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Believe in the net rating

We take a closer look into an often forgotten statistic to see if this year’s iteration of the Raptors truly is different.

There’s no doubt that when it comes to the Raptors this season, there’s been a common topic of conversation at bars and living rooms across the country. Even amongst my personal friends, I know this has been the case…people just saying, it’s the “same old Raptors”; that the Raptors have virtually the same core pieces this season (referencing Lowry/DeRozan/Ibaka) in a league where Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, and several other all-star calibre players are changing addresses as part of an arms race amongst the league’s elite. And while the rise of younger players, a 3-point philosophy, and great regular season statistical improvements all look great in December and January, so many of the fans I interact with (and even me depending on which night you ask me) regularly still continue to harp on earlier playoff struggles for Toronto; that somehow our lack of top-10 level talent, and the fact that Lowry and DeMar aren’t the truly “elite” all-stars, will spell our demise; that the Raptors’ incessant focus on Lowry and DeMar as part of their scoring will continue to cripple them.

But, as someone who works with numbers for a living, the way I look at basketball is the same way I look at anything else…in almost every case, assessing and predicting talent and performance can only happen through meaningfully analyzing some set of reliable historical data. And while playoff appearances and successes from past seasons for the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors may factor into how we assess those things, the most recent inputs from this season need to be considered the most.

Like anything else, the phenomenon that is the NBA is constantly changing. Wins and losses in the regular season matter. Numbers from the regular season matter. At least for the Raptors, it has to start there given that transcendent talents like LeBron James or Kevin Durant (probably the only exception to this rule) will always exist, but it’s the “randomness” associated with sport that makes it so much fun. Just ask the Houston Rockets, who are probably still popping bottles at James Harden’s favorite nightclub after their convincing victory on Saturday night over a fully healthy Warriors team that had won 14 road games in a row coming into that game. Things happen in the regular season that warrant closer analysis, and the Raptors are no different.

Analyzing Toronto’s wins and losses this season is a great start, but blindly doing so creates arbitrary start and end points to the flow of data for their performance. By looking at statistics that accurately span all games (such as a net rating, which gives equal importance to any and every point scored by and against a team in any game and at any juncture of each game), we can get better data to predict the expected point differential for a team in a given game in the future. And this year, the numbers for the Raptors thus far look more convincing than ever.

You’ve probably heard, but the Raptors own the third best net rating (offensive points per 100 possessions less points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league as of today (at +6.7 just behind Golden State at +10.3 and Houston at +7.5). Recent close games against the Spurs, Pistons, Warriors, Heat and Nets have muddled things a little…but it’s been higher than +8.0 at various points during this season, leading me to wonder if this statistic is really as important as analysts make it out to be. If the Raptors are beating mediocre teams this badly and hanging with all the good teams…maybe this year really is different?

Maybe it’s a mirage, but this year’s team definitely appears to be better than those previous teams. Especially considering the improved Eastern Conference and with a better Atlantic division (the Celtics, Sixers and even Knicks are much improved), it’s fairly obvious that this year’s team is the best version of itself. Other than the Cavs, I’d probably take Toronto against any other Eastern Conference team in a playoff series right now (some not as confidently as others). And even the Cavs seem like they’re reeling at the moment. So to write off this season because the post-season will yield nothing seems silly to me.

There have been several key factors driving the elevated net rating this year as compared to previous years, most notably the offense which has been re-vamped with more ball-movement (assist percentage over 55% is the highest it’s been since ’13-’14) and outside shooting (over 31 long-range attempts a game, which is the highest in team history). And with OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka in the starting lineup this season, and defensive workhorses Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl off the bench, the defense has arguably the best talent it’s had in the past 5 seasons, and so far, it looks fantastic (Toronto’s defensive rating stands at 6th in the league as of today).

What’s probably most compelling though has been Toronto’s performance against the above-average teams in the league. The Raptors have been an average of +5.0 against teams that, if the season ended today, would make the playoffs.

And if the 13-10 record in those 23 games isn’t as convincing as you’d like, keep in mind they’ve played the Warriors twice, the Spurs twice, and the Rockets, all of whom they wouldn’t have to face until at least the Finals (they’re +7.9 against teams in the East). Not to mention they’ve played a slightly road-biased schedule thus far, and practically speaking, the Raptors will likely have home court advantage until the conference finals. To me, all of this information says … in the past, the Raptors have been very good; but through 45 games this year, they’ve been an elite regular season team. For the most part, they’re blowing out sub-par competition, and playing above-average against playoff teams. Not to mention, DeMar has once again pushed his ceiling even higher this year, and with a lower usage for himself and Kyle, there’s no telling what the Raptors could do with a fully rested and healthy backcourt in a playoff series.

Sure, the playoffs are a different beast and we all know that. Defenses become stingier and matchup deficiencies become more pronounced. The Cavaliers are still a giant roadblock in the Raptors way to the finals, LBJ is still playing at career-high levels, and even against sub-par teams with perhaps more “A-list” talent than the Raptors, struggles in the playoffs are always still possible. I mean, this is the Toronto Raptors franchise we’re talking about.

But sharp persistent trends in numbers usually aren’t fallacies. The Raptors appear to be deeper, more potent offensively, and seem to have an overall disposition that is conducive to winning close games, on the road, and against good teams. So while history doesn’t lend itself in the Raptors’ favour, there are some definite signs that this time around, come April and May, it may not just be those “same old Raptors” after all.

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