Despite Poor Health The Raptors Defense Is Improving

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Raptors defense has been a question mark all season. When the Raptors started off the year, they were playing as one of the hottest offensive teams in the NBA, and the defense didn’t matter as much when you’re scoring 110+ points a night. Teams adapt, they study, and teams regress towards their mean. When the offense came back to reality, the less than stellar defense started to become an issue.

For a team who prides itself on defense, a coach who seems like he isn’t totally satisfied with wins when the opposing team scores more than 100 points, the lack of effort on the defensive end was very uncharacteristic of their philosophy. The poor defense was all topped off by a stretch just before the All-Star break, where the Raptors would drop 11 of 15 games. In that fifteen game stretch the Raptors posted a head scratching -3.3 net rating, mostly because of the abysmal 107.7 defensive rating.

Fans panicked, drawing comparisons to the 2014-2015 season. A team who climbed to the top of the standings, only to have their defensive shortcomings to blame for their eventual demise in the first round of the playoffs by the sweeping brooms of the Washington Wizards. This just wasn’t true. On paper, this years Raptors team was really good, it’s star players were having career years, it had depth, and there were options on the bench that weren’t getting minutes because of a talent log jam. At the same time, this team had some holes. Winning is contagious, and so is losing, but this kind of losing wasn’t an option for a team that had high expectations of challenging the royalty of the NBA deep into the playoffs. The Raptors needed a shakeup.

First, the Raptors would trade for a much needed starting power forward in Serge Ibaka. A rim protecting stretch four, who came with a great resume of playoff experience. The second piece was P.J. Tucker, a tough perimeter defender who always has a knack for any 50/50 ball in play. Post All-Star break, these players changed the dynamic of the team. With defensive players brought onto the roster to bolster the Raptors rotation, the Raptors looked stronger than ever. Plans suddenly changed when the Raptors would have to survive without their best player, Kyle Lowry.

At this point, each win without Lowry is a good win. In the ten games played since the All-Star break, the Raps have 6-4 record, considering their tough road schedule that record is a lot better than expected. While they have struggled to score at times without Lowry in the lineup, in that 10 game stretch, the Raptors have posted the 8th best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.8, bumping up their season ranking up to 13th in the NBA.

Dealing with a limited roster has been an unfortunate story line this season, and the Raptors have done a pretty good job at sustaining home court advantage while being a very, very unhealthy team. Over the past three season, the Raptors have benefitted from a relatively healthy roster which helped them claim higher seeds in the Eastern Conference. This year, they have seen injuries to Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jared Sullinger, and Delon Wright. It’s been a very unhealthy year for the Raptors, third most in the NBA to be exact.

The graph above (compliments of Man Game Lost, numbers as of March 13th), shows that the Raptors have been one of the leagues most unlucky teams this year due to injury. Players on the Raptors rosters, have missed a combined 142 games due to injuries this year, and with the league average at 108 up to this point in the season, the Raptors trail only the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. Considering all the main pieces the Raptors have lost throughout the season, it’s impressive that the Raptors have remained floating/fighting for top seeds in the Eastern Conference with the thin roster they have had at times.

With Lowry most likely out for the remainder of the regular season, health will continue to be a problem for the Raptors. However the defensive numbers should only improve from the 10 game sample size we currently have. The Raptors are through the tough stretch of their post All-Star schedule, and the remaining 15 games points in their favor. According to strength of schedule rankings, the Raptors have the 22nd toughest remaining schedule. Taking the schedule breakdown one step further, the picture below courtesy of Nylon Calculus gives us much more detailed look into the Raptors remaining schedule.

There a few things to note that are very important in this picture. 1. The Raptors play only more game against a Western Conference team on the road, 2. More than half the games will be played at home, 3. The 5,606 miles traveled is a relatively small number, making back to backs, and late night flights more tolerable, and 4. Their is only two more back to backs this season, one of them going from Toronto to Detroit (short trip), the other a back to back on the road with Indiana (good home team), flying to Detroit yet again (another short trip).

If the 10 game sample size isn’t enough for you, the schedule changing in favor of the Raptors, and more reps playing together with the new additions, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Raptors were to sneak up from 13th in defensive rating, into a top ten defensive rating in the league.

As we know, anything is possible. The last 15 games of the season are crucial for the Raptors to gain momentum playing into their first round matchup. This team is good, the offense without Lowry isn’t pretty at times, but the defense has been encouraging, and will hopefully continue to get better as the season goes on. With a full roster ready for the playoffs, who knows how far this team can go in the post-season.

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