Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo and the Toronto Raptors Defence

November 21, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) moves in to score a basket against Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
November 21, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) moves in to score a basket against Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Now Jonas Valanciunas plays more minutes than ever and without a suitable defensive backup the cracks in his game are unmasked fissures for the Toronto Raptors.

Did you hear? The Toronto Raptors have one of the worst defences in the entire NBA. The Raptors’ bill got bigger but they’ve shaved around the margins, which has helped the 11th defense in the league to bloat to the 20th. That’s a far cry from the defensive stalwarts that existed in the north only a year ago. You can only get so close until the red line starts to disappear.

Bismack Biyombo, although celebrated by the fans, his importance wasn’t recognized as thoroughly as the other Raptors. The NBA is an analytic sport, offensively. Defence still needs to pass the eye to test. Sure, there is still defensive rating, opponent shot percentage in specific areas but there is no way to measure switchability, shot deterrence and awareness without seeing it first hand.

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Biyombo spent 22 minutes a game covering mistakes and masking the deficiencies that are still part of the Raptors today. Now Jonas Valanciunas plays more minutes than ever and without a suitable defensive backup the cracks in his game are unmasked fissures

Despite his tree branch arms, JV is being assaulted at the rim. Opponents are taking it to him and converting 53.5 percent of the time, placing Valanciunas between the infamous ZaZa Pachulia and the illustrious Timofey “$64 million” Mozgov. When Compared to 45 percent for Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside or 42 percent for Rudy Gobert that doesn’t look too hot.

See, Valanciunas appears to have the tools of a would-be rim protector in length and height but he doesn’t have the deft, lift or swift.

Dennis Schroder — and any guard, frankly — isn’t afraid of meeting JV at the rim. Valanciunas carries no track record of blocking shots, plus Schroeder’s Road Runner speed leaves him with reckless abandon. If JV attempts to contest or block the shot, it’s feeble. He’s an ent entrench in the ground, which can actually be viable as a rim protector. Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol have been shining examples of ground based big men but they’ve been able to get by with high BBIQ and a psychology degree.

Nobody accused DeMar DeRozan of being a decent on ball defender but by posing minimal resistance he puts Valanciunas in a pressure cooker. JV lacks the essential instincts that Gasol and Duncan possess, his positioning is never ideal and even when he makes the correct decision his body is apt to fail him.

He’s looking directly at Schoeder as he starts his drive but was unable to get there in time. Valanciunas’ feet are so slow it looks like he’s doing his best matrix impression while contesting the shot. Those bullet time feet are damning both within the paint and beyond it. Speedy guards are making Valanciunas look like he’s playing with ankle weights on but it’s not completely his fault, it’s partly due to scheme.

Sometimes the Raptors hedge, JV is pushed out along the perimeter in an effort to hedge the screen and roll. The LeBron James-Heat used the hard hedge but they had athletic big men to trap and capitalize on poor ball handlers and terminated dribbles. Valanciunas is no Chris Bosh or Shane Battier.

Once JV comes up John Wall can turn the corner easily leaving JV back pedaling or skirting out of the way to avoid a foul. Kyle Lowry can mitigate this problem, though. The faster you make over the screen the less time you big spends sweating bullets. But, Lowry makes it through screens slower than the plot of The Night Of develops. There is seldom a time where the opposing guard has to re-screen or pull the ball out to work further magic. When JV does drop back on screens his guards constantly screened off so he has to fend for himself.

As soon as Cody Zeller screens Lowry, Kemba Walker sees JV in a one-on-one situation. The in and out dribble is just enough to get Valanciunas off-balance and Walker takes it straight to the hole. Lowry is nowhere to be found after the screen.

This is too easy for opposing screen and rollers, especially when Lowry and DeRozan continue to go over on well defined drivers. Layup? Floater? Pull up jimmy? Those Nico Rosberg’s and Lewis Hamilton’s get all the space they need to make a decision when it’s a pseudo one-on-one in the middle of the floor.

This is where Biyombo is missed most. Biyombo was a security blanket for any mistakes made, if you got crossed over before the screen he would switch for you. If you went under on a prolific shooter he could step up to give a decent contest in time. He was quick enough to hedge or show but had his shot blocking on the back end so he could sit and wait for the offence to come to him. With that reputation of a shot blocker he deterred more shots than he could ever block. There’s no way Walker goes for a simple off-leg layup here if Biyombo is patrolling the paint.

And if the shot was missed he is always energetic enough to snag the rebound. That’s what allowed  him to lead the Raptors total rebound percentage (the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor) at 20.8 percent, averaging eight rebounds a game in just 22 minutes.

JV was second last year at 20 percent, corralling nine rebounds in 26 minutes a game. Now JV leads the team at the same total rebounding percentage grabbing 9.8 with the second most effective rebounder being Lucas Nogueira at a mere 14.3 percent, only collecting 4.7 boards a game. The second highest rebounding player on this squad is actually DeRozan, snagging 5.1 rebounds per bout. The team has been awful rebounding this year, particularly on the defensive glass, where they are a bottom-five defensive rebounding team.

This isn’t a surprise. There aren’t any dedicated rebounders on the team other than Valanciunas. When Dwane Casey is rolling out lineups like Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas those players are looking to run, not rebound. Regardless, the possession isn’t over until you’ve collected the rebound. Corresponding with their defensive rebounding effort, the Raptors are in the bottom-five allowing opponents scoring 14.4 second chance points per game. If the opposing team gets the ball back, the first stop is meaningless, you’ve just surrendered a easier chance for the opponent to score, and without a true rim protector those shots around the rim will always be a high percentage.

But, the sooner the opponent scores the sooner Raptors can get those points back. Hand wringing over defense now seems petulant when the Raptors have the best offensive rating in history and are squarely in the second seed.

In fact, the Raptors have played the sixth hardest schedule in the league so far. Having played the Cavs three times and the Warriors once the numbers are bound to get inflated. Then again,  those two teams are in the direct path of the Raptors postseason success.

Next: Sullinger Expected Back by End of January

Biyombo’s strength’s are proving to be a luxury this season as the Raptors are more than capable of winning without him. As the postseason draws nearer each game the Raptors are left wondering if this is enough to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. With no feasible trade on the horizon, the flaws in the defence now will continue to exist, it’s up to other teams to exploit them.