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Who is the Raptors’ best defensive player?

© Soobum Im - USA TODAY Sports

Through six games, the Toronto Raptors are an elite defensive team. NBA.com’s charts have them sitting behind only Boston in terms of defensive efficiency, allowing a stingy 96.1 points per 100 possessions; Cleaning the Glass — which removes garbage time possessions and throwaway end-of-quarter junk — has Toronto a still-excellent fifth. Defending half court sets, the Raptors are unmatched thus far; they’ve surrendered just 81.6 points/100 possessions with a set defense, per Cleaning the Glass.

The hustle stats are there. Probably boosted by an especially handsy performance in Portland, Dwane Casey’s team is fifth in deflections per game with 15.4. It’s fifth in steals per game as well. Deviating from trends of the past, Toronto is giving up just 25.2 three point attempts per game, fewer than all but five teams. Just 30.4 percent of those shots are falling — the third-lowest opponent three-point percentage in the NBA.

You may be compelled to scan the Raptors’ schedule and point out the noise that may or may not be present in these figures. Have the Raptors only played two top-10 offenses so far? Yes. Have their other four games come against teams scoring with bottom-third proficiency, including the two worst offenses in the league? In a factually correct sense, sure, that’s true.

That doesn’t mean Toronto’s defensive start isn’t impressive, though. Nor would it be smart to expect the Raps to plummet down the rankings once offensive freight trains like the Magic and Pacers start popping up on the schedule. Monday’s win over the Blazers — a top three offensive team entering the night — was a complete enough demolition that it’s okay and understandable to revel in small-sample glory, at least for now.

Defense wasn’t supposed to be the calling card of this team — at least not right away. Toronto’s upside on the unsexy side of the ball was and is heavily dictated by unprovens and unknowns. Questions definitely exist about the present-day abilities of some of the team’s more accomplished defenders.

P.J. Tucker was Toronto’s spiritual leader on that end last season. He’s a funky and killer small-ball centre for the Rockets now. Before Tucker came in on a red-eye from Phoenix, Patrick Patterson held the belt as the best all-around stopper the Raptors could throw out, at least for a couple years.

That distinction is firmly up for grabs with this new-look and younger roster. The Raptors aren’t the Spurs or the Jazz or the Warriors — teams with a singular defensive talent worthy of constructing a system around. What they are, however, is deep with dudes who are quite obviously miserable to try and score against. Some go about harassing opponents in a grimy way, others are fundamentally sound coach’s pets. Analytics might favour one Raptor whose on-court movements are less eye-popping than a more starkly athletic teammate.

Whatever your preferred flavour of defense, you can sample it over the course of a single Raptors game. Choosing who among Casey’s crowded stable of options is the best or most important defender of the bunch? Well, that’s a more daunting task. One smother-job in Portland isn’t enough information to go off of. Making a firm judgement after six games is equally impossible. So of course I asked a group of people in the know to do just that.

My question was simple, leaving little room for the nuance required to give it a sufficient answer: Who is the Raptors’ best defensive player?

Of the 18 Raptors and Raptors-adjacent bloggers, writers and reporters I asked, most provided a succinct first name/last name reply. Some respondents offered detailed explanations and a handful of candidates before arriving to an answer. The goal of the exercise was to try and conclusively determine who the best defender on the 2017-18 Raptors is through the collective brain power of a bunch of people smarter than I am.

It did not achieve shit.

Seven different Raptors received votes as the no. 1 defender title-holder, each of whom has a perfectly reasonable case for why it is him. Let’s take a look at where the votes came from, and some of the rationales behind them. Because I had to put in so much tireless work to collect this data, I opted not to vote — you know, out of respect for the integrity of the results, and definitely not because I had no goddamned clue who to pick.

**Note: Click on each of the participant’s names to read / listen / check out a piece of their work. They’re all much smarter and more talented than I am. 

The Aesthetic Argument – Jakob Poeltl

5 Votes – Daniel Reynolds (Raptors HQ), Harsh Davé (Raptors HQ), Joe Wolfond (The Score), Cooper Smither (Raptors Republic), Blake Murphy (The Throne) 

If we are to go strictly off of this crudely thrown together straw poll, Jakob Poeltl is the best defender on the Raptors. End of column.

Not really. But there is a compelling case to make in favour of the Raptors’ second-year centre. Poeltl’s claim is visible any time he hedges and recovers on a high pick-and-roll. His sprawling range is rare for a seven-footer. Even more unusual is the speed with which he has picked up the subtler notes of playing NBA defense. Six games into his second season, his mastery of the fundamentals is obvious and kinda scary. Damian Lillard is a difficult check for even the most spry point guards. Poeltl cared not on Monday night:

 

“I think he’s the spiritual successor to Marc Gasol,” Dan Reynolds said.

A tad hyPoeltlbolic? Maybe. But if the Raps’ backup centre keeps wiping out opponents the way he has through his first season and change, perhaps Gasol comps won’t seem like such a stretch in a year or two.

The Upside Argument – OG Anunoby & Pascal Siakam

Anunoby: 4 Votes – Victoria Nguyen (The Score), Tamberlyn Richardson (16 Wins a Ring), Mitch Robson (Raptors HQ), Joseph Casciaro (The Score)

Siakam: 1 Vote – Sahal Abdi (Raptors Republic) 

People really like OG Anunoby.

“I’m an OG Anunobeliever,” exclaimed Victoria Nguyen when offering her response.

“Other than the rookie reputation, hard to go against him as the choice,” The Score’s Joseph Casciaro added. “Serge is the best rim protector, but I’d pick OG as the best all around defender, which is nuts.”

The thing is … it might not be nuts! Anunoby is an ideal modern defender, capable of switching onto at least four, maybe all five positions. Two of his most impressive plays as a rookie came on Monday against Portland’s two best players. In the second quarter, he introduced CJ McCollum to 88 inches of wingspan:

 

Later that night as things intensified in the fourth, Anunoby became the second sub 22-year-old Raptor to switch onto and erase a Lillard drive.

The crap defender stigma attached to rookies is well-earned. For most guys, it takes years of mistakes and reps to pick up the intricacies of pro defense. Somehow, the Raptors have added a pair of instant studs in consecutive drafts. And even if OG isn’t quite proven enough to be named the Raptors’ clear top stopper, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before he is.

“I swear every game I see something new from him,” said Tamberlyn Richardson of 16 Wins a Ring. “I’d tend to lean toward Powell, but the way OG is playing and growing each time out I’d say by season’s end he’ll be their best defender.”

A reminder: OG is 20.

The Legacy Argument – Serge Ibaka 

3 Votes – William Lou (The “10 Things” God), Andrew Joe Potter (The Score), Vivek Jacob (North Pole Hoops)

If answering this question base solely on the length of each player’s defensive CV, Ibaka would be the clear winner. No current Raptor has, nor will they ever, lead the league in total blocks for four consecutive seasons. Maybe Poeltl or Anunoby has perennial DPOY contention in their future. Serge has been there, done that.

This isn’t to say 2017 Ibaka shouldn’t be considered the best defensive Raptor. While his raw production has slipped since his Thunder heyday, he is still the most reliable rim protector on the team. Late last season when given the opportunity to play crunch time minutes at the five — the position he’s probably most effective at these days —  Ibaka formed an impenetrable barrier next to Tucker (98.6 D-Rtg in 276 minutes), helping the Raptors climb into the top-10 in defensive rating despite a ho hum start to the year. Ask Giannis Antetokounmpo if Ibaka’s still got it.

The Balls on the Line Argument – Kyle Lowry

3 Votes – Seerat Sohi (SB Nation), Dan Grant (Raptors HQ), John Gaudes (Raptors HQ)

Toronto’s lone player willing to take charges while his team is up 30 simply had to receive some votes here. It helps that the rest of Lowry’s defensive game is pretty outstanding when he’s engaged. That focus has faded and re-emerged as often as Lowry’s sideburns over the last couple years, but few of his teammates can be the hounding pest he can at his peak. He’s ballsy enough to jump passing lanes but quick-witted enough to know when it’s not worth the risk. Few point guards fight through screens with the ferocity that Lowry does. The Blazers learned this on Monday.

“Delon, Serge (when he’s fresh and right) and even OG (especially when he’s fully recovered) definitely have better physical tools,” Raptors HQ’s Dan Grant suggested. “Poeltl is smart. But Lowry has elements of everything, plus savvy.”

If there is a knock against Lowry aside from his engagement level, it is his small stature, as Dan alluded to. There’s only so big an imprint a six-footer can make on the game, especially when switching is the defense du jour. The same can not be said for Lowry’s backup.

The “He’s just bigger than everyone at his position” Argument – Delon Wright

1 Vote – Justin Rowan (The Chase Down)

Delon Wright is enormous for his position. At a wiry 6’5 with arms that go on forever, there are but a handful of opposing ball-handlers who look down upon him. That size, plus his ability to use it for defensive good, has given Wright leeway as he sorts through some early season offensive struggles. So far as Lowry’s full-time no. 2, Wright is just 2-of-19 from three, while the team is scoring 8.4 points per 100 possessions more when he is off the floor. An on-court defensive rating of 94.6 makes it so his minutes have still been an overwhelming plus.

“I almost said (CJ) Miles,” Justin Rowan of The Chase Down Podcast replied. “But Wright being the skinny Marcus Smart and being a positive with no offensive game made him the choice.”

Until Wright has a passable shooting stroke, his upside will be limited. But his frame alone gives him a steady floor as a lock-down, point of attack defender.

The Analytical Argument – Lucas Nogueira

1 Vote – Russell Peddle (numberFire)

It is written. Lucas Nogueira must always have the best on-court defensive numbers on the Raptors, regardless of his role on the team.

Though he lost his rotation spot to Poeltl by the time Tucker and Ibaka helped pump up the team-wide numbers, Bebe was first among pre-deadline regulars in 2016-17 with a 102.8 on-court defensive rating.

It took just 66 minutes for things to normalize this year. If you discount Bruno Caboclo’s 43.2 mark, Bebe’s 89.9 on-court defensive rating leads the team — the result of the one-man block party he hosted against the Blazers the last time out.

“I’m a stat nerd and he always grades out well in defensive rating, on/off, etc.,” said numberFire’s Russell Peddle. “And his per-36 steals and blocks (1.8 and 2.8 for his career, 3.3 and 3.8 this season) are hard to ignore … He has an elite impact on the team defensively in short spurts.”

The issue for Bebe has been made clear over the course of this exercise: the Raptors have too many good defenders. We may never see the former ACB Defensive Player of the Year earn a long enough leash with this team to see if his gaudy stats are a small-sample mirage, or an indicator that he should have been playing more all along.

As far as problems go, a glut of good stoppers feels like one Casey isn’t too choked up to have.

 

Who do YOU think is the best defensive player on the Raptors? Jump in the comments with your picks. 

 

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Podcast host and writer for Locked on Raptors, Raptors HQ and Hoop Talks Live. Terrence Ross believer. On Twitter @WoodleySean. It's 10 grown men playing with a ball -- let's have some fun with it.

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