Raptors Future Outlook
February 20, 2018
Are The Raptors Building An Actual Contender?
The Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors are fighting tooth and nail to get a smidgen of respect. Not from opponents mind you. Everyone knows that the Raps bring it every night, especially at home where they’re a stiff 24-4 SU and 16-12 ATS. Pundits, experts and other futures bettors are the ones that need convincing.
A lot of the unfair opinion being lobbied against Toronto is fair. No matter what we try to tell ourselves, the NBA is still a league built on the backs of superstars. Even with all the warts the Cleveland Cavaliers have shown us over the past few months, they still have the best player of this generation in LeBron James. The Celtics may have slowed down considerably heading in to the break, but Kyrie Irving has proven what he’s capable of in the biggest moments on the grandest stage of them all.
This isn’t to say that DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and deserving of being All-Stars, but neither has done much in the way of next-level, individual acclaim nor team playoff performance. The memory of being steamrolled by Cleveland in the past two seasons is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Where Toronto holds the advantage is in their depth and team play. They currently rank third in points per game with 111.9, while boasting the league’s seventh best scoring defence by kitchen sink stats. In advanced metrics, they are third-best in the league with a +8.1 net rating that trails only Golden State and Houston. That is a combination of their rankings at fourth overall in both offensive and defensive rating.
There are a lot of ways to measure why Toronto is really good at basketball, but the easiest explanation is that their bench is far and away the best in the league. Toronto ranks 1st in bench net rating, logging a staggering +8.8 mark that completely eclipses teams like Cleveland at 4.2 and San Antonio at 3.6. It’s not the most decorated bunch, but it’s scrappy and likeable.
Delon Wright, Norman Powell, CJ Miles, Jacob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are five guys who don’t really move the needle for most people in NBA betting, but together this crew is the best second unit in the entire league. That’s meaningful during the regular season. It steadies scoring, momentum and keeps pressure on. This isn’t a typical unit with one or two really good players. All five are league worthy.
Next Games: versus Milwaukee (2/23), versus Detroit (2/26), at Orlando (2/28), at Washington (3/02), versus Charlotte (3/4)
The mindset when you get to the playoffs, however, is different. Rotations are supposed to get tighter. Your biggest stars take center stage. So people tend to believe that Toronto’s game plan won’t work in the playoffs. You don’t match your second unit against the other team’s backups. Guys like LeBron barely ever leave the court. That’s how it works in very general terms.
But we’ve seen what Toronto looks like when that happens. DeRozan is a good marker for this because he was averaging an obscene 27.3 points per game last year. Against Cleveland in the semi-finals, the California native was rank with a 20-4-4 slash line as his squad was swept out and never looked competitive. Leaning on DeMar and Kyle can work, but in a seven game stretch it’s not going to pan out. Teams are just better, more focused and understand their opponents to a higher level.
Here’s the thing – Dwayne Casey has been trying to make this work for ages. He knows that his biggest horses can’t run with the clydedales of the Eastern Conference. Giannis and LeBron are tough matchups for anyone, but the Raptors are especially weak at stopping exceptional wing players. They were burned to the ground one year by Joe Johnson. There’s just nobody on the roster that can cover these type of one-on-one unless we count rookie OG Anunoby who was specifically drafted for this purpose.
In order to offset the balance, Casey has tried to create a deeper playoff lineup because it’s really the only point of difference the Raptors have. He would infamously leave Corey Joseph on the floor late in to the fourth quarter while everyone in Toronto lost their goddamn minds because it was a lineup variation that his opponents weren’t expecting. It can work and it does work, but it can’t be your main weapon.
We’ve seen it countless times where NBA bench players emerge as sudden playoff heroes. Big Baby Davis and Nate Robinson carrying the Celtics. Josh Smith putting the Houston Rockets on his shoulders against the Clippers. Shaun Livingston erupting in Game 1. It’s a time honored tradition in the NBA playoffs, but it usually only happens with one game in an entire playoff run. Considering how the Raptors implement their talent in 2018, Casey is asking his backups to win up to two games per series. That’s a big ask.
It’s also hard to trust. The Raptors starting five can essentially go toe-to-toe with the best in the league. They’re clearly a step behind Golden State but they pair up nicely against Houston. Kyrie is a nightmare for them the same way a guy like Blake Griffin could completely walk through them if he had his mojo going. This is a team built on the efforts of eleven players. That sounds and feels like four too many.
The easy argument is that what the Raptors are doing in February isn’t what they’ll do in April. Getting to the playoffs healthy, with a great rhythm, is half the battle. If you’re looking for the players that are going to be trimmed off so the Raptors can run leaner, then it’s actually pretty easy. Siakam is a five foul type of body, Fred VanFleet will probably lose out to Delon Wright in the long run and CJ Miles will cede minutes to Anunoby depending on if the team needs offense or defence in that series.
Do you see how freaking easy that was to go from the “the Raptors rely on too many players!” to “this is what a playoff roster looks like”. Do you know who else probably figured that out? Dwane Casey!
The arguments against the Raptors as decent threats to the Cleveland Cavaliers have been the same for a long time. To think that they’re just going to waltz in to the playoffs doing the same old thing that has led to them being embarrassed by Cleveland is asinine. Even I’ve been beating that drum for much of the season, but I’m putting that snare away for now.
What Casey is doing is using the regular season to get properly suited for the immediate and long term future. The Raptors can’t afford to miss a beat during the best of DeMar’s prime. If Lowry goes down or falls off a cliff in terms of production, then Powell and VanFleet need to be ready. They only way they do that is by giving these guys lots of heavy, important minutes during the regular season.
It sounds like a weird plan but when you’re a big market team like Toronto, which has proven time and again to lack the gravity for free agents, then what can you do? By the way, this exact strategy worked for the Eagles.
I bet the Raptors have your attention now, don’t they? They’re +1200 to win the NBA title, but are a much more interesting +350 to win the Eastern Conference.
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