TORONTO -- After an opening night win over the Chicago Bulls Thursday, Dwane Casey was in a joking mood when asked about rookie OG Anunoby's short shorts, which were reminiscent of John Stockton in his heyday. "I don't care if he wears a bikini," Casey said. "I'm not too much into style." He might not care much for his player's sartorial choices, but on the court, Casey and the Raptors are trying to discover a new style of play this season.
Five months ago in May, after a four game sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs, Masai Ujiri addressed a group of reporters in his end-of-season press conference and declared the need for a culture reset. "We're tried it and tried it and tried it and it hasn't taken us to the highest level," Ujiri said. "It's gotten us to a good place as a team, but it hasn't worked for us."
The Raptors had just finished their fourth consecutive season in the playoffs, and second straight year with 50-plus wins during the regular season. Despite an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2016, the team's offensive shortcomings were highlighted in the postseason every year. In 2017, the Raptors scored 109.8 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, then dipped to 101.3 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. In 2016, there was a similar trend. A team that scored 107.0 points per 100 possessions dropped to 99.0 points per 100 possessions in the postseason.
For years, Toronto has relied on its starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to carry them. In the playoffs, both have struggled at times with their shooting. The Raptors, who ranked last in assists (18.5 per game) and assist percentage (47.2 percent of field goals) last season, were playing a brand of basketball that, as Ujiri described it, good but not great.
So, Casey has been tasked with a challenge this season, to alter the style of a team that's played the same way for so long. Throughout training camp, the Raptors worked towards a more free-flowing offense, with an emphasis on shooting more three-pointers. The result was a completely different looking team. In five preseason games, the Raptors attempted 41.6 threes per game, compared to 24.3 per game last season, which ranked 22nd in the league. The increase in volume did not translate into a more efficient offense. A season after making 36.3 percent of their threes, the Raptors made just 29.8 percent of their attempts during the preseason.
The player with the biggest adjustment might be DeRozan, a mid-range shooter who relies on his isolation possessions to score. Last season, DeRozan averaged 27.3 points per game, which made him the fifth highest scorer in the league. On opening night, DeRozan looked like he was finding his rhythm within the new offense, finishing with 11 points on 2-for-9 shooting with five assists. Afterward, Casey admitted that he's asking DeRozan to do certain things on offense that is against his nature for the betterment of the team.
"That's the tough situation we're in," Casey said. "He's doing a good job of finding people, he's trying to find his way of getting his. It's going to be a process. He'll find his niche within what we're doing." Lowry, who was also quiet on opening night with 12 points, understands that there will be games this season when the Raptors might have to resort to their old ways. "Every game will be a different game," Lowry said. "Maybe I'll need to shoot more, maybe DeMar will need to shoot more. We'll have to figure it out."
For the Raptors, it will be an entire season of figuring it out. They have a starting unit that lack the three-point shooters to create the spacing that is required to play the type of offense that Toronto is trying to inch towards. On opening night, it was the second unit, led by C.J. Miles, who made six threes in 20 minutes, that carried the team. With the starters resting, the bench unit went on a 20-2 run in the second quarter that put the game away.
The Raptors are changing things up on offense this season, they're also trying to figure out what they have with the younger group on the roster. Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and Anunoby -- the team's first round picks over the last three drafts -- will be part of the second unit. They'll have every chance this season to show that they can be a player that can help raise the team's ceiling in the Eastern Conference. "The younger guys [worked] together all summer," DeRozan said. "You can see they can get a great rhythm on offense with the way they're playing."
Before the start of the season, Casey made one thing clear. "We're not Golden State, we're not Houston, and we're not trying to be," Casey said. "We're trying to be the best Toronto Raptor team that our skillset allows us to be." The Raptors will still go as far as Lowry and DeRozan will carry them. But after doing things the same way over and over on offense as a team, Toronto is ready to find out if this roster can parlay a change in style into a true contender.