The fact that Andrea Bargnani remains a likely top 10 player in franchise history says a lot about what the Raptors have achieved in the NBA. Bargnani remains top 10 in categories like games played, points, and 3 point field goal attempts. To put matters into even more blunt perspective, Bargnani is somehow 6th for both total rebounds and blocks.
Bargnani was certainly a problem, but he was also a symptom. Yes, he was terrible and it’s perfectly fair to try and forget his existence, but the Raptors have also just generally sucked. It took 21 seasons before the Raptors had their first 50 win season in 2015-16, a feat which the repeated last year.
It feels like I start the majority of my articles with this type of introduction, as the current expectations and enjoyment of the Raptors is read by the fiery wreckage of their past. To recognize what the Raptors have built it’s important to first recognize the original foundation.
Masai took over a 34 win team in 2013 and the Raptors have successfully won 48, 49, 56, and 51 wins respectively, and are currently on pace to 52. The last four years have been the most successful in the team’s history, and expectations are now higher than ever.
While adding another 50 win season certainly won’t hurt, the Raptors have now reached the point that success will entirely be weighed by what happens in the playoffs. This was largely the case last year when they were coming off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, but each year the need for continued playoff success grows
What helps is that the Raptors under Masai have seemingly become deeper each and every season with him at the helm. Each year Toronto loses a series of veterans that have helped in contributing to their success, and each year depth remains a strength.
Pascal Siakam is fast becoming the exact player that we all wanted Patrick Patterson to one day become. Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are successfully replacing Cory Joseph’s point guard duties. And OG Anunoby has filled the place in our hearts left by the departure of PJ Tucker.
Toronto is easily three deep at every position and has the type of line-up flexibility that has eluded them almost entirely over the last 22 years.
But while depth is a massive help in the regular season, its biggest benefit is the impact it has come playoff time. Playoff rotations generally shrink to a maximum of 9 players, but the Raptors can thankfully use at least 10-12 players each night during the regular season.
More players means less minutes overall, and playoff success will largely be decided by the play of the team’s top players in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka. Kyle Lowry in particular should benefit from a little less playing time, as he seemingly enters the playoffs each year with some type of injury that has impacted his play.
Take a look at Lowry’s regular season stats from the last three years:
Now compare that to his playoff production:
It was clear while watching it and the stats make it painfully obvious, Lowry has failed to match his regular season performance come playoff time. While targeting 50 wins and a top playoff seed is important, keeping Lowry healthy entering the playoffs should be a much higher goal.
Lowry averaged at least 37 minutes in each of the last two seasons, the second highest average in the league each year. The more minutes played, the more wear and tear that happens. Compare that to this season where Lowry is playing just 32.3 minutes per game, good for 51st in the entire league.
DeMar’s minute reduction has not been as pronounced as Lowry’s, but by playing 1.2 minutes less than last year he moved from 14th in the league in 2016-17 to 26th in the league this year.
Seeing these minute reductions is another reminder of Casey’s growth as a head coach. He uses his rotations better, has installed a new offence, trusts young players with significant minutes, and now is prioritizing the rest/health of his best players.
Regular season success and high seeding is still a goal, but the minutes played for Kyle Lowry is another reminder that the Raptors are now viewing the regular season as a warm-up of sorts for the bigger goal at hand: winning in the spring.