Taking The Next Step: How the Raptors compare to recent finalists and champions

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May 5, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) gestures as he dribbles the ball up court against Miami Heat in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 96-92. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-269082 ORIG FILE ID: 20160505_pjc_bh7_129.JPG

The Toronto Raptors have a come a long way – from the league’s laughing stock to a formidable conference finalist. And yet, not a single person in the organization would argue the work is done. There is yet another step for the Northern franchise to take, one towards which they are all working – participation in the NBA finals and the chance to compete for a championship.

But what is it that makes an NBA champion? With the intention of answering this question, I’ve gathered the regular season team rankings for 18 statistical categories from the last decade for all NBA finalists during that stretch. The categories are varied, and range from 3-point statistics, to rebounding percentages and free throw rates (thank you, basketball-reference.com).

The data is meant to point out which statistical categories are most important to a championship team. With the average rankings in hand, we can move on to compare them to Toronto’s results from the 2015/16 season, and see how close the team is to true contention.

Below is a summary of the mean rankings (out of the 30 NBA teams for each category) of the last 10 NBA champions, from highest average ranking to lowest. They have been divided into the following tiers:

  • 1-5 (out of 30) mean ranking – elite
  • 6-10 (out of 30) mean ranking – good
  • 11-15 (out of 30) mean ranking – above average
  • 16-30 (out of 30) mean ranking – below average

Champions Mean

First on the list are the categories that champions generally rank near the top of. Unsurprisingly, most Larry O’Brien trophy winners are among the league leaders in wins and net margin. In fact, none of the last 10 champions finished outside the top five in regular season wins. The old adage about defense winning championships is proven once more, as no champions were ranked outside of the top 10 in the defensive rating category. The importance of offensive rating, however, is not far behind, with only one of the decade’s winners appearing outside the top 10.

These findings are logical and shatter no conceptions. It’s at the bottom of the list however that things get a little more interesting.

Year after year coaches reinforce the concept that taking care of the ball is of paramount importance and a major key to winning. Yet the numbers tell a different story – 7 of the last 10 champions were outside the top 10 in avoiding turnovers, with four of those appearing in the bottom 15. Only two were among the top five lowest turnover percentages.

Pace is found to be a mixed bag of results as well. One half of the last 10 champions found themselves among the top 15 in the category, while the other half ended up in the bottom 15. With the average falling squarely in the middle of the pack, it appears that despite claims that playoff games ‘slow down,’ a team that identifies as a fast-pace outfit is as equally likely to win it all as a grind-it-out side, provided they do the ‘important’ things at a high level.

At the bottom of the ‘importance list’ appear two related statistics – free throw rate and total free throws made. Ranking high in these categories would mean relying on free throws as a major source of points. Surprisingly, (or maybe not so much) seven of the title winners rank below average in free throw rate, while no champion in the last decade has cracked the top 5 in free throws made. Based on these numbers alone, it appears that centering an offense on the generation of free throw attempts is not conducive to winning a championship.

To win it all though, one first has to survive until June. Below are the summarized statistics for the last 20 NBA finalists in the same format, including both the winner and the runner up:

Finalists Mean

The differences in the means are not significant, but they do exist. Three of the finalists made it to that stage despite not being among the top five in overall wins. One of the 20 teams even snuck in with a bottom 15 ranking in defensive rating, while another qualified with a bottom 15 offensive rating. Still, these are the exceptions, not the rule.

Offensive rebounding still appears unimportant (14 of the 20 teams ranked below average) to playing in June, while the turnover average drops further (only five of the 20 teams were among the top 10 in avoiding turnovers).

Three-point shooting was found to be quite important among NBA finalists, with the means of the percentages, makes and attempts all in the top 10. Only two of the 20 finalists were in the bottom 15 in long-range makes and attempts.

Free throws still appear to be quite low on the scale of importance when compared to some of the other categories, which leads us perfectly into the next section.

The Toronto Raptors Takeaways

So how do the Raptors stack up against the last 20 NBA finalists? One of the first things that jump out is the reliance on free throws as a major part of the offense. The Raptors ranked 2nd and 3rd in free throws made and free throw rate respectively in the 15/16 season. This stands in contrast to their 14th and 19th rankings in 3-pointers made and attempted respectively. The offensive strategy makes sense in a vacuum, as the Raptors are short on reliable long distance shooters and possess a quality slasher in DeRozan. The solution to shift the offense to the perimeter lies in the acquisition of more shooters. That makes Terrence Ross more valuable than Toronto fans might like, possibly meaning he will remain on the roster into next season.

Another statistic where the Raptors lag far behind the elite is assists, ranking 29th. This would come as no surprise for a team that bases its offense on free throws where no assists can be earned (aside from and-ones), and is low on long distance shooting. This ranking should improve significantly with the addition of another shooter or two, as they would act as outlets for the penetration of Toronto’s guards.

The Raptors’ defense trended in the right direction this past season, but it needs to improve further if the franchise is to fulfill its ultimate ambition. This is where Andy Greer’s recently announced departure really hurts the team. With defense in mind, the picture of the perfect free agent forms quickly – a quality 3 and D guy. Not surprisingly, these are the most coveted players in the league today. The team’s cap situation likely won’t allow Ujiri to sign a game-changer with those skills, but he doesn’t necessarily need to. The club will hope DeMarre Carroll can be that guy after a summer of rest and a full training camp with the rest of the roster – his skillset is exactly what the doctor ordered.

The team should still seek out quality shooters that are capable of defending at a decent level, as their presence alone will change how the offense is structured. Toronto ranked 7th in the league in the lowest turnover percentage, giving them some buffer room to make mistakes. If the Raptors can increase their long-range attempts (while maintaining a decent percentage), reduce their dependency on free throws, and increase their assist numbers all at the expense of a few more turnovers, the team will be better for it. Due to the lack of cap room, they key will be to find a hidden gem in the mold of Bismack Biyombo.

The Offseason

Below are some candidates that may be worth a look (stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com, salary figures courtesy of spotrac.com):

Free Agents

Some of those players are likely to receive larger deals in the new inflated cap environment, but not all. Eric Gordon is on the list because his proneness to injury may deter teams from giving him the kind of money he’s used to. He is not a quality defender, but his ball handling skills coupled with a deadly long-range shot could lead to him becoming a top 6th man if he ever manages to stay on the court.

Marvin Williams stands as a bit of a pipe dream, as he’ll likely command more than his previous contract, pricing him out of the Raptors range. Bazemore and Dudley are likely in the same category. Mirza Teletovic is a guy that would surely provide spacing for Toronto’s guards, having drained 2.3 three-pointers in just over 21 minutes per game last year. His defense however may dissuade some suitors, keeping his price down.

Troy Daniels (Charlotte Hornets) is an under the radar guy who showed a smooth shooting touch in limited minutes, which should earn him a raise this summer. He is a very interesting option that Ujiri should take a look at, though Charlotte are set to have plenty of cap space and would likely match.

All in all, the Toronto Raptors are not far – they may be a single meaningful piece away from true contention, and it’s up to Masai Ujiri and co. to complete the puzzle.

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