Quiet Assassins – the Toronto Raptors are poised to make a move

Toronto Raptors
While pundits ignore the Raptors and offer weekly praise to various squads on the rise the quiet assassins north of the border are poised to make their move

Curtains pulled, lights off, wearing sunglasses I sit in a room lit only by my laptop. This is a common practice and unfortunately a necessity of life to address migraines in order to still function for work. Seasonal weather fluctuations result in changes to the barometric pressure. Something my head predicts a minimum of a day prior to the weather shift and can last for days on end.

Earlier this week as I sat in my migraine prepped room I sifted through the power rankings taking notes. Given my current state, it dawns on me how often NBA players must deal with these issues multiplied by a hundred. Nagging injuries with no rest time to heal, bodies fatigued by traveling through multiple time zones in a matter of days and yes, perhaps a migraine. Yet, for the most part the life of a professional basketball player is to suck it up and arrive at the designated arena for tip off.  While adversity is par for the course over an 82 game regular season, minor afflictions such as a cold, blistered feet or headache probably occur far more frequently than we imagine.  With this epiphany I adjust my sunglasses and dive back into the numbers.

Wear and tear of travel:

Having poured over the national pundits power ranking lists a common theme is trending. It took eight weeks of play for it to happen, but the Toronto Raptors are no longer under the radar. Prior to season start the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and OKC Thunder are pinpointed as the teams who’ll contend for home court in the west. Other than the Thunder those teams have delivered on the preseason hype and if OKC can develop any sort of offensive continuity may still be in the conversation.

Two teams in the East are earmarked as contenders – the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. Analysts, scribes and bloggers offer a veritable smorgasbord of other options who could contend to take the other two home court seeds. Although the Raptors are mentioned it is more often as a throw in, rather than as a serious contender.  As the season progresses each week seemingly offers a new hot take on the most likely to ascend. At various junctures the Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers all take turns in the spotlight.

That was until this week when scribes acquiesced and mutually agreed the upper echelon was six strong, three on each coast, and coincidentally precisely the same six teams which sat in those seats last season.  Prior to this point the Raptors have ranked as high as fourth via NBA’s John Schuhmann and SI’s The Crossover Kenny Ducey (both in week five, which ironically is the week the Raptors fell out of the top 10 defensively). The low mark of 18th (blasphemy) was delivered via  Chris Barnewell of CBS sports  in week three.

Celtics and Cavaliers deemed untouchable:

Not surprisingly the Celtics who followed up two losses to open the season with a 16-game win streak and the Cavaliers who rebounded from uncharacteristic losses to cellar dwellers with a 13-game win streak are commonly placed in the top four.  Yet, as week nine of action began  it was the Raptors who sat in second place.  Following the loss to the Clippers they’ve slipped back into third.

And, although the pundits are in agreement the Raptors are among the upper echelon, no one is suggesting they can improve upon their current placement. Granted, until the Raptors can win the first game of the opening round and easily dispense of their opponent to get to round two this narrative isn’t likely to change.  Although, it’s interesting no one seems to be utilizing the same microscope on the oldest team in the Association (Cavaliers) or the sixth youngest squad (Boston) with 11 new roster members who benefited from avoiding Cleveland until the Conference Finals.

Schedule and stats provide an intriguing argument:

Since I’m already on this health, adversity tangent I decide to dive into the stats and investigate just how feasible it would be for the silent assassin Raptors to  do the unthinkable and win the Eastern Conference.

Caveat: the following chart outlines games played through December 13th. Cleveland and Detroit’s records and home/road stats were updated following last night’s wins. However, the movement of the Knicks into the top eight is not reflected, nor is the Thunder who replace the Jazz as the eighth seed in the west as teams considered seeded. Rather, the top eight seeds looked at in the west were: the Rockets, Warriors, Spurs, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Blazers, Pelicans and Jazz. In the east the teams deemed as seeded were the Celtics, Cavaliers, Raptors, Bucks, Pacers, Wizards, Pistons and Sixers.

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Based on the chart the first thing you should notice is the turquoise line which runs from side to side for the Raptors. This is due to their high notes in all categories. Those specifically are the following:

Winning record both at home and on the road:

Only the Celtics, Cavaliers and Raptors have above .500 records at home and on the road. The Heat are the other east squad to have a winning road record, but are under .500 at home.  In the west the Rockets and Warriors are the only teams to hit this benchmark with the Blazers the only other western squad with a winning road record.

Toronto can lay claim to another interesting marker as they’ve played the fewest home games. They’ve lost on a single occasion which was to Washington who they played on one day’s rest after returning from their six game opposite coast trip.

Straw that may break the Celtics and Cavalier’s backs:

Inarguably the most intriguing stat lies in the number of games played on the opposite coast. Toronto have completed 12 of their 15 games already. By far the most of the seeded squads. They’ll travel for two more in short order when they play a back-to-back series beginning on boxing day in Dallas and finish in Oklahoma City. That will leave a single game on the west coast versus Andrew Wiggins’ Timberwolves on January 20th.

Putting this into perspective the Celtics and Cavaliers have played three (yeah you read that correctly) on the opposite coast. The Celtics benefited from playing the Thunder early, although it took a major comeback to erase a double-digit deficit to garner the win. The other two games were a win in Dallas and a loss in San Antonio. By the time the Raptors play Minnesota the Celtics will only have played one additional game out west (Memphis). In fact, by the end of February the Celtics will only have completed half of their opposite coast games. Between March 3 and 28 the Celtics will play the other seven.

As for the Cavaliers their story is even more intriguing as they’ve played the fewest road games (7) and like Boston just three out west with a single win versus the Mavericks (and losses in Houston/New Orleans). Cleveland will ring in 2018 having played six times on the west coast.  Between March 7 and 17 the Cavaliers will undertake a five game road trip to finish their west coast obligations.

This past week fans could clearly see the toll travel takes on players. Throughout the majority of the season Toronto’s bench has been head and shoulders above the rest of the NBA. Despite having the seventh youngest team, even the youngsters appeared gassed from all the travel.  Which leads me to wonder how Boston’s numerous rookies and the elder Cavs will respond to having to travel so late in the season when rest is at a premium.

Performance versus seeded squads:

Examining the games played versus the 16 teams noted in the caveat above, only the Raptors , Celtics and Wizards have a .500 or better record versus both conferences. Cleveland has demolished the eastern seeds, but is 0-2 versus the west. Another anomaly is Detroit and Philly have played an inordinately large amount of seeded teams. Even more interesting is the point Grant Hughes of Bleacher Report makes; the Sixers eat the middle tier squads alive, but fail to win against the elite and the very worst. It’s understandable however, as the young team still needs to learn to consistently dispense of teams they should beat, something which tends to come via experience.

Cut out the 0-3 start caused by growing pains and, perhaps, the pressure of expectations, and the list of teams to beat the Philadelphia 76ers is genuinely odd. The list: Houston, Golden State (twice), Cleveland and Boston, plus the Kings, Lakers and Suns. Apparently, only the best and worst have a prayer against Philly. If you’re in the middle, the Sixers are taking you down.

The core three stats:

Rounding out the statistical category is the final column which registers where each team ranks on offense, defense and net differential. The only team of the seeded eight which ranks in the top ten for all three categories is the Toronto Raptors.

Two teams (76ers and Pistons) fail to rank top ten in any of the big three categories. And, despite rumblings about the Cavaliers improving defense they rank 27th and are the only team who ranks below 20th in any category!

Follow Spurs example and sneak up from behind:

The Spurs have made a twenty year career of constantly surprising their competition. Year after year they get written off as being non contenders only to swoop in and take a home court seed. This week Kawhi Leonard returned to the lineup with the Spurs neatly nestled in the third seed and ample time to make a move if so desired.

As for the Raptors, it may be a good thing no one saw them coming. Instead they’ve watched as teams like the Magic, Pistons, Bucks and Sixers learn to deal with having to bring consistent effort to the court now that teams are better prepared for them and know their talents. Indiana will soon get the same treatment. If there is a squad who has also quietly gone about their business and looks primed to gain traction it is the Wizards. Washington have played half their west coast games (9 on the road), have been equally successful on both coasts versus seeded squads and weathered the absence of John Wall. Plus they are  one offensive ranking spot away from joining the Raptors as a top ten talent in all key categories.

The bottom line is this Raptors squad has navigated an early hellish schedule and weathered the storm. Their youth have performed above expectations and the All-Star backcourt aren’t just buying into the culture change they seem to be reveling in it.

Having said that, until the Raptors demonstrate the ability to transfer this player movement, pass friendly offense in the spring and or easily oust their first round opponent no pundits will be jumping on the Raptor Nation band wagon. And, that may not be a bad thing for the Raptors, particularly if it allows them to continue to be under estimated.

One thing we do know is having an easier schedule to close out the post All-Star break coupled with a backcourt replicating (and improving) their production is a positive. The fact it’s occurring via Kyle Lowry spending four plus fewer minutes on the court is a very good thing!

Can the Raptors win the Eastern Conference? Absolutely. And if they get to do it while simultaneously developing their youth and everyone ignores them as they brandish their assassin gear along the way — Well, as I sit shrouded in darkness (feeling a little like an assassin myself) that certainly  sounds like a team the fans North of the border can proudly buy into.

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