As of yesterday morning, the Toronto Raptors are the top team in the East. It's legit news that won't instantly send shockwaves to longtime NBA fans, we know. Even the most loyal Northeners who have grown so used to their beloved team's heart-crushing history of post-season collapse are taking the Raptors' regular season success with trepidation. But these Raptors are giving off major vibe that they're ready to overcome the anguish of years past and generate meaningful buzz in the upcoming NBA Playoffs (if not beat their perpetual tormentor LeBron James, at the very least). The ingredients that will largely make all that happen are already apparent in Coach Dwane Casey's crew.
The biggest difference in the Raptors’ starting unit has to be All-Star DeMar DeRozan’s decision to modernize his offense and commit to his outside shooting. Usually touted as a relic of a bygone mid-range era, DeRozan hasn’t exactly moved away from his isolation long twos. But he has injected more frequent long-range shots into his repertoire this year, rendering himself a bit unpredictable and troublesome for opponents. As per Basketball Reference, DeRozan is still shooting threes below league average (.335 vs. .361), but he's still shooting higher than his .266 shooting last season.
Rather, it has been the rate of attempts that has shot up this season that makes up for the middling efficiency. DeRozan has doubled the rate of long-range attempts this season over last year (3.5 vs. 1.7), and has essentially tripled the rate at which he makes them (1.2 vs. 0.4).
This makes all the difference with defenders who have grown used to sticking a hand in DeRozan’s face whenever he attempts a Kobe-like fadeaway—not only should this throw them off guard, but it also allows more scoring opportunities across the floor. With every other starter shooting above .350 from the three (yes, even Jonas Valanciunas), the Raptors have made themselves even more lethal, and thus harder to handle in fast-paced situations.
Pundits can roll their eyes on the minute statistical changes, but objectively, this is the most well-spaced Raptors team ever.
The Raptors have also managed to raise their defensive rating from 107.8 (11th) last season to 105.2 (3rd) this year, effectively creating a Top 5 offensive and defensive team for the season. What is more surprising is, they’re doing it with a bunch of players with anywhere from zero to two years of experience in the league.
This is perhaps best typified by OG Anunoby, an able-bodied 3-and-D wing who can defend all five positions, despite alternating mostly on the 3 and 4. At 6’8”, Anunoby provides size, defense, and emotionless workmanship in his rookie year. What's even more astounding is, he is scoring .590 on twos and .354 on threes—essentially a bargain bin clone of the ex-Raptor DeMarre Carroll, who was himself a bargain bin SF to begin with. Anunoby becomes a much-needed anchor for Toronto’s offense and defense to rally around and build upon.
OG Anunoby shouldn’t have discovered his role this quickly; in fact, no one really thought he would make an immediate impact, having recently just recovered from an ACL tear in college. OG is riding the wave of expectations and effectively gliding over it, perhaps wishing to imbibe the same sense of rebellion and don’t-care attitude for the rest of the team.
Doesn’t hurt that ‘OG’ sounds awesome as well.
Best of the bench
The Raptors’ secret weapon this year, and by far the largest change in the entire roster, is their essentially new, focused, and ridiculously young bench.
With a minimum 100 minutes of usage, the lineup of CJ Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet, and Delon Wright have the league’s highest offensive rating at 124.1 (higher than any Rockets' five-man lineup), and the second highest net rating of 27.6, just a notch lower than Golden State’s lineup (28.2). Outside of Miles, all aforementioned players have an average of one full season worth of experience.
Granted, this has something to do with the bench not exactly facing the best players who can defend them, which is why the Houston reference should be taken lightly. What is obvious is that the Raps are the least pressured in benching their starters and playing the long game with their combinations. This takes the pressure off the Raptor starters to produce heavily on offense.
Their bench rakes in an average of 8 ppg each, and outside of Siakam, all shoot above .300 from the three. The Raptors have managed to build more fully formed roles than most benchwarmers in the NBA.
Vanvleet has become a steady, silky-smooth point guard who's deceptively patient and defensively active. Even with his surprising maturity in playmaking (3.1 apg), Vanvleet doesn’t shy away from offense, currently shooting a blistering .414 from the three and attempting three threes a game.
This frees up the floor for wings Miles, Wright, and Norman Powell, who are all shooting above .300 from the three and adding flexibility and muscles to an already potent lineup. Powell’s postseason explosion last year has helped him secure regular minutes off the bench. He should no doubt help the rookies and sophomores find a better scoring rhythm. Miles, the oldest Raptor at 30, provides veteran poise and shooting.
Poeltl, besides being a decent scorer, is quite capable protection down low—he and Serge Ibaka block more than one shot a game. Siakam is a rim-runner and spry power forward that knows when to push the pace and has an incredible nose off-ball, which makes it easier for Vanvleet and the rest of the scorers to push closer to the paint.
The in-and-out punch of Toronto is virtually unmatched, and it shows: As per Hoopsstats, they lead the league in differential efficiency, which is essentially the net advantage of all accumulated stats versus their opponents’.
Gone are Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, PJ Tucker, and Carroll, but the Raps have managed to get even better by utilizing even younger talent. The added speed and energy essentially makes them a revitalized crew once the starters step out of the court. Couple this with the fact that the starters are better, more experienced, and more well-rounded, and one can easily get lulled by the idea that this Raptors team might finally be the one to retake Winterfell from the clutches of the LeBoltons.
A word of warning
But as any experienced NBA fan knows, a strong bench also becomes a weakness come postseason, when lineups and defensive strategies are usually streamlined for maximum results.
It’s easy to imagine roughly half of Toronto’s bench to rot on the sidelines due to the offensive requirements from Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, leaving perhaps only OG with a flexible roster spot. In short: Their interchangeability is nullified in the playoffs, and they will have to lean more on the prolific Lowry and this new version of DeRozan. This is a painfully familiar experience for the Raptor fans—a giant douse of ice water for getting excited for the postseason.
The playing field would have been different two weeks ago when the Cleveland Cavaliers were in a rut. But the Cavs are now younger, more athletic, more dynamic, and—in a way—more hungry to feed off LeBron’s skillset after a gutsy trade. Despite all the changes, there is still no one player capable of shutting down Lebron by himself, let alone the entire Cleveland starting five. Unless the Raptors plan to do a rotating double-team and man-to-man for Lebron for an entire series, there is no immediate sustainable way of nullifying Lebron’s effect on the court.
The Raptors will also have to address the gaps in their game. Despite having a solid shooting roster, their league percentage is still in the bottom half (21st in 3P%). They are middling rebounders and playmakers (16th in total rebounds, 15th in assists) and extremely foul-prone (28th)—all bad signs against Cavs and even the currently slumping Boston Celtics.
They still have a couple of months to solidify their roles, sure, but the more they play, the more these unheralded Raptors become scouted, and the more predictable they will be especially come April. The jury is still out on whether DeRozan and Lowry have enough juice to truly play a perfect series when their numbers are called.