Are the Toronto Raptors Becoming Legitimate Championship Contenders?
Ask just about any NBA fan or pundit which two teams they think will meet in the NBA Finals this year, and you'll get pretty close to the exact same answer every time: the Golden State Warriors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight year.
And they're probably right. We have the Warriors as the far-and-away favorites to win the title this year, with our algorithms currently giving them a 38.1% chance of winning it all. The team with the next best chance is those very same Cavaliers at 13.3%.
But the NBA Finals being a forgone conclusion like that sucks all the fun out of things.
That's why, when the Los Angeles Clippers got out to a hot start this year, people started questioning their chances of stopping the mighty Dubs. They've since faltered a little, but at 16-7 and with a 11.2% chance of winning the title, they're at least still a factor (Wednesday night's blowout loss to Golden State notwithstanding).
Then there's the machine that is the San Antonio Spurs, always chugging along and refusing to fall out of contention. They are once again putting up an excellent win-loss record at 18-5 and currently have the third-best title odds by our calculations at 13.2%.
And for most people, that's where the list of title contenders ends (even if everyone really believes that it's simply the Warriors' to lose). But there is a team that ranks third overall in our NBA Team Power Rankings that has title odds that rank right up there with those of the Cavaliers, Clippers, and Spurs at 10.8%.
The Toronto Raptors would like a moment of your time.
The Case for Toronto
Yes, this is a team that only won their first seven-game series in franchise history just last season and then looked completely overmatched by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Heck, they've even lost all three games they've played against Cleveland this season, making it look like they're destined to continue standing on the outside looking in.
But the numbers suggest through and through that the Raptors belong at the "best in the league" table with the Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs, and Clippers, and not in the second tier below:
|Pythagorean Win-Loss Percentage||.727||3rd|
|Margin of Victory||8.36||3rd|
|Simple Rating System||9.49||2nd|
The only team that bests the Raptors in all five of the above categories is the Warriors, who happen to be on pace to top 70 wins for the second year in a row. Toronto's also doing all this while having faced the third-toughest schedule in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Their 23rd-ranked defense (108.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) is certainly a knock on their title chances (although the Cavaliers are 19th at 107.7 and no one really counts them out because of it), but it's a historically great offense that's putting them in the conversation.
Their current offensive rating of 117.0 (points scored per 100 possessions) ranks them second in the NBA, trailing those pesky Warriors once again, who currently sit at 117.9.
The amazing thing about both those offensive efficiency ratings through the first quarter of the season is that they're both on pace to beat the all-time record of 115.6 set in 1986-87 by the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers.
And the Raptors are succeeding in just about every facet on that end of the ball, hinting towards the potential of sustainability.
They are the only team in the league to rank in the top-three in field goal percentage (47.8%, second), three-point percentage (39.2%, third), and free throw percentage (81.3%, second).
Also, if you look at Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success" on the offensive side of the ball, the Raptors place in the top-seven in all four categories, suggesting a well-balanced attack:
|Offensive Four Factors||Score||NBA Rank|
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||53.5%||4th|
|Offensive Rebounding Percentage||25.6%||7th|
|Free Throw Rate||0.245||2nd|
They are fueled by two shoo-in All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan (28.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.3 steals per contest, 47.6% shooting from the field and 83.9% from the line) and Kyle Lowry (20.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, with a shooting split of 44.7% from the field, 43.5% from deep, and 84.4% from the line), and a slew of effective role players.
Help From the Bench
Their bench, in particular, is arguably the best in the entire Association. The combined net rating of their reserves of 14.3 leads the NBA, while their most used second-unit lineup -- one that combines Lowry with four bench players (Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Lucas Nogueira) -- is one of the league's most potent five-man combinations, period.
In 106 minutes, that "Lowry plus the bench" lineup has a ridiculous 30.6 net rating (131.5 offensive rating, 101.1 defensive rating), which is the highest of any of the 33 lineups league-wide that have seen a minimum of 100 minutes together.
The Toronto Raptors do not have a transcendent superstar à la LeBron James or Stephen Curry, and that combined with their defensive deficiencies and lack of historical success will likely keep them from ever gaining universal acceptance as a legitimate top team in the league.
But the numbers don't lie.
Free of emotional and anecdotal biases, pretty much any advanced metric you can pull at this point says that the Raptors are just as much in that conversation as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs (while the Golden State Warriors are simply operating on another plane entirely).
The Raptors might not win a title this year (only one team will and, well, the Warriors), but they are proving time and again that they belong in the league's upper echelon.
It's time that we all stop fighting it and accept that.