frequency and the Raptors 9th.
The end result? Mediocre-to-abysmal offenses.
The Raptors rank 14th in points per 100 possessions, but 29th in half-court offense generating an awful 91.9 points per 100 poss.
The Clippers rank 28th in points per 100 possessions and are 24th in half-court effectiveness.
Why? Because what was initially deemed as ‘versatile’ is actually the absence of versatility.
I am not the first person to bring this idea up in regard to the Raptors. Samson Folk and Caitlin Cooper had a great conversation surrounding the idea in September, but there’s no doubt that their hypothesis has proved to be true so far:
Having a bunch of players who are versatile, does not, in reality, produce versatility.
True versatility is having a wide range of players, in all shapes and sizes, that can be used situationally in order to maximize outcomes of lineups and prepare you for any type of opponent.
If we look at any NBA champion since… ever, it has rarely been the case that those teams have been so overwhelmingly good at playing one single style, that they’ve never had to adjust. Adjusting is a key component in any given playoff series. Having a big who can play drop, while also having a big who can roam the perimeter. Being able to play small or go big when necessary.
The very best teams in the NBA can do multiple things in multiple ways – not one thing in multiple ways.
Take for example the Celtics, who also have an abundance of wing players. Boston can play big with Robert Williams, they can go extra big with Williams and Al Horford, or they can go smaller with Horford at the center spot, or even go extra small and put Grant Williams at the 5. Options.
The Grizzlies can do the same with Jaren Jackson Jr, Steven Adams, and Brandon Clarke. The Nuggets, who revolve around Nikola Jokic’s own offensive versatility, can throw out any combination of guards and wing players next to him and give themselves different looks depending on the opponent.
The Raptors & Clippers, however, found a tool they deemed useful (in this case wings) and decided to make it the toolbox.
To be fair, both teams have dealt with their fair share of injuries this season – Leonard has been slow to regain his footing coming off, yet again, another knee surgery and George is resting on back-to-backs. For the Raptors, VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, and Achiuwa all missed extending periods of time, and their big, offseason signing, Otto Porter Jr, only played in 8 games before being sidelined for the season with a toe injury.
But if anything – the injuries have only exacerbated the issue. VanVleet, Siakam, and Anunoby are all in the top 6 in the league in minutes per game, and Leonard and George’s load management has meant the Clippers have been unable to establish any type of continuity.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The Clippers still have Leonard and George, and some of the makings of a championship team. But just need to be less one-track-minded. Become more dynamic. The Raptors, despite not looking like a playoff team this season, have an abundance of options in front of them, with valuable All-star caliber players, young prospects, and all of their future picks at their disposal — they hold the keys to their own destiny.
That’s precisely why the Clippers and Raptors are both looking to shake things up at the deadline, hoping to rejig their current composition, find some more conventional ways to play basketball, and in turn, actually become versatile.
And while both teams are at different stages of their life cycle, through their experiments, we’ve learned one thing:
Skill versatility is what reigns supreme. Not just players who are versatile.
And in the modern NBA, committing to one style, shouldn’t mean neglecting all the other ways teams like to play.
Y’all be easy.