Do the Raptors have a case for any end-of-season awards?

25 mins read

The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of their best regular season in franchise history. At 54-20, they’ve obliterated their previous high for wins with two games to go, and the team hasn’t felt on this solid a footing since perhaps the peak of Vince Carter’s run.

A somewhat moribund franchise history has included very little in the way of individual awards. As the team’s best season ever wraps up, is that set to change? Here’s a look at the candidacy of the Raptors for the NBA’s end-of-season awards.

Most Valuable Player

Raptors history: None
Raptors candidates: Kyle Lowry
My ballot: Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

Kyle Lowry has a legitimate case to make for consideration on ballots as the best player on the league’s fifth-best team. His exclusion here isn’t meant to be derogatory by any means, and I think Lowry has a genuine shot at topping Chris Bosh’s 2006-07 season as the highest a Raptor has ever finished in MVP voting (Bosh finished seventh). The unfortunate reality is that Curry has the award locked up, and the second tier after him is loaded – Leonard has emerged as a No. 1 option while potentially doubling as the league’s best defensive player, the Cavs are a mess without James, still occasionally the best player in the world, the Thunder have a ridiculous two-headed monster, Chris Paul is Chris Paul, and even Draymond Green lurks as a serious candidate.

Lowry has turned in a phenomenal season, one that ranks only behind Carter’s two best years with the Raptors in terms of individual performance with the club, and advanced metrics are in agreement he’s been a top-10 player this year – he’s sixth in Real Plus-Minus based wins, eighth in Win Shares, and ninth in Nylon Calculus’ DRE. I have him sixth on a ballot that only goes five deep, and it was gut-wrenching to put him that low.

All-NBA teams

Raptors history: Vince Carter, 2001 (2nd team); Chris Bosh, 2007 (2nd team); Carter, 2000 (3rd team)
Raptors candidates: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan
My ballot: Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Draymond Green (1st team); Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins (2nd team); Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Paul Millsap, Paul George, Al Horford (3rd team)

The Raptors have never had a player land on an All-NBA First Team, and Lowry’s got a shot. But like with the MVP voting, it’s a long one – Curry has a spot locked down, and Lowry’s left to compete with Westbrook, Paul, Lillard, Thompson, and James Harden for honors across the three teams. I’d be surprised if Lowry, an All-Star and the beating heart of a fringe contender, doesn’t make any of the teams, and I think he’s got a real shot at making the second team.

DeRozan’s had a strong statistical season, perhaps his best, and earned the second All-Star nod of his career. Unfortunately, these teams are loaded with candidates, and DeRozan doesn’t have the two-way resume of some of the names ahead of him. (He also doesn’t have the advanced-stats case, if that’s your style, as Win Shares likes him as a top-20 player but DRE and RAPM strongly disagree.) He’ll probably get a couple of third-team votes for the robust scoring with improved efficiency and playmaking.

Defensive Player of the Year

Raptors history: None.
Raptors candidates: None.
My ballot: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Paul Millsap

The Raptors rank 11th in the league in defense, brought in three defense-first signings to help make the team more of a two-way threat, and at least two of those players have performed up to expectations (the other has hardly played). Bismack Biyombo and Cory Joseph have come as advertised, or better, and Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross have joined them to make up one of the best defensive second units in the NBA. Unfortunately, on a ballot that runs three deep, bench players aren’t often going to sniff a vote. (And for all his prowess as a charge-drawer and ball-hawk, Lowry’s defense grades out closer to good than elite, plus Joseph spells him with an easier assignment for 15 minutes a night.)

Were you to make a case for someone, it might be Biyombo, despite his bench role – he ranks 12th in the league in Defensive RPM, 32nd in Defensive Win Shares, and actually ranks fourth on the Raptors in DRE (behind Lowry, DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas). Nylon Calculus grades him 11th in the NBA in points saved per-36 minutes by way of rim protection, and Biyombo’s six-percent block rate (third in the league) has had a tangible on-court impact – the Raptors are 4.5 points per-100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor. He’s also an elite rebounder, ranking fifth in defensive rebounding percentage, and Nylon Calculus’ rebounding suite suggests Biyombo’s not just benefitting from easy boards, either.

The impact that Biyombo has defensively is palpable. There’s just no way a backup center is getting close to the award when guys like Leonard and Green are around.

All-Defensive teams

Raptors history: None.
Raptors candidates: Bismack Biyombo
My ballot: Chris Paul, Avery Bradley, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert (1st team); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Paul Millsap, Tim Duncan (2nd team)

Even with Biyombo’s obvious impact, it’s going to be tough for him to get on ballots. Since voters can also shift Green to center, Biyombo’s competing with Green, Gobert, Horford, Duncan, and Hassan Whiteside, and while Whiteside doesn’t lift the Heat defense as much as you might think, he blocked almost 10 percent of opponent 2-pointers while on the floor. He’s going to get some nods for that, and Biyombo would still be behind Horford and Duncan, not because he’s not awesome, but because his role was so limited (he played against fewer than three opposing starters on average, for example).

But look: This is a bargain-deal bench player who’s played so well some people will actually be mad I didn’t include him. That’s awesome.

Sixth Man of the Year

Raptors history: Lou Williams (2015)
Raptors candidates: Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph, Bruno Caboclo
My ballot: Andre Iguodala, Tristan Thompson, Patrick Patterson

This was easily the hardest award to pick. Jamal Crawford and his 40-percent shooting and the Clippers’ terrible bench can take a walk. As can Enes Kanter, the post-scoring argument for Valanciunas to play against bench units more often, as he’s too big a liability defensively. Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday might score a lot off the bench for the Pelicans, but this award, to me at least, is about more than just “most points off the bench.” And Will Barton, much as I love him and his strong statistical case, misses out here by way of doing some really impressive things for a bad team, when there are guys around him on the ballot who made a more meaningful impact. This award is loosely defined, and my definition is “most important bench player.”

That’s why you’ll notice a pretty common thread on my ballot: There aren’t a lot of big numbers here. Iguodala does everything for the Warriors, though. I don’t think I need to make a full case for the reigning Finals MVP to take this award home, though your argument that he missed a big chunk of the season is legitimate. Thompson has been so effective for the Cavs that he barely qualifies for the award because they’ve needed to start him, and he’ll start at center in the playoffs. Sticking with this trend, Ed Davis would take the imaginary fourth spot on my ballot for much the same reasons as Thompson and the guy who took third.

I gave Patterson the nod from the Raptors’ elite four-man bench group. The case for Biyombo is made pretty well above (and he has the best advanced-stats argument), and I know there are a lot of fans who think Joseph’s the most deserving. I don’t.

Patterson has been the Raptors’ third- or fourth-most important player this season, and his progression on the defensive end has opened up a ton for this team. He’s always been a smart system defender, making the right rotations and timing them well, but he’s emerged this season as a true defensive weapon. When he’s on the floor, the Raptors can switch the pick-and-roll far more easily, with Patterson capable of switching on to guards for full possessions. In the same breath, he can bang with traditionally sized fours in the post, perform spot-duty on power threes like Carmelo Anthony, and scramble around the perimeter to close out on shooters. His statistical production, both basic and advanced, is somewhat modest, but the threat of his 3-point shot helps add that defensive punch without sacrificing anything at the other end, allowing the team’s drive-oriented attack to breathe more easily. He’s gotten better at putting the ball on the floor to attack closeouts, introducing a floater that looked terrible to start but has since become a fairly reliable weapon for him.

Come playoff time, expect Patterson to be a big factor. Some of the Raptors’ most intriguing two-way lineup options include Patterson, and he and Carroll could be a terrific forward combo if given the chance. Of the Raptors’ 15 best lineups that have played at least 25 minutes together, Patterson’s been a part of 11 of them, and the team is 10.5 points per-100 possessions better with him on the court.

Most Improved Player

Raptors history: None.
Raptors candidates: Bismack Biyombo
My ballot: C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kemba Walker/Bismack Biyombo

Again, the case for Biyombo is laid out plenty here. The crux of the argument for him is that he’s been able to take on a larger role than the last few years with Charlotte, not missing a beat with his elite rim protection, and actually improving some skills on the offensive end to where he’s not a complete liability. He’s still not polished, but he’s far better at catching the ball on the dive or on a dump-off and finishing around the rim, or at least drawing fouls. Already an elite screen-setter, being able to make plays around the rim is a huge part of his development, as opponents will often double hard off of him to contain a ball-handler, daring Biyombo to make them pay.

The knock against him is that his per-minute numbers haven’t really changed, nor have most of his advanced measures – his growth is somewhat intangible and qualitative, and the net effect is allowing him to do what he was already good at over a larger amount of time. He’s definitely improved, it’s just a little tough to argue he’s improved the most.

I’d accept a case for just about anyone on this award, though. It can be defined in so many different ways, and improvement can be measured in so many different ways, that it’s really tough to disagree with someone’s interpretation. Steph Curry and Draymond Green are stars who have somehow gotten better, Kemba Walker bumped his play to near All-Star levels thanks to Nic Batum the addition of a 3-point shot, Hassan Whiteside and Ian Mahinmi have similar cases to Biyombo, the soon-to-be-paid group of Evan Fournier, Allen Crabbe, Lance Thomas, and Kent Bazemore (winner of league’s most entertaining player) all got better at exactly the right time, and so on.

Maybe Biyombo’s a homer pick at No. 3, but at least I’m not alone, and after additional consideration, Walker should probably be in that spot.

Rookie of the Year

Raptors history: Damon Stoudamire (1996), Vince Carter (1999)
Raptors candidates: None.
My ballot: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic

Apologies to Norman Powell, but as awesome as 20 great games and blowing away expectations is, a quarter of a season doesn’t get you on the ballot.

All-Rookie teams

Raptors history: Eight 1st-team appearances, two 2nd-team appearances
Raptors candidates: Norman Powell
My ballot: Devin Booker, Justise Winslow, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic (1st team); D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein (2nd team)
; Frank Kaminsky, Axel Toupane, Boban Marjanovic, Norman Powell, Mario Hezonja (there’s no such thing as a 3rd team, and this wouldn’t be it, but imagining these five together makes my heart swell)

This actually turned out to be a pretty solid rookie class with some meaningful potential. Picking All-Rookie teams is hard because the playing time for many is limited – Boban Marjanovic is unquestionably the greatest rookie of all time but hasn’t hit the 500-minute mark yet – and there isn’t a great deal of statistical separation between fringe candidates. The three ROY candidates listed above are no-brainers, and I think Booker and Winslow are, too, but there are probably 10 guys you could argue for the final five spots, and do so convincingly.

Unfortunately, Powell isn’t one of them. He’s at 650 minutes, and that’s kind of the end of the discussion. Had he spent the whole season like he’s spent the 15 games since March 15 – 27.7 minutes, 11.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and a plus-2.3 mark – then he’d be on, for sure. Maybe he’ll earn Rookie of the Month honors for April as appreciation for his season, instead – he’s at 12.3 points on 48.9/44.4/78.6 shooting in six games this month.

Coach of the Year

Raptors history: Sam Mitchell (2007)
Raptors candidates: Dwane Casey
My ballot: Terry Stotts, Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr

This one pains me. I’m fine with the award taking a bit of a multi-year view, and in that sense, Kerr missing a chunk of this historic season at the start is forgivable. Popovich continues to tweak the Spurs as stars age, work in new pieces, create new stars, all without ever losing a beat. I’d guess Kerr and Popovich finish 1-2 in some order by the time things are done, but Stotts gets my vote. The Blazers had no business being this good with how much upheaval their roster underwent, how much high-end talent they lost, and how uncompetitive their team looked on paper at the start of the year (I had them well out of the playoffs). The Blazers blew away my expectations.

I have Casey fourth. He has his detractors in the fan base because of occasionally benign late-game play-calling, and I think we’ve discussed the criticisms of his ISO-heavy offense (which isn’t at all that ISO-heavy) enough on this site. I’ve always been a little warmer on Casey than most, which seems to draw a lot of ire, but the reality is this: Coaching is about far more than the final play-call in a tight game. The marginal value of those situations is far higher, and they’re easier to identify, but coaching is a 365-day-a-year endeavor (and statistically, Casey isn’t even that bad in those spots). Casey’s done a phenomenal job instilling a tough, hard-working culture, fostering buy-in from everyone, no matter the role, balancing winning now with rest (lately) and player development, and building this team into a two-way outfit that’s more matchup proof, stylistically, than the last two years.

That he’s done all that while setting a franchise record for wins for the third season in a row, with Valanciunas missing over 20 games and DeMarre Carroll playing just 25, is nothing short of remarkable. The Raptors are fifth in offense, 11th in defense, fifth in record, second in the East, will enter the playoffs healthy and pretty well rested, saw improvement almost to a man up and down the roster, and developed a diamond in the rough on the fly in Powell. DeRozan driving into traffic late in a shot clock is occasionally annoying, but there are probably 27 other fan bases who complain about that exact same thing, and few of them are as successful and playoff-ready as Casey’s Raptors.

Executive of the Year

Raptors history: Bryan Colangelo (2007)
Raptors candidates: Masai Ujiri
My ballot: R.C. Buford, Masai Ujiri, Neil Olshey

Buford could get this award every year, and while Olshey lost his best player, he had a pretty clear and successful strategy for an expedited rebuild around Lillard. Buford stole that star and did so while managing to re-sign Danny Green and keep most of the core together, while also unearthing Boban Marjanovic and Jonathan Simmons. Spurs gonna Spurs.

Ujiri has a great case, too, one that extends beyond just the roster.

The Carroll contract can’t really be evaluated here in Year One, but Biyombo has proven one of the biggest bargains of the offseason, Joseph’s deal looks way better now than it did at first, Luis Scola was a cost-effective addition, the team found a huge steal in the second round in Powell (also getting a first-round pick and cap flexibility in the process, sending out only Greivis Vasquez), he convinced Jason Thompson to come to Toronto, he signed Ross and Valanciunas to extensions that will be, at worst, market value (and both players improved markedly), he retained Casey and added two great assistants (Rex Kalamian and Andy Greer) to the staff, and Delon Wright doesn’t look like too bad a pick at No. 20 now that we’ve actually gotten to see a bit from him.

That entire run-on sentence of a resume all came while he helped get a D-League expansion team up and running effectively – a huge benefit to the development of Wright, Powell, and potentially Caboclo – added the BioSteel Centre to the franchise’s asset base, and hosted All-Star Weekend.

He doesn’t get 100 percent of the credit for all of that, with Tim Leiweke, Teresa Resch, and many more factoring in, but he gets the bulk of it, and Executive of the Year is more of an organizational award, anyway. He’ll definitely get a few votes, but whether he can get enough of a split vote between the Spurs, Blazers, and a host of others remains to be seen. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t land in the top-five, and he’s got a pretty good case. I could see Carroll losing most of the season being his biggest impediment, fair or otherwise, and unfortunately for Ujiri the award gets voted on before Carroll can make a postseason impact.

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