It’s been an exciting 29 days and hitting the .500 mark with an easier schedule in sight has even some die-hard tank-talkers chiming in with the “Lets Go Raptors” chant.
Factor in that Dwayne Wade laced them up for only his second full back-to-back this season and we can assume that the South Beach Boys are up on their current affairs. If the reigning champions aren’t taking you for granted any more, neither is anyone else.
En route to this new found respectability the team has undergone more dissection by experts and armchair point guards than Derrick Rose’s knees as to their sudden ascension:
Did the Raptors sudden improvement in ball movement and assists occur just because we traded one isolation-heavy forward?
Is the jump due to the insurgence of three new recruits alongside Hansbrough and all that was needed was to add depth to a woeful bench?
Were the two sophomores ready for primetime long before or did they merely need to be able to play relaxed, knowing they could play through mistakes without losing minutes or touches?
After shouldering the toughness quotient, veteran leadership, reliability and extra effort plays by himself for far too long, did Amir just need reinforcements?
Was Kyle Lowry an All Star-calibre guard in waiting who simply didn’t have the right system or personnel around him that would allow him to spread the ball?
Was Dwane Casey only biding his time until he had a tight nine-man rotation to showcase his heralded defensive prowess to vault his team’s overall defensive rating, actually send out plays that produce results and finally call “aware” timeouts?
Did DeMar DeRozan just need to witness a franchise-type player fail at leading, and tweak his own role accordingly?
Or was it simply “the straw that broke the camel’s back” syndrome when one defining breakthrough win made everything else click?
Ultimately, all of these views can share a portion of the truth, but in my opinion there is one intangible that is making everything sustainable and consistent: team chemistry.
Top ranked teams all have something in common, in that they each have an identity and system in place. In some cases that identity is based on versatility but other than San Antonio, the other factor at play is they all utilize a system based on a trend.
The fact is, today more than ever the NBA is fad-based; when James took his colluded talents alongside Bosh to South Beach everyone started trying to assemble a “Big Three”. Their subsequent back-to-back championships led to teams looking to play fast and small with the trend moving to interchangable players at different positions and the waning of big, slow-footed centers.
New trends emerged last season with the success of Indiana and San Antonio taking the Heat to seven games. Indiana utilizes The Big Analytic, Roy Hibbert, Paul George and their smashmouth defense while San Antonio relies on fundamentals, ball movement and a plethora of capable ball-handlers who can hit corner threes. Almost in concert with the end of the playoffs, big men once again became trendy. The Spurs’ run coupled with the Warriors Cinderella season, the three point weapon became a trendy strategy to build teams around, rather than just another tool.
The Spurs, the most consistent team of the past decade have been influencing trends for years. You can pin-point at least a presence of their input in almost every top seed. Their original Big 3 of Duncan, Parker and Robinson, who was later replaced by Ginobili may in fact have been what inspired Pat Riley and Miami’s triumvirate.
The Thunder borrow from them in that they’ve built through the draft; Memphis, Indiana, Chicago and Houston all use one or two big men, while the Warriors and Portland both feature three-point shooting.
Mike D’Antoni ‘s old “run and gun” style was in full display in Clipperland but even they recognized more toughness and half court capabilities was required to go deep in the post-season. In fact, the absence of that style working past April has teams looking to upgrade it with pieces from other trends. Phoenix have incorporated Masai Ujiri’s Denver plan of youthful depth at every position along with the addition of simultaneous ball-handlers for even scoring distribution. What makes them deadly is that without the presence of a true franchise player, opposing defenses are forced into man-on-man coverage to defend several capable players, which often exposes defensive liabilities for the Suns to capitalize on.
Toronto’s claim to credibility comes via their versatility; they can play in the half court or transition, they play ever-improving strong defense, they have a developing big man in Jonas Valanciunas, stress ball movement and floor spacing, and can feature multiple ball-handlers on the floor at one time. They can bring in toughness when required and have multiple three-point shooters. Opposing teams may be planning for DeMar DeRozan but with the ball moving around the floor, inside and out the Raptors are making teams pay if they don’t prepare for all scoring options.
Toronto doesn’t so much feature a trend, rather, they are similar to the Suns in that they utilize their versatility to defend the specific trends. Ball movement, defense and of late, multiple ball-handlers have been our core product on court. However, the one intangible Toronto features few other teams can boast of is chemistry and fit. No trend, trade or paper plotting can accomplish how a team functions, fits and ultimately gets along. This intangible has the ability to make or break a team faster than an All Star injury. One look at New York and its visible how much Jason Kidd did to help that team and while this same guy made the difference on court, in New York, he’s having the opposite effect on the borough’s sidelines.
Jarrett Jack was a godsend for Golden State but either he doesn’t have the same fit in Cleveland or Bynum’s cancerous attitude completely offset it. While Detroit appeared on the precipice of belonging, off season paper improvements of self motivated individuals Jennings and Smith appear to have set them back instead of propelling them ahead.
There’s no true accounting for how chemistry can work; oft maligned Monta Ellis is thriving in Dallas playing arguably his best ball in years. On paper, Atlanta appear thin without enough frontcourt presence but the pieces fit so perfectly they’ve been one of the surprises of the season. Even coaching can benefit from chemistry as Jeff Hornacek is proving with his young Suns squad.
This brings me to Toronto, our team is not only gelling they are improving the longer they play together; a direct benefit of chemistry. I’m not saying Rudy wasn’t a great guy or didn’t have the desire for the Raptors to win, he just wasn’t the right fit or leader for this team. Valanciunas and Johnson are more involved in the plays now, Ross is maturing into a MoPetesque sniper who can defend, DeRzoan seems to have learned how to do everything right from what Rudy did wrong and craziest of all is his best friend, Lowry maybe the greatest benefactor of his departure.
Perhaps the addition of multiple players who already could function as a unit has accelerated the fit, but there just seems to be something else involved. Not even during Chris Bosh’s reign did I feel this type of camaraderie on court, in fact not since Vince Carter, Mo Pete, Charles Oakley, Alvin Williams and Tracy McGrady have I had this feeling of team chemistry.
Since the trade, the Raptors handed the West’s best Thunder their first home loss, with both All Stars playing. They’ve beaten the league-best Pacers, taken games versus the top two defensive teams, had comeback wins, won ugly and most importantly are beating the teams they should.
Perhaps the problem for Ujiri now becomes making any moves that could disrupt this nucleus because tinkering with team chemistry can result in an explosion or implosion. Surely, Masai’s presence in Miami indicates he is still observing, but given the team’s performance of late and upcoming winnable games one would assume he will be looking to improve the depth further. One additional defensive specialist or big man could be the difference in how many rounds of playoff experience these Raptors can achieve .
I’m not suggesting we don’t have holes to plug or areas to improve. I’m saying this team has the makings of something special. In a year of mediocrity, perhaps Toronto could be this year’s Cinderella team and reap the benefits of its young core gaining invaluable experience via an extended playoff run and subsequently aid in the team’s future growth.
The one area I am currently concerned about is the center of what was suppose to be the key to the trade, the highly touted pass-first guard – Vasquez who has been anything but. I re-watched Friday’s Washington game on Legue Pass to hear what their commentators had to say about the drubbing and an interesting comment was made regarding Vasquez. Evidently, he told reporters pre-game that although he was happy to be in Toronto, he wasn’t pleased with having to come off the bench.
Since the trade, all the players point differential has been surging the longer they play together except Vasquez and Hansbrough. The latter has been the most affected by the trade in terms of his minutes, fitting in with new players and returning from injury so I’ll give him a pass but while Salmons and Patterson’s (the steal of the trade) numbers are also improving along with the starters Vasquez is consistently declining. To avoid any long-term affect, Dwane Casey needs to address this quickly or there will be a point guard trade, and it’s not the one everyone’s talking about.
In terms of the numbers over the five-game period prior to Miami in which the Raptors faced the two best defenses, the starting fives’ point-differential ranged from a low of +7.8 for Ross (a significant improvement for him) to a high of +11.6 for DeRozan.
Other milestones the Raptors are reaching since the trade:
Points off turnovers, 21.2 per game – 2ND in NBA
Opposition Turnovers (forced) 17.0 per game -, 4TH in NBA
Opposition Fastbreak Points (transition defense) 11.2 – 5TH in NBA
Since the trade their 22.4 Assists per game would place them 12th coming out of dead last
Point Differential: (since trade) 6.1 Tied 5th
4th Quarter Point Differential: 4TH BUT (since trade) 3.57 is NUMBER 1
Heady numbers considering that the Raptors have room for growth and following what’s sure to be a grudge payback match in Indiana, Toronto will face a slew of winnable games . Of the thirteen January games after Tuesday only five teams are .500 or over, while eight feature cellar dwellers.
This is the perfect time for the Raptors to increase the division lead, continue to gel and iron out kinks while playing lesser foes. For the fans, its a great time to attend a game and enjoy the spoils of what it feels like to win again.
To wit, my buddies made the trip to Miami to attend Sunday’s game and noted how empty their arena was. This isn’t something saved for the Raptors, in fact there are many Canadian and Lithuanian fans who attend those games. However, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how long it’s been since we had a genuine product to cheer for and how much a winning franchise would merit full house support at the ACC. So, I encourage you to attend some games this January to witness a winning team aiming their sights on the post season.
Perhaps, you’ll find that special je ne sais quoi of the old days and actually feel a part of this special chemistry developing on the court. I know there are about 20-plus GM’s juxtaposing around the association currently trying to figure out how Masai Ujiri did it and what chemistry class they need to attend to get the same results.
Tipping off to another exciting week at the Republic, follow me on Twitter.