Culture reset. Culture change. Culture tweak. Don’t matter, iso DeMar for the win.
*insert DeRozan/Casey photoshop with cigarette and du-rag.jpeg*
I kid… mostly.
It was reasonable to doubt the potential for change with the return of the same coach, same starting backcourt, and a starting frontcourt with arguably two present day centers, but the results thus far speak for themselves.
The ball is moving, players are battling, and for the first time in a long time, the Toronto Raptors look like one of the cool kids. There is an improved pace and flow to their games, more (if not better) three-point shooting, and higher assist ratios. It’s been a far cry from the team Dwane Casey has orchestrated for the past few seasons, but I remember having this egalitarian feel for the team before.
The 2013-14 Raptors trusted and played for each other because, frankly, they didn’t quite know what they had. That team finished 42-22 without Rudy Gay, and were revitalized by the arrivals of Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, and John Salmons. They hadn’t yet become spoiled by the comforts of KLOE, and DeMar DeRozan was a long way away from where he stands today.
While raw pace and volume numbers are unfair comparisons considering how much the game has sped up over the past few seasons, I thought it would be interesting to see where the Raptors ranked, and how, in some ways, have come full circle.
Considering the pace at which the ’13-14 Raptors played with, the 23.9 three-point attempts are actually quite high. The assist percentage of 60.4 enabled via 306.3 passes per game looks as though it was a celebration of the end of the Rudy Gay era.
At the same time, those two numbers make you realize just how far behind the eight-ball the team was last year. That they scored at such an efficient rate despite 274.7 passes per game is a testament to DeRozan and Lowry, but also a reflection of just how much they were banking on fool’s gold.
So often, the cliches of playoff basketball can influence the thinking of an individual or force an unproven consensus. When Mike D’Antoni had his iteration of the Phoenix Suns running the ball up the court in seven seconds or less, every playoff loss headed the same warnings: they weren’t mentally tough enough to grind it out, they couldn’t execute in the halfcourt, and they couldn’t withstand the physical blows of playoff basketball. Eventually, they gave in and signed Shaquille O’Neal, and that signalled the beginning of the end.
When D’Antoni looks at the way the game is played today, he regrets that he didn’t double down and push the pace even more.
The heartbreaking loss to the Brooklyn Nets wore heavy on Lowry and DeRozan. The sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards even more so. Skinny Kyle emerged and so did a stronger DeRozan. But while they took strides forward, the likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, and Patrick Patterson stagnated. It’s one thing to criticize the offense for being so dependent on its two best players, but it’s hard to look back and think anyone else made improvements to their game anywhere near the extent that they did.
It’s plausible that’s why Terrence Ross was moved in favor of both a veteran coming over with playoff experience in Serge Ibaka, and opening up playing time for a member of the roster who showed greater consistency in grasping his opportunities in Norman Powell. Patrick Patterson’s departure from Toronto was as anonymous as his current play in Oklahoma City.
Here we are now, with restocked reserves that want to make an impact. Pascal Siakam is willing to defend anyone and outrun everyone in transition. Jakob Poeltl does nothing but execute his role, while Lucas Nogueira tries to do everything. Sometimes it hits, other times, not so much. C.J. Miles is an absolute sniper hunting down his shot in a manner that will be much needed in high leverage situations. Fred VanVleet is looking to be Mr. Steady Eddie.
Norman Powell and Delon Wright are unfortunately on the shelf, but they’ve done enough already to show they’d proudly endorse brand Prove ‘Em.
Finally, there’s the latest addition, OG Anunoby. Already praised by Kevin Durant, Anunoby has no fear whatsoever and is already looking comfortable in starter’s shoes. Casey’s got a tough decision ahead of him when Powell is ready to return to the rotation, but these are the problems you want as a coach.
Just as some new faces reinvigorated the team four years ago, they’re just scratching the surface of a refreshed approach this season. The exception this time being, Lowry and DeRozan are both better than they were back then.