Everyone Is Sleeping on the Toronto Raptors

The duel between Cleveland and Boston for the East's top seed is getting a lot of attention, but Toronto's quality play since the All-Star break, sans Kyle Lowry no less, is worth investigating.

Remember back before the NBA All-Star Game? Yeah, me neither. It feels like forever ago.

With all that's transpired in the past 50 days, the Toronto Raptors probably think it was a totally different season altogether. At that time, the team had just traded for Serge Ibaka. And since the break, Kyle Lowry has undergone surgery on his wrist, and they've added P.J. Tucker to the fold. They gained two players but lost one of their most valuable ones.

As we suspected, though, Lowry's absence hasn't really mattered. Don't believe me? Just take a look at how they've performed since in comparison to their play earlier in the season.

With Lowry

Prior to the All-Star Break, the Raptors posted a 33-24 record (.579 win percentage) in 57 games and were a top-five team with a net rating of plus-4.9. Their offensive rating (Ortg) of 110.9 points per 100 possessions ranked 5th in the league, and their defensive rating (Drtg) of 106 rated 16th.

And that sums up who the Raptors were to start the season -- a really good offense and a middle-of-the-road defense (otherwise known as today's Cleveland Cavaliers, am I right?).

Since then, the Raptors have been an entirely different team -- not only in personnel but also in team approach and performance.

Without Lowry

Through 21 games -- with their new additions and absent Lowry -- Toronto is 14-7 (.667 win percentage) and is currently in a tie for third (with the Washington Wizards) in the Eastern Conference.

With an overall mark of 47-31, the Raptors still rank fifth with a net rating of plus-4.6 since the break and plus-4.8 for the season. So, for the most part, the outcomes have been the same, but the Raptors have discovered that there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Raptors Ortg Drtg Off Rank Def Rank
First 57 Gms 110.9 106.0 4th 16th
Last 21 Gms 107.4 102.7 14th 4th
Difference -3.5 -3.3 +10 12

Obviously, the Raptors' offense has been less efficient without their floor general. Turnovers have been the primary cause for concern as they've coughed the ball up over 13.9 times per game and on 14.4% of their offensive possessions. Those numbers are up from just 12.3 and 12.6% with Lowry in the 57 games prior to the All-Star Break.

At the same time, Toronto has seen negligible declines in effective field goal percentage (-0.7%) and free throw attempt rate (-.002). They've also improved on the offensive boards, securing 26.1% of available offensive rebounds compared to 24.7% in the first segment of the season, which the addition of Ibaka has likely helped. Although that might not seem like much, it's the difference between the ninth and fourth spot in the NBA ranks and has pushed their per-game total to 10.8.

While the Raptors have fallen a bit -- or just marginally improved -- on the offensive end of the court, they've made great strides on the defensive end. In their last 21 games, they rank fourth in opponent effective field goal percentage (49.2%) and sixth in opponent offensive rebound percentage (21.4%). Those ranks are 14 and 19 spots better than where they were prior to adding Tucker and Ibaka. So, in essence, they've forced their opponents into tough shots while also limiting their chances off misses.

On a Hot Streak

The Raptors' defensive effort has surely helped them keep their head above water until Lowry returns (which could bee sooner than later). But, with time, their offense has started to perform more efficiently while their defense has continued to rise up the NBA leaderboards.

The result? They've been even better in their last 10 contests.

RaptorseFG%Opp eFG%O RtgD RtgNet Rtg
Last 1053.4%0.478110.1101.19.0
NBA Rank8th2nd10th5th2nd

While their defense has regressed in allowing more offensive rebounds per game, they have upped their opponent turnover percentage from 13.4% in their first 11 games without Lowry to 14.1% in the last 10. In addition, they've decreased their opponent's free throw rate by .016 free throw attempts per field goal attempt.

On offense, they seem to be learning to play with Cory Joseph at the point. This has resulted in a slightly higher workload and more production for DeMar DeRozan, who has put up 28.4 points per game on 21.1 attempt and 47.9% shooting from the floor in his last 10.

As a team, the Raptors have become the league's best offensive rebounding team, snagging 11.5 per game at a rate of 28.8%, the highest in the league in that span. Toronto is now producing 15.8 second chance points per game in comparison to 13.6 for the year.

With a net rating that trails only the Golden State Warriors' mark, the Raptors are 8-2 in their last 10, tying them with the Boston Celtics for the best record in the East during that run of games. They've recently clinched a playoff berth and are looking to break the tie with the Wizards and go into the playoffs as the 3 seed in the conference.

Looking Ahead

For a team that is 27-13 at home this season, the reward of homecourt advantage would most certainly be welcome. That, in addition to the improvements they've made sans Lowry, makes them a legitimate title threat, per our numbers.

We have the Raptors fourth overall in our power rankings and third (behind the Warriors and Spurs) in terms of championship odds, giving them a 9.6% chance to win it all.

Considering the Cavaliers' struggles, the Raptors' recent play shows us that as long as Lowry can return to full health, the East is more than a two-team race between the Cavs and Celtics, both of whom -- Cleveland at 7.3% and Boston at 4.2% -- trail Toronto in terms of championship odds.