As we approach the halfway mark of the regular season, now is as good a time as any to re-examine Toronto’s league ranking trends in a myriad of statistical categories. In last summer’s piece, I gathered the league rankings of the NBA champions, finalists, and conference finalists from the last 10 years. I had hoped that the data assembled would point to specific statistical categories that were consistently elite for franchises that were still playing basketball in late May and June. Some of the conclusions were straight forward and unsurprising (defensive rating, shooting efficiency and net margin ranking highly), others less so (limiting turnovers, rebounding percentages and free throw rate ranked low).
All of these statistics are to be taken with a grain of salt, as they are highly skewed by a certain LeBron James who appeared in seven of the last ten finals. Nonetheless, I found these rankings to be interesting, and added Toronto’s results thus far this season (before Tuesday night’s game against Boston) in the hopes of identifying some emerging trends.
Free Throw Percentage – Improvement
After a sharp drop last season, the Raptors have returned to the league’s elite in converting their free throw opportunities, ranking 3rd in the NBA this season. This is especially important for a team that stands 2nd in the league in free throw rate, since much of its offense relies on getting to the stripe. Unfortunately, it does not appear that ranking high in this category moves the needle substantially when it comes to making a deep playoff run.
Pace and Opponent Turnover Percentage – Improvement
Despite a poorer defensive rating this season, the Raptors are forcing their opponents into turning the ball over at a higher rate than all but one team. Their defensive scheme seems to be more aggressive, which as has been discussed of late, may not be appropriate for bigs in the mold of Jonas Valanciunas. However, when it works, it lets the Raptors get quick transition buckets, which has increased their pace and got them out of the bottom third in the latter category.
Defensive Rating, Defensive Rebounding – Regression
Once again, one statistic leads into another. Toronto’s rebounding woes on their own side of the court have been analyzed to death. The table proves a club doesn’t have to be among the league’s elite in defensive rebounding in order to go far in the playoffs, but an NBA worst rating is simply not going to cut it. Biyombo’s departure and Sullinger’s injury are the chief factors contributing to this crisis. The Raptors should begin their ascent, however slight, in this metric upon Sullinger’s return.
Toronto’s defensive rating stands at 19th in the Association, though it is influenced by the gifting of extra possessions to the opponent through surrendering offensive rebounds. Second chances often lead to quick putbacks or open triples, which affect the team’s overall defensive mark. Therefore, Sullinger’s return should improve Toronto’s defense some by finishing possessions on that end of the floor. Will it improve enough though?
Only three of the last 40 conference finalists and one of the last 20 NBA finalists (LeBron’s Cavaliers in 2015) boasted a bottom half defensive rating. Without a generational superstar, Dwane Casey and his staff know full well that a quality defense is their ticket to repeating last season’s success.
The Raptors have continued their slow and steady march into the NBA’s elite when it comes to a number of important categories; namely net margin, true shooting, offensive rating and three-point shooting percentage. The combination of their efficient free throw and long range shooting is driving the team’s offensive rating, which was at historical levels before a recent slump. It will be interesting to see whether this is the year when that offensive efficiency translates into the playoffs.
While it’s disappointing to see the Raptors’ assist numbers continue to hover around the NBA’s basement (especially since it appears to be one of the more important categories to playing in June), this is the way the club runs. In the words of Dwane Casey, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
With Sullinger’s return on the horizon and the looming possibility of a Millsap trade, these rankings can and likely will change as the season progresses. And while playoff games and series are often dictated by star power, matchups and momentum, historical statistics can hold value. As a famous Roman once said, “History is the teacher of life.”