One night in November I was watching the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz exchange blows in what proved to be an exhilarating 93-89 win for Utah, and although Toronto failed to notch a victory, they had won over a fan in me. Maybe it was thanks to this:
I found my conversion to Raptors fandom to be surprising as I had stated on numerous occasions how much I abhorred their offensive style of play. My viewing experiences in previous seasons led me to brand the Raptors as an isolation-heavy team that didn’t put much emphasis on ball-movement.
In my mind the main culprit was shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, whom would often receive the ball and clench it for several seconds before making one of his three patented moves: a series of spin moves with a Kobe Bryant-esque fadeaway peppered in, a forceful drive to the hoop in search of a foul, or a series of pump fakes in hopes of getting the defender to bite so he could take a journey to the charity stripe. I found this style of play to be aesthetically unpleasing, and the condemnation of Toronto began.
I never foresaw myself becoming an advocate of DeRozan and the Raptors, but that is the case as we sit in the midst of March with the NBA Playoffs drawing near. Toronto currently holds onto the Eastern Conference’s second seed, and only trails the sleepwalking Cleveland Cavaliers by 2.5 games. Supplanting King James and Co. in the East may not be the most viable thing for the Raptors, but snagging that first seed shouldn’t serve as their primary focus.
Collectively the Raptors should be fixated on battling the ugly postseason demons that have turned them into first round fodder in each of the last two postseasons. In 2013-14 the Raptors boasted home court and almost upended a veteran-ladened Brooklyn Nets squad that featured Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce. Toronto had a chance to win Game 7 on their home floor in it’s waning seconds, but Pierce swatted what would’ve been a series-winning layup by Kyle Lowry and the heartbroken Raptors staggered into the summer.
Last postseason Toronto was pitted against John Wall and the Washington Wizards, and again they possessed home court advantage, which proved to be of little significance as Lowry’s back gave out and DeRozan’s horrid shooting spelled out “S-W-E-E-P,” for the Raps.
DeRozan did average 20.3 points per game in the series, but he took 80 shots to garner 81 total points, and only managed to get to the free throw line a total of 17 times. His PER plummeted to a 15.7, and his Offensive Rating was a 96. Those numbers did not bode well for the Raptors at all, and the result of the series coincides with that declaration.
It didn’t get any better for Lowry, the former Villanova Wildcat, who limped through the series due to an aching back. His limited mobility paired with the fact that he spent a considerable amount of time in foul trouble prevented Lowry from establishing any rhythm, and the 12.3 points on 31% field goals and 21% three-point field goals reflects this. His PER was a putrid 8.1, and he only attempted 11 free throws thanks to the impairment presented by his back.
An embarrassing outing such as that prompted Lowry to shed a lot of weight to address that problematic back, and Toronto’s brass decided to flank their talented backcourt with tough-minded, defensive pieces.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri wooed DeMarre Carroll away from the comfy confines of Atlanta by blessing him with a four-year, $60 million contract, and he beefed up the bench by adding Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, two moves that were seldom discussed in the offseason but have proved to pay huge dividends. Joseph comes off the pine and heckles the hell out of opposing guards with his irritant defensive ways, and Biyombo served as an imposing defensive and rebounding placeholder while usual starting center Jonas Valanciunas nursed a hand injury.
Biyombo is an energetic, hard-working big on the defensive end, and on offense, while he will bobble a lot of passes, he’ll run the floor and certainly does have the ability to catch and finish with authority when he actually catches a dish.
Toronto tinkered with their crew and now hopes these alterations can generate some postseason success for a team that has been deprived of a series win since 2000-2001 when Vince Carter was causing mayhem on opposing two’s. So with all of this said, I now pose the question: Can we really trust the Raptors?
With the fortification of their roster and career years from both Lowry and DeRozan, I want to say yes. Lowry is averaging a 21.6 points (career-high), 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds (career-high) per game on 44% shooting from the field and 39% from downtown, both of which are career marks. His play has lunged him into the top five point guard chatter, and his buddy DeRozan has been beasting as well, averaging a career-high 23.4 points per game to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 4 assists a night.
The most encouraging part about DeRozan’s game is that it’s seemingly undergone a maturation, as he’s been ultra-aggressive, constantly hunting for trips to the free throw line. He’s also embraced the three-point shot this year, which has always been a troubled area for the former USC Trojan.
DeRozan is shooting a career-best 33% from behind the arc, and although his volume of attempts (1.8 per game), and his percentage are on the lower side, fans are elated by the fact that DeRozan is no longer shying away from the long-ball. Toronto’s playoff fate may hinge on DeRozan’s ability to be a reliable shot-maker in the playoffs, as team’s schemes will look to force DeRozan to the outside as much as possible.
When it’s a playoff game, whether it be at home with the fans massaging Toronto’s ego with their deafening roars and Drake doing his best to look legitimately concerned about what’s going on in the game, or on the road where a raucous crowd may leave the Raptors a teeny-bit frazzled, can DeRozan come to the forefront as that guy to give the Raptors that much-needed bucket in the clutch? How about Lowry?
Or maybe I’m being a bit premature. Let’s think about the clutch buckets that precede the ones that warrant all the fan-fare. I’m talking about those shots with 45 seconds left that cut a five-point lead to three or two. Or a trip to the free throw line that slices into the deficit. A lot of times in that scenario, the team’s “others,” are the ones to deliver on such a play. Can Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, Luis Scola, and DeMarre Carroll, who is currently shelved with a knee injury with no concrete timetable for his return, furnish the Raptors’ offense with important scores in those key moments?
My last area of concern lies in the defensive sector, as the Raptors have been slipping on that side of the ball as of late. In each month since November, Toronto has been allowing their opponents to score ten more points per game than they were earlier in the season.
Their Defensive Rating for the month of March so far is a 110, and their newly instituted starting five of Lowry-DeRozan-Johnson-Scola-Valanciunas has a -4.8 Net Rating, spearheaded by a concerning 108.1 Defensive Rating.
Why does that group experience woes on the defensive end of the ball? I theorize that the front court of Scola and Valanciunas is the reasoning for this, as out of all Raptor two-man lineups that have played at least 35 games, those two together have the highest Defensive Rating at 107.7 behind only. DeRozan and Valanciunas at 108.1.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s bench mob units featuring either one of Lowry or DeRozan operate on an optimal level and feast on lesser secondaries. Toronto has a 22.4 Net Rating in the 239 minutes when the Lowry-Joseph-Ross-Patterson-Biyombo lineup has taken the floor, with a 92.6 Defensive Rating to boot.
Slide DeRozan into that same lineup and the numbers dwindle a little, but they’re still impressive nonetheless as that unit has a 10.2 Net Rating in 190 minutes of action together.
Will the “Junkyard Dog” Carroll be able to rectify all of Toronto’s defensive shortcomings with his expertise on that side of the ball? I think not, as that’s a considerable amount to ask of a guy coming back from knee surgery. Carroll will help and there will be occasions where his presence will undoubtedly be felt, but he’ll need assistance from his teammates as he gets back into the groove of things.
Oh, and if you were wondering how the two-man lineup of Lowry and DeRozan stacks up against other top backcourts in the Association, here you are:
Off/Def Ratings of backcourts this season:
Curry/Thompson: 118.1, 97.4
CP3/Redick: 113, 110.3
Lowry/DD: 108.4, 105.4
Dame/CJ: 107.5, 105.
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) March 9, 2016
So to answer the question of do I believe in the Raptors? Yes. Dethroning the King will be a tough task and I want to see them win a playoff series before I proclaim they can accomplish such a feat, but this team is playoff famished and it’s time to appease that appetite. Their defensive issues must be addressed before the postseason hits, but they are a sound offensive team that has the capability to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
This is just a brief dissection of the Raptors, a team I have really come to enjoy watching this season. I underwent a similar occurrence with James Harden and the Houston Rockets last season, where I developed this deep fascination with the team and finding out what truly powered their success. It seems as if Toronto is that team for me this season, and if this becomes a seasonly affair it’s one I embrace.