The Toronto Raptors are not a top team in the Eastern Conference.
Yeah, I said it.
Don’t get me wrong, the Raptors are definitely a playoff team barring unforeseen injuries, unexpected chemistry issues, and/or trades. But are they one of the four best teams in the conference? Probably not.
Let me explain.
Through 26 games, the Raptors are currently third in the Eastern Conference with a record of 16-10. Here’s a quick look at the teams around them when this article was written (Dec. 15):
|Team||Record (Win Percentage)||Last 10 Games||Net Rating (Season)||Net Rating (Last 10)|
|Cleveland Cavaliers (1)||16-7 (.696)||6-4||+5.4||+3.4|
|Chicago Bulls (2)||14-8 (.636)||6-4||+1.3||+1.3|
|Toronto Raptors (3)||16-10 (.615)||6-4||+3.7||+3.6|
|Indiana Pacers (4)||14-9 (.609)||6-4||+3.7||+1.8|
|Charlotte Hornets (4)||14-9 (.609)||7-3||+5.8||+7.7|
|Miami Heat (4)||14-9 (.609)||5-5||+4.5||-0.3|
Now, you might be confused as to how the Raptors aren’t one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference when they clearly are in the above chart. Yes, at face value, the Raptors are undoubtedly a top team. However, if you dig a bit deeper, you run into some disturbing trends.
First, let’s take a look at how strong the Raptors’ schedule is. Via ESPN, the Raptors have had the 11th most difficult schedule in the NBA so far this season. They’ve played the Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers twice, respectively, as well as one game each against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs (and that doesn’t even take into account some other teams with records above .500).
The issue is not with the Raptors, but the rest of the Eastern Conference. It’s no secret that the East is much improved this season:
East and West now tied at 66-66 against one another. The Southeast is 26-17. Sixers and Brooklyn are 4-16.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) December 11, 2015
But that’s not all. ESPN’s algorithm suggests each of the five teams in our initial chart have had tougher schedules than the Raptors. The Hornets in particular have had a tremendously difficult schedule — behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors — and they’ve somehow come out with a record of 14-9. When you factor in that they currently have the best net rating in the conference, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Hornets easily run through the Raptors when the two teams play later today.
Each of the five teams in our chart have a better defense than the Raptors do this season, and two (the Cavaliers and Hornets) have a better offense with another, the Pacers, having an offense just 0.5 points per 100 possessions worse than the Raptors. In other words, the Raptors’ record is more a product of circumstance than dominating play.
“Sure,” you might say. “But the Raptors are 9-4 against the Eastern Conference this season.”
That’s true, but take a gander at the teams they’ve played: the Bucks (2-0), 76ers (2-0), Hawks (1-0), Wizards (1-0), Cavaliers (1-0), Celtics (1-0), Pacers (1-1), Knicks (0-1), Heat (0-1), and Magic (0-1). If you take the 76ers and Bucks out, both teams destined to miss the playoffs, the Raptors’ record against the Eastern Conference drops to 5-4. Good, but not great.
In the Raptors’ defense, they’ve only played 10 games with both Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll. In those games, they’ve gone 7-4, but four of those wins have come against the Bucks, 76ers, Lakers, and Pelicans. So again, that figure drops to 3-4. Not great, Bob.
None of this is to say that the Raptors lack the talent to make a deep run in the playoffs or that their current core is destined for failure. Far from it. In fact, the Raptors’ core is quite good on paper and relatively young, meaning it should continue to improve over the next several seasons should Masai Ujiri decide to keep it together. The problem is that the Raptors’ ideal starters right now — Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola, and Jonas Valanciunas — have a net rating of -4.3 in 173 minutes together this season. Again, that’s not necessarily indicative of poor talent, but rather a reminder than this team hasn’t had its core pieces together long enough for everything to truly mesh.
And with Valanciunas out for at least three more weeks, during which the Raptors will play somewhere in the range of 8 to 11 games, the team’s not going to have much time to figure out rotations and develop meaningful chemistry on the floor. Luckily, it sounds like Carroll will be back on the floor soon. He’s travelling with the team on its three-game road trip, though it hasn’t been made clear if he’ll play in any of those games.
Still, if Dwane Casey is unable to figure out what lineups work best and how to manage his rotation before we hit the All-Star Break, the Raptors might slip into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture. Individually, each Raptors player has shown spurts of great play, but rarely have we seen every Raptor play well in the same game. Someone’s always the odd man out, and it hasn’t translated to many meaningful wins with one-third of the season already behind us.
The Cavaliers will be getting Kyrie Irving back soon, Al Jefferson will be back for the Hornets’ game against the Grizzlies on Boxing Day, the Pistons will see Brandon Jennings lace up his Under Armour shoes within the next week or two, and a handful of other key players will be returning to their Eastern squads as well. The Raptors’ situation isn’t unique to them; many Eastern teams are struggling with injuries, and if the Raptors don’t figure out how to play together quicker than some of their rivals, they might be wondering why they don’t have homecourt advantage in April.
The East is very good this season — perhaps even better than the West, though it’s too early to say so definitively — and on the surface, things look fine for the Raptors. It just seems like a waiting game. But once you take a look around the Eastern Conference, warning signs start to pop up.
Let’s hope the Raptors figure this thing out soon. Here’s to good health and good wins.