Are Toronto Raptors the most consistent Eastern Conference team?

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Let’s face it; basketball is a game of numbers. Whether dissecting box scores, advanced stats or gauging trends, ultimately numbers provide the riposte to back up theories.

Of the 4 major professional sports leagues (5 if you count soccer) arguably the NBA relies on analytics the most. At the macro level franchises use analytics to build rosters and develop team strategy. At the micro level they are employed for in-game adjustments. And, on a meso level they can isolate areas of weakness both internally and of the opponent. If you question how much a factor analytics has become to the NBA consider the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was held this past weekend in Boston with over 3,900 former players, coaches, general managers and team management in attendance. Suffice to say analytics is here to stay.

That said, analytics can’t measure a player’s heart, work ethic, determination, character, pain threshold or guts. Moreover, stats can’t measure whether individuals will mesh on and off the court with that elusive immeasurable intangible known as ‘chemistry’. One need only look to the Sacramento Kings for confirmation of that fact.

As the Toronto Raptors prepare for their final 18 regular season games I dove into the teams record to demonstrate the teams’ growth this season. But, make no mistake, my belief as to why this version of the Toronto Raptors is on the precipice of recording the greatest season in franchise history has more to do with the chemistry and character of the individuals on the roster.

The Final 18:
With 18 games remaining in the 2015-16 NBA season the Toronto Raptors sit in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 44-20 record. Playing at a 68.8% win percentage it seems a certainty Toronto will finally lay claim to a 50 win season – the first in franchise history.

On tap this evening are the injury riddled Chicago Bulls or as many might refer to them the Raptors’ nemesis. Though a loss to the Bulls won’t derail or override the teams’ success this season, the Raptors need to win this game as much for the psychological edge it will provide as they move toward the post season.

Of the remaining 17 games:

  • 5 back to back series
  • 10 road games 7 home games
  • 11 games versus currently seeded teams, 4 versus top four seeds
  • Final 3 games versus Atlantic division foes ranked 23rd, 30th and 27th offering ample opportunity to rest core players and also get DeMarre Carroll significant time to shake off rust.
  • Notably this week offers the most difficult portion of the final 18 games as the Raptors play two sets of back to back series and 5 games in 7 days.

The Record Break Down:

Consistency has been the trademark of the Raptors this season which their 44-20 record offers credence to:

  • The longest losing streak the Raptors endured was 3-games which occurred twice early in the schedule:  November 6, 8 and 10th to Orlando, Miami and the Melo out of bounds Knicks loss (which by the way stands as the only loss to an Atlantic team) and November 15, 17, 18 to Sacramento, Golden State and Utah.
  • On 4 other occasions the Raptors lost 2 games in a row, the last occurred pre and post All-Star break.
  • Longest winning streak was 11 games occurring January 6th to January 30th
  • Set franchise record home court win streak of 12 consecutive wins
  • The Raptors are 9-3 since the All-Star Break
  • Toronto holds the best record vs Eastern Conference opponents: 29-10 which is third best vs own conference in NBA
  • Toronto hold the best Eastern Conference Division record of 10-1 (Boston is second with 8-5), Raptors are second only to the Warriors for Division record
  • 5 Eastern Conferences teams have a .500 or better road record. Toronto is second to Cleveland with a 18-13 road record or 58% win percentage. Boston, Miami and Atlanta are the other 3 teams with winning road records.
  • Raptors hold the second best Eastern Conference home record winning 78.7% of the time and fourth in the NBA. Cleveland is first with a 81.8% record. Interestingly Charlotte has the third best home win percent (73%) ranking even higher than Boston (67.6%) who just had a streak of 14 consecutive home wins ended (also by the Rockets)

Every current seeded Eastern Conference team is .500 or better through their last 10 games with Toronto and Charlotte holding the best records in this time frame of 8-2. Of the other 6 teams only Indiana has a 5-5 record, the rest register at 6-4 (Miami) or 7-3 (Cleveland, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit) through their last 10 games

Conversely in the Western Conference six of the seeded teams register records over .500, but 2 of those are 5-5 (Portland/Houston), two are 6-4 (LA Clippers/Memphis) and continuing their annihilation of the NBA the Warriors and Spurs are 9-1.

Beating the best:
Another area that highlights just how consistent the Raptors have been is their record versus the top squads. Reviewing all 8 Eastern Conference seeds versus each other as well as the West’s top 8 seeds provides further ammunition to the consistency argument:

Toronto record stats

 

While Cleveland hold the top spot in the Conference, it is Toronto who have been the best in the East versus the best the Association has to offer.

Post All-Star Break:
Coach Duane Casey will tell you every night that no game of the 82 is more important than another. On the surface that fact is true, but on a deeper level there are games that matter more. Case in point the wins Toronto achieved this season versus the top 4 teams in each Conference help to build confidence, and demonstrate (you guessed it)… consistency of performance.

Post All-Star break teams look to build momentum and consistency of habits as they prep for the post season. Though games in November mean as much as the ones in April when teams begin showing signs of regression in April it’s much more disconcerting.

Last season the warning signs of the Raptors defensive regression could have foretold of the disaster awaiting, so this season the Raptors performance post All-Star has been analyzed with a microscope by all concerned.

From my perspective the worries regarding the Raptors post break defense wasn’t as disconcerting as initially thought. If you remove the first game following the break and the Lowry-less Detroit loss the numbers aren’t just adequate, they are among the best. In those 10 games the Raptors defensive average is 100.3 which would rank them top 4.

In comparison, a look at the Golden State Warriors defense since the All-Star break might be more concerning than the Raptors. In their 13 games post ASB the Warriors have allowed their opponents to score over 100 points in 11 of the 13 games. In this period they rank 19th on defense. The reason the Warriors defense should raise more red flags is unlike Toronto  you can’t simply remove 2 games and throw it away as off nights. That doesn’t mean the Warriors aren’t still the favorites to win the Larry O’Brien trophy, but it does put things into perspective.

The other key factor of note since the ASB is Toronto’s offense ranks first in the Association.

Injury Bug:
For the most part other than DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas , the Raptors have avoided major injury. Let’s hope this trend continues as teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls can attest March is not the time to be worried about injured players.

With Carroll slated to return shortly, I’ll reiterate my belief that his presence will do for DeMar DeRozan what Cory Joseph has done for Kyle Lowry – – offer a player who can guard the more offensively skilled player at the wing and open the floor even more for DeRozan. Though the 10 to 13 games Carroll is projected to play in may not offer enough time to re-develop the chemistry required to measure massive results, it certainly can’t hurt. Plus, it sure feels like his addition can only serve to provide benefits at a time in the season where every little intangible can be the difference in winning a series.

Year to Year Improvements:
Though this could be an entire article unto itself I wanted to provide some broad strokes just to illustrate the growth in the team.

2014-15 Rank:
Offense: 3rd
Defense: 23rd
Rebound Percent: 20th

2015-16 Rank:
Offense: 5th
Defense: 11th
Rebound Percent: 7th

Considering rebounding and defense were the 2 specific areas the Raptors highlighted to improve these numbers are encouraging. Even more so when you factor in how many games Carroll has missed.

Final Questions and Thoughts:
As the Raptors take to the court tonight many of the Raptor faithful are giddy with anticipation for the post season. There is something different about this season’s team that stats and analytics can’t extrapolate.

It started when skinny Kyle Lowry and bulked up DeMar DeRozan arrived in training camp. It was augmented with the realization fourth year players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas have demonstrated growth and more consistency in their games. It was bolstered by the sadness of losing fan favorite Amir Johnson while replacing what it would have cost to retain him with not one but 3 players: Cory Joseph, Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo; all of whom have played key roles in the progression of this year’s squad.  And it’s been slowing building through the course of the season as the team has continually improved and without argument been the most consistent Eastern Conference team.

In fact, were it not for the Warriors and Spurs incredulous seasons, the Toronto Raptors may well have been the most impressive story in the NBA. Maybe that’s a good thing for the Raptors, since the team, the city and the country seem to do better better viewed as the underdogs. There is something to be said for how much sweeter this year has felt as the team consistently overcame obstacles and adversity.

And so it is with 18 games remaining the Raptors need just 6 more victories to register their first 50 win season. Based on their consistency it’s a decent gamble to assume the Raptors will finish 12-6 for a total of 56 wins. Though no one will be upset if Casey chooses to risk losing a few games in order to have the team well rested for April.

Entering the final month of regular season play, there are but a few questions left to be answered:

Will 56 wins be enough to usurp Cleveland for the number one seed?

Do the Raptors even want to push for the top spot or should the focus be on building defense and integrating Carroll back into the line-up?

How much rest can Casey get Lowry and DeRozan over this month?

Who will the Raptors face in the first round?

Will this version of the Raptors register the best post season win total in franchise history?

And most importantly, analytics aside, is this the most excited you have ever been about a Toronto Raptors team?

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