This weekend the NBA Playoffs tip-off, and for the first time in forever the Raptors will be participating. The club has put together what has arguably been their best regular ever, notching a franchise-best 48 wins (and counting) and securing the third seed in the East for only the second time in team history. As good as their regular season has been, however, the club does not look ready for what awaits them in the postseason.
The Raps have been in a noticeable funk for weeks now. Despite maintaining an impressive winning percentage since the All-Star break – 20-9, .690 – the team has struggled to maintain the defensive bona fides that defined them during their mid-season turnaround (their defensive rating has fallen to 9th on the season and has ranked 16th since March 1st). The focus and intensity that was once a game-to-game staple has become a wavering distinction that has driven Dwane Casey to burn timeouts like they were incriminating photographs. The club is allowing teams to shoot 46% from the floor since the break, and a scorching 48.8% in the first quarter of games. They either spot opposing teams big leads to start games or get big leads themselves and squander them shortly thereafter. Consistency has been lacking, and it’s because of their fall-off at the defensive end.
So, how has the club kept winning during this downturn? Their offence has caught fire. Since the All-Star break they’ve ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (108.8 points per 100 possessions), largely on the back of the team taking fewer shots per game but hitting those shots at a higher percentage. They’ve also been assisting more without adding turnovers and have been hitting threes at a higher-that-normal rate (DeMar DeRozan’s and Greivis Vasquez’s inflated April numbers have certainly helped with that last part).
In the Playoffs, though, you’d much rather be going in with killer defence than killer offence. Defence is habit and it’s repeatable. Offence comes and goes, and when opposing teams can really scout a club to take away their tendencies, those sky-high percentages can quickly fall back down to earth. Remember that Washington and Brooklyn are both top-15 teams in terms of defensive rating since the All-Star break, with Washington (Toronto’s likely opponent) sitting pretty at eight. The Raptors have veered away from what made them successful for the bulk of the season and that could work to undermine all of the good that it took to get them to this point heading into the weekend.
Most frustratingly, however, is the fact that all of this is totally understandable and perhaps should have even been expected in spite of the stellar December-through-February output that put the team just below the elite of the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors are not a typical third seed. They are a young, inexperienced team that earned their distinction as much by luck (in the form of a terrible Eastern Conference) as by merit. This is a team still trying to find its identity, still struggling to understand how to execute consistently over the course of an 82-game season and, considering how new expectations are for a team like this, those struggles are totally appropriate.
The problem is, in a way, us. We see a third seed that played so well for a good chunk of the season, that crawled into the top-ten in defensive and offensive efficiency, and we expect more. We expect the Raptors to perform more like a club that’s been here before, more like a club that understands the gruelling path that a winning team faces and how to manage it for an entire season. In an analytic-driven media landscape, the numbers suggest that the Raptors have perhaps leapt a step further than they actually have. This is an exceedingly young team. They are starting two second-year players and two veterans that have zero Playoff experience (heck, they have zero experience playing heavy minutes for a club over .500).
Even Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s spirit animal out on the court, has only played in thirteen postseason games and started exactly none of them. Considering all of this, why should the Raptors know how to prepare themselves for what is about to come? How are they supposed to be ready for a situation that is unlike anything they’ve experienced in their professional careers?
Look, no one should be happy about the fact that this team barely limped to victory against Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit, nor should anyone be impressed by their desultory loss to New York. The last week has been a fitting conclusion to a weeks-long span that saw the Raptors, as we thought we knew them, crumble under the weight of expectations, precious little rest despite logging a loooooooot of on-court minutes.
Nonetheless, the club did come out the other end with the best record in team history. They also look ready to at least make some noise against their still-unknown first round opponent, even if a first round victory doesn’t seem as inevitable as it did a few weeks ago. This season has always been about laying the foundation for the future, and in that way this stretch of mediocrity might be the best thing to happen to the club since they jettisoned Rudy Gay back in December.
You don’t have to look too far back to remember the club’s first full season under Bryan Colangelo, another regular season that was capped with an unexpected Atlantic Division banner. Colangleo, believing that his team was far further ahead in their development than they were, doubled-down on his current roster in the summer and watched the whole thing implode within eighteen months.
Masai Ujiri, on the other hand, has had a weeks-long look at exactly how far this team really is from where they want to be. This recent slide represents ammunition for Toronto’s high-priced GM when he hits the open market this summer. This team still needs a lot of work to be able to consistently be the kind of club that they need to be. They need players who can reliably execute Casey’s defensive game plans. They need more players who can create offence for themselves and others. They need a squad that can hold onto leads and exert their will on opposing teams better than this current assemblage has been able to manage.
To get there Ujiri cannot be precious about the assets that he has in his arsenal. Whether we’re talking about draft picks, cap space or popular current players, everything has to be on the table to help this team take the next step next season. Remember, 48-plus wins is now the benchmark. Simply nipping and tucking around the edges isn’t enough for this Raptors club to improve upon that mark. They are good, but they aren’t great, and as Jack Armstrong repeated – ad nauseam – during Toronto’s loss to New York, good is the enemy of great. Ujiri and the Raptors cannot be satisfied with good. They cannot look at what has happened this season and think that they’ve achieved anything. They capitalized in a season when the East was particularly bad and while that demonstrated a certain level of capability, that demonstration should serve as nothing more than a springboard. It’s a starting point, a way of saying that there are the seeds of something potentially great, but there is a lot of work left to be done before the team gets to where it wants to me.
So, as frustrating as it can be to watch the defence fail to get back in transition or to watch DeMar DeRozan disappear for long stretches or to watch the team struggle against the NBA’s bottom-feeders, think of it as a crucial step for the team’s development. Even if the team looks less ready today to tackle the postseason than they looked back in January, it’s all a part of a bigger process. Think of it as a defence against anyone within the organization thinking that they are any further ahead as a team than they actually are. It’s a little pain now that, hopefully, prevents the team from self-inflicting more pain later. It’s a desperately needed reminder that a third-seed earning, Atlantic Division-winning season doesn’t mean anything on it’s own – it just represents the first steps on a long journey to take this team where Ujiri and Tim Leiweke want it to go.
And that’s a good thing, because if the Raptors want to get out of their cycle of mediocrity, they have to stop overvaluing the meaning of any single season and keep a keen eye on the many seasons it’s going to take to achieve their goals.
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