January has not exactly been the best of times for the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors are 6-8 for the month and have now dropped their last five in a row. Not great, Bob. But, before panicking or losing faith, Raptors fans should take a cue from Aaron Rodgers and r-e-l-a-x. Cartoon aliens have not stolen the previously dominant Raptors’ ability to play basketball in order to use them to beat the Looney Tunes in a game of basketball. Things have been rough, but there are some explanations as to the losing skid, and reasons to suspect that the team can turn it around.
Stop me if you’ve heard this storyline already this season, but the schedule hasn’t done the Raptors any favors lately. The team played 14 games in 25 days—a grueling stretch that started with the Raptors finishing an extended 6 game West Coast road trip. The Phoenix loss is the only team during this stretch that the Raptors didn’t have any business losing to. The Raptors beat the Nets and the Knicks, the only other cream puff opponents they’ve played in this stretch. Their only other losses to teams with non-winning records came against Chicago (on the road, in overtime, when Jimmy Butler went off) and against Philadelphia (who have now won 10 of their last 13 games!). With the exception of the bad loss in Charlotte, the Raptors have mostly been playing good teams to close scores. Their last two losses have each come by a single bucket against the Spurs and Grizzlies, respectively, and each without DeMar DeRozan playing. In SRS, a rating system that combines scoring differential with strength of schedule, the Raptors rank 4th overall in the league. More importantly, they rank ahead of Cleveland (who has had just as bad if not worse of a January than the Raptors) and well ahead of the Celtics, Wizards, Hawks and anyone else threatening to challenge the Raptors in the Eastern Conference. The schedule is going to get more spread out and easier for the Raptors moving forward, which should help.
Outside of the schedule, one of the Raptors’ biggest problems as of late has been their inability to use one of their biggest strengths—depth—as a weapon. The Raptors haven’t played at full strength in weeks, with Bebe, Patterson, Carroll, DeRozan, Sullinger and Lowry all missing time. Depth is supposed to be able to help you buoy through injuries, true. But with the Raptors only one missed 3-pointer away from having played .500 basketball over the last stretch, you could argue that that is exactly what it’s done. The problem is that depth is what the Raptors had been using to crush opponents this season. The Raptors had been eviscerating opponents second units all season, either piling up leads or quickly clawing back from early 1st quarter deficits. The Lowry bench unit has been one of the best 5-man units in the league. That’s a weapon that the rest of the East largely hasn’t and doesn’t have. The Cavaliers fall off to a non-playoff team whenever Lebron isn’t on the floor, dropping off by a 13-point differential. Boston’s second units have struggled mightily, especially at the big man spots. The Wizards are anemic when their starters aren’t on the floor. Nobody in the East can match the Raptors bench.
That difference that the Raptors have with their second unit is why Raptors fans shouldn’t rush to panic. With all of the injuries as of late, the Raptors have been playing a hodge-podge of lineups that have struggled to mesh as well as their set bench unit and 4th quarter starters had been for the first two solid months of the season. Not only will the Raptors be much better off once they regain the lineup stability to play that way again, but combined punch of a top-line starting unit and a bench unit that can punch you in the nose is a weapon particularly designed to exploit their Eastern Conference rivals weaknesses. With health and a reasonable schedule, there is no reason to not expect the Raptors to continue asserting themselves as a cut-above all but the absolute top-tier of the NBA. Relax, things are going to get better.