The Toronto Raptors are an NBA franchise that has been middling in mediocrity for much of their existence. Now in their 19th NBA season, they can only claim four winning seasons, five playoff appearances, one playoff series win, and a combined winning percentage of .409.
Most of the team’s best draft choices bolted when they got the chance (Damon Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady, and eventually Vince Carter and Chris Bosh) and they’ve suffered through a litany of mistakes, miscues, and misfortunes.
Their GMs have had a history of making questionable draft picks, trades, and free agent signings and they’ve never had a coach who had a winning record during his tenure with the team. Arguably the biggest free agent signing in the team’s history is Hedo Turkoglu (I won’t even bother trying to be funny there, as that statement is a joke in and of itself). They’ve pulled off some blockbuster deals, but their biggest trades have been for players well past their primes (Hakeem Olajuwan, Jalen Rose) or players whose skill-sets didn’t quite fit the rest of the roster at the time (Jermaine O’Neal, Shawn Marion).
The Raptors have always had an uphill battle to claim relevance in Canada, a nation full-heartedly committed to hockey and the NHL. That’s not to say they don’t have passionate fans, because they have one of the most rabid fan bases in the Association, but the casual Canadian hoops fan has no time for this team and even the diehards have trouble holding on when the losing seasons pile up. Being the only basketball team in Canada, they have a whole nation willing them to be good, but it has yet to work.
The winds of change began blowing through Toronto this past summer, however, when the Raptors hired reigning Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, away from the Denver Nuggets. In his time with Denver, Ujiri traded away the franchise’s best player, Carmelo Anthony, and got a bounty of role players and draft picks that he converted into a starless contending team in a tough Western Conference. Considering Toronto’s history of losing it’s brightest stars to free agency and bad track record of attracting outside talent, Raptors fans were drooling at the potential of having a roster-tinkering guru like Ujiri at the helm.
The turnaround was supposed to take a few years, considering the mess of a roster Ujiri inherited from former GM Bryan Colangelo. Coming off a disappointing 34-48 campaign, the Raps didn’t have the needed flexibility to turn their fortunes around quickly. They had two of what most NBA pundits considered to be the most untradeable contracts in the NBA in Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani, and didn’t even have a pick in this past year’s draft, despite being a lottery team (their first-round pick was traded last year for Kyle Lowry and bounced around from Houston to Oklahoma City before eventually becoming promising Thunder rookie Steven Adams).
Now, after an impressive 10-4 run, including a stellar 7-2 road record and key victories over the top Eastern and Western Conference teams (the Pacers and Thunder respectively), the Raptors rebuild seems to be ahead of schedule. What happened?
A Tale of Two Teams
The elephant in the room when it comes to this Raptors season is Rudy Gay. Yes, Ujiri’s first masterstroke of the season was trading Andrea’s Bargnani’s remaining $23 million and career of negative nERDs (last year he finished the season at -4.2) to the Knicks, but that didn’t right the ship completely. The team started the season 6-12, and many were blaming Rudy Gay’s iso-heavy, shot-chucking ways for the underachievement. There was a growing belief that if the Raptors could just get rid of Gay, they could turn things around and have a shot at being at least a decent team in a terrible Eastern Conference and maybe even have a shot at winning the wide-open Atlantic Division (I said as much here).
What has actually happened is that, since the trade, the Raptors have transformed into one of the best teams in the league. You might consider that to be a hyperbolic statement, but the numbers certainly back it up. Just look at their ratings before and after:
The net rating is particularly impressive, as that stat tends to sift out the teams that are good on either offense or defense and not the other way. It basically tells us who the best teams in the league are and the Raptors admittedly look like the campus nerd that snuck into the cool frat party. They rank fourth in net rating since the trade, right behind the Thunder, Heat, and Spurs and ahead of the Clippers, Warriors, and Pacers. Those are all excellent teams that we take very seriously as contenders in this league.
The big question is, will the Raps sustain the change from geek to chic like in every Hollywood movie about such transformations, or will the stumble and fall back to Earth?
As I discussed recently in a piece about the Portland Trail Blazers, Dean Oliver’s Four Factors (effective field goal percentage, turnover ratio, rebounding percentage, and free throw rate) have become a standard way for predicting a team’s ability to be successful and sustain that success. Here’s a breakdown of the Raptors over their last 14 games:
||OPP TO Ratio
||OPP FTA Rate
They’re fairly middle of the pack on the offensive side of these stats, but their bread is clearly buttered on the defensive end. Dwane Casey, the NBA’s reigning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month, has his squad performing at a high level on defense and it’s paying dividends. Being a net positive in three of these four categories, as a result of solid defensive numbers, is a positive sign for a chance at future success.
It's also worth mentioning that they were top 10 on the defensive side of all four of these categories before Sunday's tilt with the Heat, resulting in net positives across the board. There are no obvious shortcomings here either, as they rank in the middle or top of each category on both sides of the ball. Not many teams can claim those kind of numbers and what the Raps have accomplished should not be overlooked.
These stats might not make them stand out as a championship contender, but they certainly qualify them as one of the best teams in the lowly Eastern Conference (I’m running out of adjectives to describe the East and Atlantic Division as bad, so forgive me if I’m getting repetitive). They are currently fourth in the East with a record of 16-16. They are one of only four teams with a record of .500 or better in the conference and are currently only half a game behind the third-place Hawks. They sit atop the otherwise terrible Atlantic Division by four games and we project them as the most likely team to win that banner by a considerable margin.
All this while having easily the hardest schedule of any Eastern Conference team. Their strength of schedule of .536 so far this season ranks them third in the league (first in the East), with the next highest Eastern team being the Knicks at seventeenth in the league with .491. Even more impressive, over every team’s last 10 games, the Raptors have had the second hardest schedule, but have still managed to come out 7-3 over that span.
Basically, they haven’t been lucky. They’ve been good. Period. Everyone has stepped up.
It’s the Personnel, Don’t Take it Personally
It’s hard not to single out the subtraction of Rudy Gay as the reason for the turnaround. The proof is in the statistical pudding (Mmm…statistical pudding). Before the trade, Rudy Gay was shooting a team-high 18.6 shots per game and led the team with a 30.5 usage rating. What was he doing with all the team’s shots? Amassing a terrible effective field goal percentage of .421 and a true shooting percentage of .468.
Since the trade, some key trends have emerged. First of all, the Raptors went from having the league’s worst assist percentage over their first 18 games (49.2) to having its eighth best over their last 14 (60.2). Gay’s absence obviously has a lot to do with that, but it’s also largely due to the fact that the team now has a very competent one-two punch of starting and backup PG in Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez.
Since the trade, Lowry has averaged 17.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.9 steals, and 2.4 threes. He has also shot .444 from the field, .398 from deep, and .836 from the line. Those numbers have vaulted him to seventh on our NBA Player Rankings with a nERD of 10.8, keeping company with names like Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis in terms of how positively he’s contributing to his team. He deserves serious all-star consideration and might even garner an MVP vote or two if the Raptors can keep this up.
DeMar DeRozan has had a bit of a bumpy ride adjusting to being the number one option on offense. His shooting efficiency has been relatively poor with shooting percentages of .415 from the field and .184 from deep, but he gets a pass for now as he continues to adjust to being the guy on offense. In the meantime, he has been contributing positively basically everywhere else. He has averaged 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists. 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks, and gotten to the line an impressive 6.9 times per game (seventh in the league over that stretch) while making those free throws at a clip of .794. If he gets his shooting numbers turned around, he might get some all-star consideration with Lowry as well.
Other positive contributions have come from all over. Terrence Ross has stepped into the starting void left by Gay and has bumped his scoring average of 6.2 points per game pre-trade to being the team’s fourth leading scorer at 13.4 since (while also contributing 3.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, and 2.6 threes, and shooting .443 from the field, .457 from deep, and .833 from the line).
Gay’s shots have also been distributed evenly down low as well, as both Amir Johnson
and Jonas Valanciunas
have pumped single-digit scoring averages into double figures. Johnson is averaging a solid 13.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 0.8 steals, and 1.6 blocks, while shooting .626 from the field over his last 14, while Valanciunas has stepped up with 12.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 0.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, and .556 shooting from the field.
Beyond a solid starting five, the team has great depth as a result of all its recent transactions. The Raptors have bought into a team concept and players know their roles. They have future flexibility and have amassed picks and young bench players that could prove to be good trade assets down the road. Basically they already look built for success now and later after looking somewhat hopeless early this past offseason. What’s the next step?
What Better Place Than Here, What Better Time Than Now?
The next step is proving they belong in the conversation for the East’s elite. They lack the star power and sustained success to be considered in the same tier as the Heat and Pacers, but they are in the midst of a stretch that has proven they can hang with the big boys. They made everyone sit up and notice when they beat the Pacers handily last week 95-82. On Sunday, they kept our attention when they visited the Heat in Miami and gave the champs a run for their money. The Raps hung in for most of the game and actually looked dominant at times before fading late in the fourth quarter and losing the close game 102-97.
They get the Pacers again in Indy on Tuesday night in what is suddenly a very interesting matchup between two strong Eastern Conference squads. A road win in Indiana would certainly cement the Raptors bid to be considered a legitimate team to be respected this season, but some might say that they’ve already accomplished that. It’s certainly safe to say that neither the Heat nor the Pacers would consider this team a pushover if they met in a seven-game series this spring.
The original desire from Raptor fans was to go in full-on tank mode this season in hopes of getting a top draft pick and maybe even Canadian wonder-child Andrew Wiggins in next year’s draft. As Zach Lowe recently pointed out, the NBA might currently have too many bad teams in it (particularly in the East), to allow a team to drop low enough in the standings for a top lottery pick at this point in the season. Even a bad record doesn’t guarantee a savior like Wiggins, just more ping pong balls and a slightly better shot at him. What’s the other choice?
Why not win now? Shortly after the Gay trade, Lowry also started popping up in trade rumors and was almost dealt to the Knicks (until James Dolan got upset that he was getting a reputation as league whipping boy and facilitator for contract dumping). The trumped trade was perhaps a blessing in disguise as Lowry has been playing inspired ball and the team looks the most cohesive it has since their division title in the 2006-07 season.
With a team nERD of 55.2, the Raptors are currently 11th on our NBA Team Rankings and third in the East. A team’s nERD is a stat that evolves and predicts the team's final record based on many factors, regressions, simulations, etc. The rating is based on a scale from 0-100, with 50 as the league average. The resulting number is then used to predict the team's ultimate winning percentage, in this case .552. Extrapolated over a whole season, that puts the Raptors at a final record of approximately 45-37. That would be the team’s best record since that last division title and only two short of their most wins ever (accomplished twice, in 2006-07 and 2000-01).
With the two New York teams being way worse than anyone predicted and season-ending injuries to Derrick Rose and Al Horford derailing the chances of the Bulls and the Hawks, the East is wide open, just waiting for a team to emerge from the middle. Why not go for that now? The Raptors have a legitimate shot at their best record ever. On top of that, they’d likely face an unseasoned team like the Pistons or Bobcats in the first round, giving them a legitimate shot at making the second round (which is the farthest the franchise has ever gotten).
No one expects them to beat the Heat or Pacers, but isn’t a shot at the franchise’s best record and matching their deepest playoff run a good first step in Ujiri’s first year? We’ll see if the team has what it takes as they try to keep their impressive play going against the Pacers on Tuesday night.
(Canadian) author’s personal note: Do it for Canada!