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The Raptors Since Christmas

For the breadth of a heartbeat on Christmas day, as you no doubt have heard, the Raptors were in first place in the Eastern Conference. Since then the team is 6-5, and with their next three games against playoff teams including playing two of the best in the West in a tough back-to-back this coming weekend with the Spurs visiting and a trip to Minnesota to face the streaking Timberwolves a day later, it seems a worthwhile time to take stock of their recent play, and where they’ve been at their best and worst.

The upsides of these last couples weeks are easy to find. Two quality wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, the utter domination of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the tenacity shown in second half comebacks to narrowly lose games to both the Golden State Warriors and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Warriors game in particular had a lot of positives in it. Golden State came out with a nearly perfect first half, shooting the lights out and avoiding the silly turnovers that plague them at times, and the Raptors did their best to hang with them, but fell behind by 27 at halftime just on impressive execution from the defending champions. Still, the Raptors stormed back in the second half to make the Warriors work for the win, and got great minutes from a lot of players throughout.

The 76ers game, and the losses to the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, and Oklahoma City Thunder are harder to read as positives. The Thunder have been great of late, but the Raptors didn’t offer much resistance and their All-Stars each had a terrible offensive performance in the loss.

It’s hard though to identify one trend throughout as the reason for the struggles. Some games, like the first half against the Warriors, the starters hold their own and the bench falls flat, and others, such as the aforementioned game in Oklahoma City, the starters have struggled while the bench has been mostly solid. If there is any trend at all, it’s that the team hasn’t found much in terms of consistency.

Five days ago, Jacob Goldstein of Nylon Calculus published a fantastic piece on Nylon Calculus about a new plus-minus metric that he’s developed and named Player Impact Plus-Minus, or PIPM for short. His piece, here, explains the metric and how he’s built it, but the basics is that it allows you to measure a player’s impact on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court by measuring the box score data, the team’s performance when the player is on or off the court, as well as attempting to adjust for luck.

Using this metric and the tools provided, we can look at the impact of the Raptors since Christmas, and attempt to find some of the answers to the team’s struggles. The good news overall is that despite the 6-5 record, the team has still played at the level of a 50-win team, which is definitely down from where they are on the season as a whole, but still indicates they’ve been one of the better teams in the league, even while struggling.

That top right quadrant is where you want to be, the players who have been positives on both ends of the court, and Delon Wright clearly stands out. He had been one of the team’s best bench players prior to the injury to Kyle Lowry, with a standout performance against the Chicago Bulls scoring 25 points and adding 13 rebounds, 5 assists and four steals as the bench delivered a big win when the starters struggled against a surging Chicago team. When Lowry took a hard fall in overtime against the Brooklyn Nets last monday, Wright stepped into the starting lineup and was a huge part of the win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, as he completely shut down Isaiah Thomas, while running an extremely effective offense against a Cleveland defense that committed to taking away DeMar DeRozan. In the Philadelphia game, with him relegated back to the bench after Lowry’s return, Delon delivered another solid offensive performance on a night when nearly every Raptor struggled to score, delivering 20 points on just 11 shots including 5-6 from three-point range.

It’s hard to know exactly what his role will be going forward, with the team favoring Fred Van Vleet beside Lowry in crunch time most of the season, and although Delon has shown a lot of prowess running the pick and roll, when he’s on the floor with one of their other point guards he tends to be relegated to playing off-ball, a role which he has been less suited to.

Aside from Delon, both Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are the only other Raptors in that corner, as positives on both ends, as they have both had narrowly positive offensive impacts to go with being some of the team’s better defenders, while Serge Ibaka sits as a slight offensive negative with nearly the same offensive impact. Bebe sits at the top in terms of defensive impact, but is harder to evaluate here because he’s played limited minutes over this stretch of games, and a large portion of the time he has been on the floor has been during garbage time. Ibaka-at-center lineups have struggled against great teams relative to when the Raptors have one of their centers on the floor, and it might be worth attempting to, barring foul trouble, have either Jakob Poeltl or Jonas Valanciunas on the floor as much as possible.

For the rest of the roster, it’s mostly what you’d expect having watched the games. Kyle Lowry has struggled defensively this season, and hasn’t been the same defender that fans have come to expect from years past. Even before the injury, his offense had slipped somewhat, with him being less aggressive at that end of the floor, and he simply hasn’t had that many dominant performances this season. The team needs him to return to form, and after struggling yesterday afternoon, it would be fair to question whether he was ready to return from injury. Given the team’s history with him being hurt into the playoffs, and the strong play of his backups this year, it might be advisable to give him more rest to try to finally get a healthy playoff run out of their All-Star point guard.

Jonas Valanciunas and Fred Van Vleet remain steady contributors to the team, both having their matchups where they struggle defensively and each having clear strengths. Jonas has dominated the matchups where he’s had advantages this season, with the new offense allowing him to have a larger role and him showing greater confidence in his own game. Van Vleet is the hardest working player on the team, and his contagious energy has been huge in enabling some of the comebacks that have been the hallmark of the recent games.

OG Anunoby’s PIPM numbers don’t look great, but I’m willing to give him a slight pass here as he’s had some of the toughest assignments a rookie wing could over those games, with two games guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, and one each against LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Ben Simmons, where he took the primary role guarding each of those players and had some admirable defensive performances.

It would be impossible to talk about the Raptors and impact without talking about Norman Powell, who has struggled as a whole on the year, and especially of late. With him having the worst offensive impact on the team by a large margin, it’s hard to find positives here. The team clearly expected Powell to be a contributor this year, with the extension they gave him during the fall, and the development they’ve been looking for just hasn’t been there. He has struggled both off the dribble creating his own offense as well as shooting on the catch, where the team needs to find consistent shooting. It’s not clear whether a stint with the 905 would fix things for Norm, but it’s not getting easier to justify his minutes prior to garbage time.

DeMar DeRozan sits at the other end of the spectrum, remaining, as he’s been this season, one of the best in the entire league offensively. He’s mastered the art of reading the defense, and shown the ability to both engineer he’s own shot at will with breathtaking scoring ability, as well as, when the defense focuses on taking his shots away, finding his teammates in the best position for them to succeed. The new DeMar has been a massive part of the team’s success of late, and even while the team has fallen off somewhat of late, that hasn’t changed much. However, his defense has noticeably slipped of late, and with his counterpart recovering from a tough injury, it would likely help the team for him to be putting in the effort at that end of the floor, as he was earlier in the season. He’s been starting to work his way into the MVP discussion, and if his defensive intensity can be brought up to match his incredible offensive prowess, that would only stand to strengthen his case for postseason accolades.

On the net, while some of the individual performances haven’t been up to par for what the expectations are for a team at the top of the conference, the Raptors have still been a very good team of late. Most of the issues are still within reason. The Raptors remain one of the league’s best, and are still tracking to be a better playoff team than they’ve been in years past if they can keep encouraging growth in their young players while getting Kyle Lowry back to health and form. The job of the Raptors for the rest of the regular season is to try to prepare for that coming playoff run.

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