Thus far in the season, Toronto ranks 24th in the NBA in Strength of Schedule (SOS) with an opposing team win percentage standing at .486. Toronto is 26-10, but ESPN predicted (through various factors) their estimated win total at 28-8 during this exact point in the season. No harm, no foul — as Toronto has exceeded expectations with a surging bench unit brimming with youth and energy, a resurgent DeMar DeRozan and overall, one of the deepest rosters in the association. Not to mention, them being led by one of the best head coaches in the conference.
The month of December was a massive reason the Raptors rank so low in SOS. For a refresher, in their last 18 games they went up against the Hawks twice, Kings twice, 76ers twice, Suns twice, Hornets twice, Grizzlies, Nets, Clippers, Pacers, Mavericks, Thunder, Bucks and Bulls.
Toronto’s record in those 18 games? 15-3.
They’ve destroyed those 15 teams by an average of roughly 14 points per game. To put that in perspective, that’s the Raptors averaging a near-blowout for almost 20% of their season’s games. Despite the insanely high level of success in the last month of 2017, Toronto must take heed of what soon approaches them.
At this moment, Toronto enters a crucial stretch-run where they go up against the Bucks for their home-and-away (this time, in Milwaukee), Nets, Heat, Cavaliers and defending-champion Golden State Warriors. After that gauntlet? The much-improved 76ers and Detroit Pistons, then it’s the San Antonio Spurs (oh, and they got Kawhi this time around) and finally a trip to Minnesota for what should be an exciting interconference matchup. After all the hoorays and hoorahs of beating up on the league’s minnows and cellar-dwellers for a month, this nine-game scope will surely demonstrate where Toronto lies amongst the NBA’s elite.
We’ve seen both sides of this Raptors team since the season unfolded, where they play so well off each other — emphasizing ball movement and feeding the hot hand. We’ve also seen the Raptors crumble like that Chips Ahoy package in your pantry nobody has touched for weeks — by reverting back to their old, isolating and ball-watching days. Overall, with the Raptors being blessed with relatively good team health the last few seasons, one could hope the backcourt stars aren’t overworked in these games. Kyle Lowry’s aches and pains are slowly catching up to him (with his former wrist injuries and general ‘hardknock’ nature on the court) while DeRozan has simply put the team on his back in the last month or so.
DeMar DeRozan since Nov. 29:
27.6pts 5.4ast 4.2reb
1.5 threes 1.3stl
43.3 3PT% 61.1 TS% 29.5% USG
+10.6 net rating
— Vivek Jacob (@VivekMJacob) January 4, 2018
Dwane Casey and his staff are certainly aware of the caliber of teams drawing near. He’s done an incredible job of managing and coaching, but even for him this remains a litmus test of sorts.
The most important player, I would argue, for this upcoming slate of games would be none other than Kyle Lowry. DeRozan has undoubtedly proved he’s reached a new level in his basketball career, but Lowry on the other hand seems as though he’s just ‘coming along for the ride’. Don’t get me wrong, Kyle has played very well this season — but in spurts. That’s just not sufficient for the Kyle Lowry we’ve been accustomed to seeing, and the Kyle Lowry who demanded and received a 3 year/$100M mega-contract from the Raptors front office. Yes, Lowry like every other Raptor is adjusting to a total systematic reset, but there comes a time where it becomes: “When is that explosion going to come?”
Kyle has eclipsed the 20-point mark only four times since the 1st of December. That’s just four out of a possible 16 games. There’s no immediate or even far-away danger to Lowry’s job, but could the 31 year-old be finally slowing down? Lowry’s best seasons came in his 28, 29 and 30 year-old years — a few years after the typical NBA player enters his prime. He didn’t begin logging big minutes in his career until the end of his Houston days and than with Toronto. This would lead us to believe Lowry still has enough gas in the tank to remain an elite PG in the NBA for the next 1-2 years. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to seeing such an extraordinarily high level of play from Lowry, that it seems like he’s (very slightly) declining? One thing’s for sure, him taking a backseat has allowed Toronto’s role players to find themselves and flourish. Granted, it would still be nice to see McFlurry take advantage of these next several games and allow DeRozan to take this massive scoring load off his shoulders.
In due time, the Toronto Raptors will show us if
- They’re that ‘same, old team’ who struggles mightily versus the league’s best, while seemingly beating up on everyone else or…
- They’ve been structured, groomed and ultimately prepared to be inserted into the league’s highest ranks
Only time will tell.