For as many different NBA champions have existed, there have been far fewer paths to victory. Competing for the title follows a somewhat tried-and-true path, which has few exceptions. Are the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors following the mold, as it were, of champions? Of course, some tenets of contention are self-fulfilling prophecies, to which we’ll return later. For now, let’s delve into whether or not the Raptors should be considered contenders, by first defining what makes an NBA contender. For this article, I’ll define a championship contender as a team with a top-5 offence and defence (give or take on both ends), a top-15 player(s) in the league, more than one dominant lineup, and playoff experience. The Raptors have each of those pillars and more.
Offensive and Defensive Dominance
The Raptors boast one of the best offences in the game. Despite taking a huge number of 3s, and only shooting them at an average rate, the Raptors have the 6th best eFG% in the league greatly due to their terrific midrange and close range finishing. A proclivity to hoisting the 3-points shot opens up the floor for this new Raptors team. By points scored per possession, the Raptors rank 4th in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors offence begins with an incredible pick and roll attack. Here’s some statistics from a piece I wrote in mid-January about the Raps’ PnR attack:
“The Raptors’ offence is elite when one of its elite pick and roll handlers plays with one of its best pick and roll screeners (no surprises there). In the 368 possessions in which Delon Wright has played with one of Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, or Lucas Nogueira, the team’s offensive rating is 119.8 points per 100 possessions. DeMar DeRozan’s 1128 possessions with one of the three centers has yielded 119.0 points per 100 possessions.”
Beyond the pick and roll, they have one of the league’s best passers and shot-creators in DeMar DeRozan. His assist rate of 24.1% is in the 96th percentile for wings. He can create off the ball as an improved shooter and terrific cutter, out of the pick and roll as a handler, and in isolation. He is able to make on-time and on-target passes with either hand, and he fluidly reads passing lanes that aren’t visible to most players. His sprays to corners are something out of a fairy tale. Perhaps most impressive, though, is his ability to use his interior scoring threat to draw the help while accurately dumping the ball to waiting bigs:
Toss in fellow-star Kyle Lowry and his incredible shooting, elite roller / post-up man / offensive rebounder / marksman Jonas Valanciunas, and spot-up shooters in O.G Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet, and it’s no wonder that the Raptors have an incredible offence.
That the defence is even better is more surprising. The Raptors have several rotation players who have been rightly maligned in the past for their defensive consistency, including DeRozan, Valanciunas, and Miles. They’ve all improved, especially Valanciunas recently. More than that, several elite 1-on-1 defenders have sprung up on the roster where there was once just potential. Anunoby is an outrageously talented on- and off- ball defender, as I detailed here. Pascal Siakam went from a raw and mistake-prone (due, fortunately, to constant effort) rookie defender to someone who can be trusted for short stretches to defend LeBron James 1-on-1:
Lowry is a terror at ripping steals and forcing charges, even if he is slightly worse this year at containing penetration. Delon Wright is a long-armed menace, forcing turnovers and blocking shots like a center. His rearview contest is so consistent that he’s a threat to block every jumpshot taken in his vicinity. Fred VanVleet is as smart as they come, which is a feature of the whole defence; players switch seamlessly, call out pick and roll defensive schemes, and are always on the same page. Most of all, the team’s defensive gameplan is solid, and the players rarely make mistakes. Guards almost always go above screens and fight like hell to recover to their men. Bigs sink on picks to contain penetration and deny passes into the lane; Casey no longer asks more of Valanciunas than his bulky frame can provide.
The result is that the team allows fewer attempted 3s than anyone but the Brooklyn Nets, with a fertile field of midrange shots for opponents. Opposing ball-handlers take oodles of midrange jumpers that initially appear open, but upon the release of the ball are contested from behind:
So the Raptors have a top-5 offence and defence. This is not a stringent requirement for a championship contender, but every recent champ has been close. Here’s a chart of all the champions since 2006 and their league ranks on offence and defence:
Rank is calculated by points per 100 possession scored and allowed, taken from Cleaning the Glass
That’s average rankings of 6th-best on offence and 4th-best on defence. The Raptors, due to their above-mentioned dominance, are ranked 4th on offence and 3rd on defence. Consider this a mark in their favour.
Since 1990, the best player on a championship-winning team has been (without duplications): Steph Curry (or Kevin Durant), LeBron James, Tim Duncan (or Kawhi Leonard), Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups (or Ben Wallace), Shaq, Michael Jordan, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Go back a little further and it’s basically just Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons all the way down. Each of those were top-15 players (give or take a few charitable rankings in the cases of one or two guys) in the league, and most were top-5. Everyone on that list is hall of fame bound.
This is where self-fulfilling prophecies come into play. Guys like Nowitzki, Billups, and even young Wade (back when he had the awesome nickname Flash, before the self-bequeathed and horrible nickname Way of Wade) did not get the respect they deserved before their championships. They weren’t frequently considered top players in the league until they won their championships, even if their level of play afterwards hadn’t improved. DeMar DeRozan is a borderline top-15 player in the league, and he’d fall into most every pundit’s 15-20 ranking bracket. Give him a ring? He’s on all the top-10 lists for certain.
The Raptors already have the high-end talent to compete for a championship. They may not have Michael Jordan- or LeBron James-level talents on their team, but DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are equivalent league talents to Billups in 2004. Using Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus/Minus, Lowry is a top-25 player, and DeRozan is a top-15 player on offence. Lowry is top-15 in all of ESPN’s real Plus Minus, VORP, and Basketball Reference’s Box Score Plus Minus. If you don’t trust catch-all, advanced statistics (and you shouldn’t, not entirely), then there are other, simpler ways to prove how elite are Toronto’s stars. DeRozan is one of the league’s most accomplished scorers, ranking 13th in straight points per game after seizing 5th in the league last year. He’s one of a handful of players in the league around whom an entire offence can be designed. He and Lowry are both multi-year all-stars, recognized by their peers, media, and fans alike. And elite talent is not even Toronto’s greatest strength.
Multiple Successful Lineups
Another important feature of championship teams is that they offer a constantly high level of play throughout games. No matter who is on the floor and who is on the bench, champions remain dominant. Golden State’s 2017 championship team boasted 8 lineups with +7 net ratings or higher, only three of which combined Curry and Durant. 2014 San Antonio’s 2nd most successful lineup was all-bench, combining Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Jeff Ayres. Big 3 era Miami’s Lebron + bench lineups were destructive, with a net rating of +20 in both championship seasons. Consistently, when all-stars rest, championship teams still outscore their opponents.
Toronto is surpassing their spiritual ancestor, the 2014 Spurs, in that their most successful lineup is all-bench. The lineup of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl is tearing through opponents like Michael Bay through a film’s budget. They have a net rating of +32.8 in a robust 147 minutes, which makes them the best lineup (+100 minutes played) by rating in the league. Toronto practically Donkey Kong ground-pounds teams whenever both squads put the bench on the floor.
The 2017-18 Raptors have separated themselves from their previous iterations in that every lineup is successful. The Raptors starters and bench are both incredibly successful. In the past, the Raptors’ success has mostly coincided with Lowry’s playing time (excluding a short stretch last year when Lowry was injured and DeRozan led the team to a winning record regardless). This year they’re blowing teams out no matter who is playing or who is scoring.
The Raptors even have the history of a champion. A championship team must have a history of playoff success and failure. My first ever basketball article was about this: “Institutional memory matters. Let’s go back some ways to prove this: since Magic Johnson’s rookie season in 1979-1980, every NBA championship team preceded its championship with prolonged playoff success but eventual failure. Before teams win, they have to get close to winning, and then lose. Every champion for the past few decades followed this pattern except one, which was the ferocious 2007-2008 Celtics, who were built on a whim. Teams in the NBA generally cannot succeed without recent histories of success. Players as dominant as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James could not win championships without establishing a culture of success and then winning, or joining teams that were already successful. The Big 3 Celtics just somehow changed the culture in Boston faster than usual. Trading young Al Jefferson for prime Kevin Garnett can do that for a franchise. And even then, all three individuals had toiled as playoff also-rans prior to joining forces.”
The Raptors have had recent playoff success – culminating in multiple series victories, including two game 7s – that ended in the playoff defeat at the hands of LeBron James. They are experienced in the playoffs; remember, LeBron James was once (incorrectly) considered a playoff choke artist, until he wasn’t. If the Raptors break out this year, the Cavaliers will have been their foil, as the Pistons were to Jordan and the Celtics to James. The narrative is there.
The Raptors have the resume of a champion. Their success in recent years has culminated in this year’s roster, which is different from years past. They are more consistent and more dominant, on both sides of the ball. Given blind samplings of team statistics, the Raptors would compare favourably to championship-winning teams of the past few decades. 538’s CARM-Elo rankings, which historically have been less-than-kind towards the Raptors, rank them as the 3rd-best team in the league, with a 1/5 chance at winning the ultimate title.
Of course, ranking as a worthwhile championship contender is not equivalent to winning the prize. There are scores of teams from the last decades, such as Kevin Durant’s Thunder, whose corpses pave the paths of the eventual champions. The NBA boasts more talent than perhaps ever before, with multiple hall of famers teaming up in both Golden State and Houston. Toronto could very well fail to best their fearsome Western rivals, but that is no reason to discount their chances to do so. No champion is anointed, so we must decipher what qualities were shared by each titleholder; it’s clear when investigating the accomplishments of the 2017-18 Raptors that they are a real and serious threat to win the championship, which has never been true for the Toronto franchise before. Enjoy the ride and the corresponding Twitter victory laps.