Highlights courtesy of MLG Highlights
Last summer was another one filled with disappointment for the Toronto Raptors. This instance was brought on by way of a particularly nasty four game sweep in the second round by the eventual Eastern Conference champs Cleveland Cavaliers. The wake of this spawned numerous concerns about the direction of the team and inclinations that the Raps window had more or less shut.
Preseason prognostications by and large were not kind. Many outlets placed them amongst the bottom half of playoff teams while some went as far as to suggest that this season could end a four year stretch of playoff appearances (full disclosure, I had them finishing 3rd in the East). Sure some of this can be attributed to the a projected rise in quality in the East but most of it was simply born out of frustration and boredom with this team. Another year of seeing them be regular season gangsters only to flame out as postseason goobers. There was talk of Kyle Lowry leaving, the possible dispatching of Dwane Casey as well as a pretty bleak outlook for the draft and free agency.
Initially there were no indications of them having done anything to greatly move the needle in any direction, Casey stayed (as a surprise to some), Lowry re-signed (as a surprise to not many) and there was more attention given to the players lost in free agency as opposed to the new faces. This was truly baffling given the reputation of executive Masai Ujiri who is known for shaking things up even when his teams are relatively successful.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2018 and the Drakes are doing it to us again. Currently sitting at 26-10 good for second in the East and only two and a half games behind leader Boston this looks to have all of the makings of another bang up regular season. Now if we can only get past this creeping dread of them inevitably crapping the bed in the playoffs. You can laugh and mock me if you wish and I just may regret saying it but this may be the year they get over the hump.
Y’all finished laughing now? No? Okay, how about now? Great. This iteration of the Raps are really humming along and doing so in an even more efficient manner than we’ve been used to seeing from them. DeMar DeRozan has arguably taken yet another leap further building on his breakout 2016-2017 campaign. Despite currently averaging two points less per contest than last season DeMar is posting career highs in field goal (save for his criminally low usage rookie season) and three point percentage. Kyle Lowry has seen an even sharper decline in scoring but has been pretty steady otherwise outside of a pretty sharp spike in rebounding. Lowry also has the luxury of playing roughly five less minutes per night (although I doubt he’d see it that way) due to much improved reserve point guard play. His chemistry with DeRozan is getting even better and he’s gotten much better at incorporating others as well as solidly defending and playing off the ball.
The significance of the central pair is anything but a surprise. However, the rest of this roster has been full of em’. Toronto has all but laid to rest any anxieties regarding their depth. A lot was made of the departures of solid reserves Kory Joseph, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson. Hell even seeing the overpaid and underwhelming DeMarre Carroll leave town led to some handwringing over the starting three spot. Through a combination of a few gambles paying off and young guys further understanding and growing into their roles Toronto has not only plugged holes but has somehow strengthened this squad. With 11 players getting more than 15 minutes per night it appears that they are investing in depth.
There’s probably no spot that this has worked more than in the middle. The emergence of Jacob Poeltl has been instrumental in what is one of the more underrated frontcourt collectives in the league. His ability to stay on the floor while contributing 7 points per night on 67% shooting and adding a block per contest has alleviated some of the pressure from Jonas Valanciunas who has been solid averaging 10 and 7 in 21 minutes per contest but has clearly had issues staying on the floor when a stronger defensive presence is needed in crunch time. Now with the flexibility afforded by Poelt’s progression and in smaller part Pascal Siakam’s can ensure that they are keeping fresh legs in the paint at all time. And this isn’t to mention Serge Ibaka’s defensive resurgence and that he’s done so while still effectively stretching defenses due to his 37% make rate from deep.
As mentioned earlier the three spot was another contentions topic going into the season. Luckily Toronto has (for now) sidestepped this by nabbing one of the steals of the draft in OG Anunoby as well as acquiring C.J. Miles from Indiana. By doing so they have a developed a strong offense/defense punch at the spot and has allowed third year wing Norman Powell to play down at the two spot where his 6’4″ frame is much more suitable.
In the past few seasons the biggest bright spot on the bench had been Kory Joseph. Given his leadership role it was argued to be their biggest loss over the summer. However, it appears Lowry has more support than ever as indicated by the play of Deleon Wright and Fred VanVleet. Both are adept at running an offense (averaging almost 3 assists per night a piece) and while they are near identical shooting from range (about 35% for both) Wright is better at getting to the rim. But the important thing to remember here is that they have two reserve point guards they can trust for minutes at a time. This is a rarity and definitely will be a feather in their cap come playoff time.
The result of this is a team that is as efficient as they are deep. Toronto currently boasts the 4th rated offense to go with the 6th rated defense. This can surely be attributed by being able to trot out above average lineups on both sides of the ball. Picture a defensive lineup of Lowry-Powell-Anunoby-Ibaka-Poetl or an offense heavy lineup of Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Valanciunas. Are you dying to deal with either of these?
I’ll admit I still have quite a bit of anxiety around trusting these guys and past a first round matchup I still don’t know how they stack up against Cleveland and Boston (hell even a second round Washington team gives me pause) but Toronto is winning in a way that feels different that it has in the past and (dare I say) feels more sustainable. The one thing the Raptors lack that is present with most true title contending teams is the guy you can’t figure out. For as good as Lowry and DeRozan are they can be figured out. Shit, they’ve done most of the work for their opponents the past few playoffs.
The best case scenario for this team is that by giving opponents so many tangential things to contend with that we can finally get the postseason play from the two that we’ve been waiting years for. Then there’s always the possibility that they flip some of their depth to take a home run swing at someone But Ujiri isn’t that kind of impulsive and the Toronto has done a great job of putting the East elites in notice again as comprised. And don’t think for a second they don’t see the difference.