It’s Wayyy Past Time to Take the Toronto Raptors Seriously

Posted: 12/21/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

The Toronto Raptors have been a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference for three straight years. Last season, they won 56 games — more than everyone besides Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland — and finished a game out of first place in the conference. Unlike the two previous years, they didn’t crash out of the playoffs in the first round. In fact, they made the Eastern Conference Finals and were locked 2-2 with the Cavaliers through four games. This offseason, they lost just one of their top nine scorers — and that was Luis Scola, who can now barely get off the bench for the mighty Brooklyn Nets. In other words, they were very good last year and kept almost their entire team, so one would expect them to be good again this year, right? Well, I remember hearing a lot about the Cavs before the season, naturally. I also remember hearing a lot about the Celtics and the Pacers and the Hawks and the Pistons. But how often were the Raptors spoken about when the Eastern Conference title odds were bandied about? Almost never. Now, on some level that’s understandable. The same continuity that was sure to make them good did them no favors headline-wise. All of the teams I mentioned above definitely seemed more exciting. The Celtics added Al Horford and #3 pick Jaylen Brown to their already-expansive group of young talent. The Pacers changed coaches (Vogel out, McMillan in) and styles (in two years, they’ve gone from averaging 95.5 possessions per game to 100.2) and added Jeff Teague. The Hawks now have Dwight Howard, and the Pistons have what should be the perfect Stan Van Gundy roster. So I can understand why the same-old Raptors weren’t talked about before the season.

Now, though, there’s no excuse. Because while the Raptors might not win 56 games again, they’re a heck of a lot better when they were last year. One reason that Raptors were getting overlooked both last season and before this year is that they were winning a lot of close games and had a point differential of “just”+4.5. That’s good, but it’s not eye-opening. This year, they’re winning at a better clip than last year. They’re 20-8 and on pace to win 58 or 59 games. More importantly, this seems sustainable. They have a +9.3 point differential, which would be best in the NBA if the Warriors were declared unfairly good and disqualified.

Yes, the Toronto Raptors have the second-best point differential in the NBA. You probably didn’t know that. That’s why we need to talk about the Toronto Raptors.

They’ve been powered by an offense that is playing much better than last year’s already-good offense. Last year’s Warriors probably had the best offense of the first 16 years of this century. They aren’t as this year’s Warriors, who are putting up 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Guess who, right now, is better than both last year’s Warriors and this year’s Warriors?? That’s right: the Toronto Raptors, who are scoring 115.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s the highest output since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. Not too shabby.

It’s definitely easy to miss, because the Raptors aren’t the beautiful passing team that the Warriors are. They make the second-fewest passes per game and rank 26th in assists per contest; to put that in perspective, the Warriors are averaging 40 more passes and 11 more assists per game. As you might expect, Toronto makes up for it by leading the league in field goal percentage on both drives (52.2%) and pull-ups (43.5%).

That brings us to guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the two engines of the offense. They are Toronto’s answer to the Splash Bros in that they are averaging a combined 49.2 points per game. But while Kyle Lowry is channeling his inner Steph Curry this year (3.3 made threes per game on 45% shooting; previous career highs of 2.8 and 39% last season), he still can’t rival Curry’s 2015-16 shooting (5.1 made threes per game on 45.4% shooting). And DeRozan hits threes less often than almost any other guard. Last year, 50.8% of Curry’s 30.1 points per game came from threes. This year, 4.99% of DeRozan’s 27.9 points per game come from threes. So how does he score? Two ways: pull-ups and free throws. There are 42 players who have played in at least five games and are averaging at least five pull-up jumpers per game. DeRozan is one of only two players attempting at least 10 a game (Russell Westbrook is the other) and one of three shooting at least 45% on his pull-ups. He’s shooting 46.1% on pull-ups; Westbrook is shooting 38.2%. DeRozan is also tied for sixth in free throw attempts per game (8.8) and is alone in seventh in makes per game (7.4).

DeRozan and Lowry have both been shooting a lot better this season than they did last year, with DeRozan going from 45% to 48% and Lowry improving from 43% to 46%. I guarantee you that they were both super eager to work on their shots after shooting sub-40% in the playoffs last year. We’re more than a third of way into the season now, so this is something we need to take seriously. The Raptors are scoring 117 points per 100 possessions when they’re on the court together, which is often. Last year, that number was 108.2.

I’ve focused on DeRozan and Lowry, but there are obviously other players on this team who have contributed to the incredible offensive start to the season. Ironically, young center Jonas Valanciunas, who might be the player I’d have most expected to make a jump going into the season, hasn’t had much to do with the team’s improvement. He’s averaging better than 12 points per game and nearly 10 rebounds, but his stats and minutes played numbers are almost exactly the same as they were last season. He’s actually been slightly less efficient this year, down from 57% to 54%. His offensive rating has still gone up, but by just 4.8 points per 100 possessions, a lower jump than for anyone other than Bruno Caboclo, who has played a grand total of 18 minutes this season. And first round pick Jakob Poeltl, another center, has an impossibly-low 97 offensive rating. The Raptors are actually getting outscored with Poeltl on the court. We have to look elsewhere for answers.

Getting a healthy DeMarre Carroll back has definitely helped, but the Raptors are actually better on both sides of the court when Carroll sits. He’s a good piece to have, especially when the playoffs come around and he has to deal with LeBron, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George, but there’s a reason he’s down to 25.7 minutes per game from 30.2. He’s dangerous when he can hit threes, but there’s only so much a 36%-from-three wing who is hesitant to drive to the basket and doesn’t pass very well can do.

I want to talk about three less-heralded players: Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Lucas Nogueira. With apologies to Cory Joseph, a good backup point guard, and Pascal Siakam, who actually starts, I think these three are most worth talking about. In Patterson’s case, nothing’s really changed from last year. He’s averaging 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, both of which are marginally better than last season, but he’s down to 37% from the field (from 41%) as he’s transitioned to being almost entirely a spot-up three point shooter. But therein lies the beauty of Patrick Patterson. When he’s on the court, the Raptors have a floor-spacing big who can open up the court for Lowry and DeRozan. They also have a good defensive player and sneaky-good passer. That’s why he plays 28.7 minutes per game. Last year, Patterson’s net rating was +9.3. That was the highest mark on the team among regulars… by far. It also ranked 40th in the NBA… but second among players not playing for the OKC-GSW-SAS-CLE-LAC quintet. This year, his net rating is +15.7. Because the rest of the team is so good, that actually ranks just third among regulars behind Nogueira and Ross. The offense is especially good when Patterson on the court, although he also helps the defense.

Terrence Ross was taken eighth in the 2012 draft. Through four years, it seemed like he’d settled into a role as a somewhat useful but somewhat inefficient role player. It remains to be seen whether he can keep this up, but so far this year Ross has transformed himself into a very efficient role player. His minutes are down from 23.9 to 20.1, but his points are up from 9.9 to 10.7. He’s become instant offense off the bench. His true shooting percentage, which takes into account three pointers and free throws, has risen from 55.1% to 61.4%. To put that in perspective, he ranks 45th in the NBA in TS% this year and 10th among guards (as you might expect, Lowry has also seen a huge rise in his TS%). A 55.1% mark would rank 163rd among 359 qualifiers. His traditional stats: 48/43/91, up from 43/39/79.

Then there’s Bebe Nogueira. He’s been the prime recipient of the departed Bismack Biyombo’s minutes, seeing a jump from 7.8 to 18.7 minutes per game. I wanted to mention him for a few reasons. First of all, he does cool stuff like this. And this. Second of all, he has cool hair. Third of all, he’s shooting 74% from the field. 74%! He’s 42-57 on the season. Fourth of all, he’s averaging 1.8 blocks per game. That’s in 18.7 minutes. Fifth of all, his wingspan is 7’6″. Sixth of all, he and Kyle Lowry are awesome together. I knew they played great together, but just to make sure I checked the numbers. I wasn’t disappointed. In 265 minutes on the court together, the Raptors have scored 128.5 points per 100 possessions and given up 95.1. That’s by far the best mark on the team and in the league among duos who have played at least 100 minutes together. If you don’t like per-100 numbers, here it is in absolute terms: 12.6 minutes per game together, 32.4 points for, 23.5 points allowed. Pretty amazing. And the final reason that I wanted to talk about Nogueira: he ranks first in the NBA in net rating at +22.6. Luc Mbah a Moute is #2 at +19.8. Not too shabby.

There are two more things I want to talk about. The first is that it seems like the Raptors have found two five-man lineups that work extremely well for them. Both of these lineups have played at least 100 minutes together, and they’re the second and third most played lineups. The first is the starting lineup with Patterson in for Siakam (Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas). This is a lineup that has always worked for Toronto. They’re playing six minutes per game together and outscoring opponents 15.6-10.7, which translates to a +39.2 point differential over a full game. That will be the go-to lineup. The second is Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Nogueira. Seems weird, but it’s actually something we saw a lot of in last year’s playoffs (especially when DeRozan was struggling), except with Biyombo in for Nogueira. That lineup is lethal mainly because it has four threats to hit it from deep and also the defensive ability to shut teams down. It really works. In 7.2 minutes per game together, they’re outscoring opponents 18.2-13.9, which translates to a +28.7 point differential over a full game. I really like a rotation of Lowry-Joseph-DeRozan-Ross-Carroll-Patterson-Nogueira-Valanciunas come playoffs. Those eight can give you a bit of everything and, I think, can challenge the Cavs if they aren’t hitting on all cylinders.

The second thing I wanted to mention was the fact that the Raptors signed someone to a $6 million deal this offseason who I haven’t even mentioned yet. That’s Jared Sullinger, the injury-prone big man who has long had back problems and is now nursing a foot injury. Sullinger hasn’t played yet for the Raptors, and there’s certainly no rush. But he will be ready eventually, which will make things tricky. Do the Raptors risk ruining the clear chemistry they’ve built, or do they keep Sully on the bench? One thing’s for sure: when he’s healthy, Sullinger can be a force in the paint and on the boards, especially if he’s coming off the bench. But that might mean taking some of Bebe’s minutes, which I’m really not happy about. For now, this is the best possible problem the Raptors could have asked for. But it’s something to look out for going forward, as Sullinger could conceivably swing a playoff series in either direction based on the impact he makes on the rest of the team.

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