The Raptors enter tonight’s game versus the Chicago Bulls as top dog in the East, tied for best overall record, unbeaten at home and the longest active win streak in the NBA. Many attribute Toronto’s early season success to their consistency of personnel and ease of schedule. While constancy does lend itself to a short hand on court, perhaps the greater x-factor is the much improved second unit who has coined themselves The White Squad.
Chicago arrives with an extra day of rest and the law of averages would seem to favor the Bulls since the Raptors have won 5-straight. Regardless of the victor, the game will offer an initial idea of how Toronto stacks up against a team favored by many to represent the East in June. As much as I join those excited to see how our starting-5 measures up against the Bulls, it’s actually the benches I’m most eager to compare.
A busy summer of free agent movement included the much touted arrival of center Pau Gasol to Chicago and given their leap in offensive ranking his addition is delivering on its intention. Raptor General Manger: Masai Ujiri, added two key players that didn’t receive nearly the same hype, but are paying dividends similar to the major trade of 2013.
Lou Williams appears to be returning to the form he displayed three years ago when he won the Sixth Man Award and has gelled quickly in his scoring role with the team. Williams never fully recognized his potential in Atlanta owing to an ACL injury. Now, 18 months later Williams more closely resembles the player he was in Philadelphia. Veteran leadership is a commodity every team values, but few teams have 10-year vets who haven’t reached their prime on the payroll. Williams joins Amir Johnson as the second such vet 28-years old and under.
James Johnson is proving to be the key defensive cog the Raptors longed for last May with his ability to guard virtually any opponent or position. The older and wiser Johnson is showcasing a new maturity and acceptance of the role Coach Duane Casey envisioned for him in his first stint in Toronto. On more than one occasion this season Johnson has been the best player on the court and his energy off the bench has sparked the team in a manner only Kyle Lowry consistently demonstrates.
Less than a tenth of the way into the season the Raptors have already established some early trends:
- Scored 100 points in all 8-games ranking first in the NBA with an average of 107.00 PPG.
- Get to the line 33.4 times per game (2nd in NBA)
- Taking care of the ball averaging 11.4 turn over’s per game (3rd in NBA)
- Conversely the Raptors force their opponent into the third most turnovers with 18.6 per game.
While these stats are exciting there are arguably two other factors which highlight why Toronto has gotten off to such a hot start:
- In review of the top ten ranked offenses and defenses only 2-teams appear in the top ten of both: Toronto and Houston. The Rockets rank first in defense and eighth in offense for a net ranking of first overall. The Raptors rank seventh in defense and third in offense for a net ranking of second overall.
- In seven of their eight games the Raptors’ bench has outscored their opponent. The lone game this didn’t occur was versus Washington when Coach Randy Wittman elected to rest his starters and play his bench extended minutes.
We often don’t know the full ceiling of a team until a quarter or half way into the season because new additions need time to adjust to systems and teammates. Since the Raptors new players form almost half the bench it stresses how impressive the above fact is. Certainly there are still kinks to be worked out as Greivis Vasquez is still adjusting to his new line mates and has yet to return to last season’s form.
And, while Coach Casey’s use of the hockey type line-up change came under great scrutiny the fact it’s producing these results while simultaneously offering rest for his starters is encouraging.
Personally I’m reminded of the 2003 Detroit Pistons bench nicknamed the Alternators who famously utilized the hockey line-up change and dominated opposing benches. Of note, that Piston team resembles the current Raptor squad in that they were extremely deep, but featured no typical franchise star. They surprised many by winning the East and were considered heavy underdogs in the finals facing the Lakers. As we know the Pistons became champions and Chauncey Billups became the first non All Star to win MVP. Coincidentally Billups has served as a mentor to Kyle Lowry who has firmly taken the captaincy of the Raptors in hand.
While a deep bench offers security in the case of injury the other aspect it ensures is it creates a more competitive environment. In Wednesday’s media scrum Casey pointed to Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan’s improvements as being aided by the presence of James Johnson in practice. In fact the nickname The White Squad came about because of the white shirts the bench dons in these sessions.
While I await tonight’s heavy weight battle I know a win or a loss won’t signal the inevitable end of season outcome, however it will for the moment offer an initial gauge for the Raptors to build upon.
For those of you wondering how the team is feeling regarding this blistering start perhaps it was best described by another of the key bench contributors: Patrick Patterson. Following Tuesday’s win, Rod Black asked “How does 7-1 sound?” Patterson’s response: “Should be 8-0, but 7-1 sounds good. “
Enjoy the game and check back here for the Quick React immediately following the game.