There’s something to be said for recalibration. For an overhaul a little more involved than simply blowing something to smithereens. Sports are competitive and this era of basketball feels like it’s operating at speeds somewhere around “blink and you’ll miss it”. Staying in it, as a franchise, no longer works if you’ve managed to rope just one All-Star player, you need a roster, and even then if that rotation isn’t performing, producing, and occasionally adding another big name to the list, winning games won’t be enough. It’s why, at times, watching a Golden State game can feel like you’ve turned into an episode of Hoarders, a roster of stars stacked double wide in Bob Myer’s basement. There isn’t a name yet for that kind of equipped, namely because only one team has been able to sustain it so far.
So when there’s a lag, even a small one, it is hard not to immediately take a team and measure it up against another to illuminate all the ways it is completely failing, though in the grand scheme it would seem hardly the case. But since the current iteration of the NBA has shifted the grand scheme all the way down the scale toward obscene, small moves mean nothing. Go big or don’t even bother going home.
It’s why the first inclination from fans and GMs alike is to press that big red button—blowing it all up. It’s enticing, that option. It means a clean slate and not having to labour under a failed legacy. It means cutting ties with players who so much was required of, who didn’t pan out, didn’t deliver, didn’t want to deliver, obliterating bad chemistry and not bothering with the minutia of why it was. It means butts in the seats and ushering in a new era, instantly. As far as siren songs go, it’s a loud one, and who doesn’t want to be the hero who turned it all around? But holy hell is it lazy.
The Raptors are rare because they exist at a pinch point of non-optimal conditions, all coming together to make something livable, sustainable and successful. Toronto, as a city, might now be getting its due as a great draw for its kaleidoscopic culture, music, and livability (for some), but as far as a magnet for big name basketball players? Not quite, not yet. So the players the team gets, while they speak to a need, also need to be versatile, something of a Swiss Army knife in the lineup and capable of taking on alternate roles. They also need to be malleable—which is why they’re flush with rookies—willing to work and fit into a system with a lot of focus on development because the guys the Raptors get have also got to work like rations. There isn’t any assurance of a big off-season or mid-season trade so what the team gets, they might have to hang onto for a while. And it doesn’t always work, this necessity-based system. But when it does, when that pinch point squeezes together to take it on a run—magic.
Which is all to say that’s why it feels so good to watch what’s going on with the team this early in the season, to little fanfare and not much attention. The Raptors are winning games with a whole new system, quietly applying adjustments and taking the time to see what works, what doesn’t, and trusting that in some cases—like with Lowry’s touches—the tuning just needs a little more time. What makes it more assuring to me is that there have also been losses, each one highlighting not a glaring, what-the-hell-do-we-do sized hole, like the blowouts that happened to a Raptors team that looked downright lost during last season’s playoffs, but losses that work like revving an engine to see what’s rattling around where it shouldn’t. I think, by now, most Raptors fans understand that this team isn’t going to be one that blows by all the others, night after night, and makes winning seem sort of boring. The trade-off to that is gritting your teeth through games all year long, which probably your dentist doesn’t like but makes the entire thing all that more exciting.
And dentists rejoice, because the new teamwork style of Raptors ball is making the wins a little easier and a lot less jaw clenching. The Raptors are third in the Eastern Conference, tied up with a Pistons team you can hardly get mad at for surging ahead using a system that reads a lot like the Raptor’s own of using what you’ve got. And if the optics don’t yet show it, the numbers so far into the season do.
Up from 30th in assist percentage last season to 12th and hopping from 29th to 7th in assist ratios converted into turnovers, the reset, in layman’s terms, looks a lot like just paying better attention. The Raptors are shooting around 35%, which isn’t amazing, but they’re also up to 5th from 22nd in their 3-point rate so it’s safe to say that while that number doesn’t reflect making those shots, the team is comfortable with replacing midrange jumpers with attempted threes, and upping their overall ball movement. While maybe not the wildest stat, it’s a promising one for a team not overly stacked with shooters.
Otherwise the team is up to 15th in pace from 22nd, 2nd in eFG% from 12th, and the big one, the Raptors are thus far ranked 3rd offensively, league wide, from a not-too-shabby to begin with 6th.
It’s important to remember that a culture reset like the one the Raptors are going through and will likely be grinding out and gelling with all season, wouldn’t be possible for many teams. In the Raptors case, all the pieces were already there, due in large part to Ujiri. Retaining DeRozan and Lowry, respectively, while continuing to put a lot of focus on the 905 and development of rookies and young, breakout guys like Powell, Siakam and VanVleet, was a choice to solidify the core, to build for bad weather and hunker down. Add to that a coach who’s gotten second, third, and ostensibly last chances, and you add an urgency that while may have always been simmering just below the surface, has now been shoved out under pressure. All in all we’ve got ourselves a ride that might not be the flashiest to look at and certainly isn’t going 0 to 100 in the first quarter, but what’s under the hood has had NASA level tinkering and right now, is humming.