No, the Toronto Raptors are Not the Worst Conference Finalist Ever
The Toronto Raptors are becoming the butt of a lot of jokes.
The most popular example going around right now is their being referred to as "other" in a recent CBS poll asking fans who they thought would win the NBA title of the four remaining conference finalists:
Cool poll, @CBSSports. (via @WheelerTSN) pic.twitter.com/dxwGdtQ6EO
— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) May 17, 2016
To be fair, the Raptors don't look very good right now and are perhaps deserving of "other" status.
They took seven games to dispense of an Indiana Pacers team that, by all accounts, was inferior to them. It took another seven games to get past a Miami Heat team that was playing without Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside. Toronto's two All-Stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are both shooting under 37% through 16 postseason games and have Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) below the league average of 15.0 (14.3 and 12.2, respectively).
While the other three teams in the NBA's final four -- the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers -- are all playing like legitimate title contenders, Toronto is coming off back-to-back losses to the Cavs by a combined 50 points.
How bad is that? Well:
Cavaliers outscored Raptors by 50 pts through 2 games, 2nd-largest difference through 2 games of a conf finals- Spurs +52 over Thunder, 2014
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 20, 2016
The Raptors are undeniably the odd team out here. They clearly can't hang with the Cavaliers, and it's highly unlikely that they'll come back from the 0-2 hole they've dug for themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals. To wit, our algorithm currently gives Cleveland an 81.28% chance of winning this series (and that admittedly feels low).
The 2015-'16 Toronto Raptors have not been playing great basketball, but are they really the worst team to ever make the conference finals in NBA history, as many people are asking?
Serious question: Raptors worst conference finals team ever?
— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) May 20, 2016
Put simply: no.
There are many ways to measure the quality of a team. You can look at its win-loss record, average margin of victory, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating and Net Rating (or any number of other statistics), but none of those accounts for the strength of that team's opponents.
One stat that is a bit more telling when it comes to the true quality of a team -- and how it compares to other teams across previous years and eras -- is Simple Rating System (SRS), a team rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule.
This year, Toronto finished the regular season with a record of 56-26 and an SRS of 4.08. Yes, they have played some sloppy basketball this postseason and have looked particularly out of sorts for the last two games they've played. But the much larger sample size of 82 games might be a better indicator of just how good they really are, especially since playing a team as locked in as Cleveland can have a way of making you look worse than you might actually be.
When considering the Raptors' SRS of 4.08 from this season, they are far from the worst team to make a conference finals. In fact, there have been 10 teams over the last decade alone that have made it to the NBA's final four with an equal or lower SRS and win-loss record than the Raptors. That's a quarter of the 40 conference finalists over that span:
|2011||Oklahoma City Thunder||55-27||3.81|
As you may have noticed, the above list contains two teams from last year's conference finals alone, including last year's Cleveland squad that went on to make the NBA Finals.
As a matter of fact, there are three teams on the list that made the finals with an equal or lower SRS than this year's Raptors: the Cavaliers in 2015, the Boston Celtics in 2010 and the Cavaliers again in 2007. What's more, three of the four teams to make the conference finals in 2007 had a lower SRS and worse win-loss record than this season's Raptors.
Toronto, in reality, just isn't that bad.
Maybe they just look bad because the other conference finalists this year are so darn good. With an average SRS of 7.64, this year's Warriors (10.38), Thunder (7.09) and Cavaliers (5.45) are the best trio to make the conference finals since 2008's Boston Celtics (9.30), Los Angeles Lakers (7.34) and Detroit Pistons (6.67), who had an average SRS of 7.77. In fact, with an SRS of 4.08, this year's Raptors are better than every fourth-best conference finalist of the last decade, with the exception of the 2008 San Antonio Spurs, who had an SRS of 5.10.
The 2015-'16 Raptors may not win an NBA title this year, but they are certainly not the worst conference finalist in NBA history. They're not even the worst conference finalist of the last decade. Heck, they're not even the worst conference finalist of the last two postseasons.
Give the "other" a bit of credit.