Raptors are finally evolving
January 2, 2018
DeMar DeRozan has always played professional basketball with a long view. He’s improved steadily every year, and is well respected throughout the league for his summer training program. If there’s something to work on, he’s going to head back home and work on it.
As one of the league’s elite scoring talents, getting buckets has never been a problem for DeMar. It’s become a bit more difficult for a former All-Star in Kyle Lowry, who remains one of the best at his position but has dropped off in reliability. Not all of that is his fault – the incredibly juvenile coaching of Dwane Casey has routinely painted Lowry, DeRozan and the Raptors in to corners.
They just never felt like a team that was willing to do something different…wait for it…until now.
Leading the charge is DeRozan himself, who is coming off a 52-point game that is grabbing national attention. DeRozan has always been one of the finer scoring talents in the league, if not its most underappreciated. But where the franchise player’s game has improved the most is in his passing.
If you want one number that exemplifies where Toronto’s mental shift has pointed, then just look at DeRozan’s slash line. He’s putting up 25-5-4 on the season with those 4.9 assist being a true career high. It’s not that he’s a selfish player by any stretch. DeRozan and Lowry simply did what they were always asked to do by a curiously unimaginative Dwane Casey.
The trickle down effect of this has made the Raptors a different kind of offensive threat in an ever-evolving NBA that requires all five players on the floor to have impactful roles. Seemingly gone from Toronto’s offence is the infuriating ISO plays that they used to draw up for Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. Installed instead is a fresh, brand of…well…there’s no way around it.
The Raptors finally have embraced the modern game.
The driving force behind necessity as the mother of invention has always been survival. Two years ago, the Raptors made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and put up a “WE ARE SO HAPPY TO BE HERE SMILEY FACE” type of performance that should have been flat out embarrassing. Last season, they were ousted by the Cleveland Cavaliers again in brutal fashion during the second round. At no time during either series against the Cavs did they feel like they belonged in the playoffs.
No longer is Toronto willing to be the regular season superheroes they’ve been for years. Gamblers have long targeted the Raptors as one of the better bets during the 82-game haul. Over the past two seasons, Toronto has gone a steady 45-36-1 in 2016-17 and 45-37 in 2015-16, both times ranking 4th in spread rankings. A long time grind with them has always paid out.
This year it’s a lot different and that’s largely due to the paradigm shift that was much needed and well overdue. The Raptors are currently just 20-15 ATS, which ranks 5th, but there have been some obvious growing pains. A stricter attention to defence has ranked them as a top-10 defence with 103.5 points allowed per game and the 7th best field-goal percentage against at 45.1.
Obviously, that offence is still humming along and tracking well in every necessary kitchen-sink stat category. However, what makes them more intriguing than you might guess is the fact that they’re +7.5 in net rating, putting them over +2.6 points ahead of the Boston Celtics.
Does this impact their NBA futures value? The Toronto Raptors are a +350 second choice in the Atlantic Division at BetOnline.ag behind the hard charging Celtics who are a hefty favorite at -450. There’s just a five-game difference between them, and Boston is far more talented and better coached so it does seem silly. But a fanboy flier on the Raptors isn’t ill-advised.
Toronto Raptors Schedule: at Chicago (1/3), at Milwaukee (1/5), at Brooklyn (1/8), vs Miami (1/9), vs Cleveland (1/11)
In under two weeks, the Raptors get their biggest challenge when they host the fully powered Cleveland Cavaliers with Isaiah Thomas back in the fold. Cleveland has routinely never been scared of Toronto so they won’t tackle that matchup as intensely as the home town team, but it’s as much of a statement game for the newly crafted Raptors if there ever was one.
Improved ball movement, more three-pointers, better passing and a much more involved team mindset has redefined the Toronto Raptors in 2018. This makes them the biggest dark horse in an Eastern Conference that has been routinely focusing on the Wizards, Bucks, Celtics, Knicks, Sixers and Cavaliers for obvious reasons.
This by no means that Toronto is a true threat in the Eastern Conference. They simply demand a bit more attention than they’re getting. Toronto still lacks scoring. CJ Miles and Norman Powell have been disasters this season despite optimistic potential leading in to the campaign. Toronto ranks in the mid-range with 38.1 bench points per game, and while that’s insulated by the fact that the second unit plays fantastic defence – ranking third in net rating at +6.6 – the Raptors simply need to find a more dynamic bench scorer and a real three-point assassin.
It’s obvious that the Raptors are no longer satisfied by being a team that does well when it generally doesn’t matter. They are better than most teams in the Eastern Conference, but they might not be on the level of the Cavaliers and the Celtics. To get to that next level, obvious changes have needed to be made.
They’ve taken the first step. Whether they can make the leap depends on how much Lowry, DeRozan and the team can improve their overall shooting as a team.
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