Are the Toronto Raptors the Best Team in the Eastern Conference?
The Toronto Raptors have a record of 11-2, putting them at the top of Eastern Conference and a half game behind the 12-2 Memphis Grizzlies for the best mark in the whole NBA.
Reactions to the hot start by Canada's only NBA team have been mixed - to put it lightly. Some people are ready to jump on the Raps' bandwagon, fully believing that a team that currently ranks second in the NBA in offensive efficiency (114.1), fifth in defensive efficiency (101.0), and first in point differential (+12.2) is legit.
On the other side of the argument, there are plenty of detractors that are ready to discredit the hot start due to an easy schedule (29th in strength of schedule, according to basketball-reference.com) or the fact that the Raptors have played a league-leading nine games at home to open the year, including a recent seven-game homestand. There's also the chance that people are just getting annoyed by the whole #WeTheNorth movement and the fact that Raptors fans are invading stadiums on the road and cheering just as loud or louder than the opposing team's home fans.
Still, whether you're ready to believe it or not, the Raptors have been the best team in the East to this point in the season. That trend might not continue, but for now it's hard to find any evidence that suggests otherwise.
The two most highly touted Eastern Conference teams coming into this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, haven't blown anyone away, starting 5-7 and 8-5 respectively. The Cavs are having a really hard time putting the pieces together since uniting LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, and the Bulls projected starters already have 15 missed games due to injury between them. Sure, the Cavaliers are bound to jell at some point, and the Bulls could eventually get healthy, but neither is a foregone conclusion.
On the other hand, we have tangible evidence that the Raptors have been
good great. If you look at the Eastern Conference standings by Pythagorean wins (which relates a team's points scored and points allowed to its won-lost record), the Raptors have been the best team in the East without much competition so far.
|Team||Expected W-L||Expected %||Actual W-L||Difference|
|13||New York Knicks||5-9||.357||4-10||+1|
Toronto may only have a 1.5-game lead on the Washington Wizards in the actual standings, but their expected win-loss record (determined my Pythagorean wins) is 3.5 games better. The Raptors SRS (Simple Rating System) mark - which is a team rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule and is denominated in points above or below a zero average - currently stands at 9.84. That's not only the fourth-best in the NBA (trailing the Trail Blazers at 10.91, the Warriors at 10.88, and the Mavericks at 10.68), but it's easily the best in their conference. The Wizards have the next closest rating all the way down at 1.37. Again, that rating accounts for strength of schedule.
In terms of our in-house metrics, the Raptors currently hold the league's second-best nERD at 76.9. That number denotes what we project their ultimate winning percentage to be for this season, based on their performance to date. A .769 winning percentage would equate to roughly a 63-19 final record. That might seem far-fetched, but it's simply a projection based on how well they've played thus far. The Wizards are once again the closest Eastern Conference team at 63.9 (or 52-30). Again, it's not close.
Kyle Lowry is playing like an MVP candidate, averaging 18.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals, and only 1.5 turnovers per game, while shooting 47.6% from the floor, while DeMar DeRozan is putting up his second straight 20-point-per-game season. 11 of the 15 players on the Raptors' roster have a positive individual nERD (which denotes how many games above .500 a league-average team would ultimately finish a season with the given player as a starter). Lowry leads the way with the third-highest rating in the entire NBA at 17.3. The team is full of players who know their roles and play them well, which is a big reason for their success so far.
As a team, the Raptors are getting to the line at will, posting the NBA's third-best free throw rate (freebies per field goal attempt) at .363. That has resulted in 30.0 free throw attempts per game (second in the league), which they're hitting at a rate of 80.0% (fourth). Their other big strength as a team has been in forcing their opponents into turnovers, while keeping control of the ball on their end. Opposing teams are coughing the ball up 17.5 times per contest versus the Raptors (third in the NBA), which they have translated into 19.8 points off turnovers per game (also third). Meanwhile, they're controlling the ball as well as anyone else in the league, turning it over a mere 11.2 times per contest (just slightly behind the Pelicans at 11.0 for the top mark).
According to our metrics, Toronto now has the best chance of making the playoffs of any team in the NBA at 99.1%. For those that believe that the Raptors are still a piece away from being a real championship contender, our numbers simply don't agree with you. We currently have them with the third-best championship chances in the league at 11.7%, trailing only the Houston Rockets (15.1%) and Cleveland Cavaliers (12.2%).
Up until this weekend, there were plenty of reasons being found to dismiss the Raptors' record. They have beaten up on the dregs of the NBA, barely escaped depleted OKC and Memphis squads, and lost their only true tests against Miami and Chicago. The non-believers might have a bit of a harder time after this weekend, however, after the Raptors came out and simply destroyed the up-and-coming Bucks and the revamped Cavaliers by a combined 58 points on a back-to-back set Friday and Saturday. Besides, there are few teams in the NBA that are taking care of business against lower ranked teams as consistently as the Raptors are right now and there's something to be said for that.
Time will tell, though, if they can keep the good times rolling and stay at or near the top of the NBA. They have yet to go on a tough Western Conference road trip, and the only powerhouse team they've played from the other conference is the aforementioned Grizzlies squad that was playing without a slew of rotation players.
For now, however, the title of best team in the Eastern Conference belongs to the Toronto Raptors until proven otherwise. They might not be a true championship contender when all is said and done, but for a franchise that's celebrating its 20-year anniversary with nothing to show for it but one trip to the second round and a couple 47- and 48-win division titles, just the idea of a 50-win season and maybe - just maybe - the chance at the second round and beyond is enough for the team and its fans to celebrate.
So far, they've earned that much.