The eye-test of the past five years under Bryan Colangelo, one in which the Raptors have missed the playoffs every time, suggests that this team only wins games when it doesn’t matter. Specifically, when playing out the tail end of the season with nothing on the line is when this team finds the winning mentality. Of course, by then the playoffs are a distant dream but it provides just enough fodder for our MLSE-employed announcers to suggest that a training camp is all you need, usually because we pull off a mid-season trade that completes the real makeup of our team.
Blake and his stats are the best in the business and usually he’d be writing something like this but since it is Friday night, he has a life, and I have nothing to do, I thought I’d take a shot at Microsoft Excel and Basketball Reference. What I basically did here is take the first 80% of the season, and the latter 20% of the season and compare the Raptors record in it. Strength of schedule is not factored, I’m assuming it evens out in the long-run. The percentage split is needed because of the lockout-shortened season when they only played 66 games. This is what the numbers look like:
As you can see, in three of the five years, the Raptors have played significantly better basketball in the last 20% of the season, which is coincidentally when there is zero chance of making the playoffs, other teams tend to care less, and there is no pressure to win. The greatest such run was the 2009 season which is when Shawn Marion came over. This past season comes close with a 14% differential.
The difference between the past year and these seasons is that the Raptors have a good chance of bringing the exact same core back for training camp in Gay, DeRozan, Johnson, and Lowry. Perhaps in previous years, the core wasn’t as clear-cut and wasn’t as developed as the current crop. So there’s that hope.
Scaling this a little and considering a 75/25 split of the season, the trend of playing better basketball in the later stages of the season still holds:
There is something a little more interesting that pops up, and that’s the 2009-10 season which is when the Raptors had a bit of a collapse and lost out when the pressure was on. You might recall Marco Belinelli, Colangelo’s SG of the future at the time, having an 0-4-from-three game against the Bulls at home.
For me, this season ended with the home loss to Washington (Reaction, Recap), and anything after that I safely ignored. We weren’t as bad as some of the losses after that, and not as good as some of the wins. I had not expected the Raptors to grab the final playoff spot but expected to compete for it, and we didn’t even come close. I think the last few wins we notched would’ve had far more meaning if they came with Milwaukee, Philadelphia and the Raptors in a neck-to-neck race, instead of Milwaukee comfortably in control and Philadelphia, much like the Raptors, winning games that hardly count.
I’m cautiously optimistic that this team can nab the 8th seed next year and would go so far as to put some money on it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that that’s where I think they’ll be for a few years to come, which I suppose, given Bryan Colangelo’s record, would be an improvement. The way I see it, Miami, New York, Indiana, Brooklyn and Chicago are locks to make the playoffs for the next few years. That leaves three spots for Atlanta, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Washington. I’m pretending Orlando and Charlotte don’t exist, and rightfully so.
Of this second tier of playoff contenders, I think Boston will go in a full-scale rebuild with Avery Bradley and Rondo as the core, so let’s kick them out. Let’s also presume that the Josh Smith and Jeff Teague leave, and Al Horford can’t carry the load on his own. That’s done with the Hawks. I’ll go ahead and say that the Wizards are still a couple years and few moves away from being a playoff team, of course this assumes John Wall doesn’t completely explode. In the ring still remain Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Toronto. I say Milwaukee stays ahead of the Raptors on account of a decent back-court, an improving front line, and overall experience. So now we got a battle for two playoff spots between Philly, Detroit, Cleveland, and Toronto.
I’m contemplating Joe Dumars either wasting his cap space on over-rated free agents, or simply not being able to find anyone to play in Detroit, thus leaving the Pistons marginally better or the same. Now it’s down to two spots and three teams: Philly, Cleveland, and Toronto. I like the core of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and Anderson Varejao. They’re going to add someone in the draft this year and Irving will continue to significantly improve. I think they’re better than the Raptors so give them one playoff spot. It’s now a showdown between Philly and Toronto, and I think the Raptors are the better team. Jrue Holiday is a nice piece, but overall, the Raptors have better talent and should’ve finished ahead of Philly this year. They didn’t and will next year. There’s your playoff team.