The Raptors have until Friday to celebrate their most successful all-star weekend in team history. Then the work begins.
Many make the error of labelling this the “half-way” point. Toronto has already played 57 games. The trade deadline came and went and the only move the organization made was to let go of a mythical name whispered in hushed tones in the hallways of Mississauga gyms. The team you see is the team you get and for now it is the best team in the Eastern Conference. So what do you work on? How do you stay focused for this final stretch when you know you will only be judged by your playoff performance?
For starters, you win the East. It may seem like a trivial benchmark for a team expected to make the Eastern Conference Finals, if not #TheFinals but it’s important, clear and attainable. It speaks volumes about a squad that has gradually improved each season and guarantees home court advantage for an inevitable run-in with the new (and scary) looking Cavaliers. To be clear, it means nothing if you lose in six games to Philadelphia or get embarrassed by Boston or Cleveland but it’s pretty damn cool to enter the postseason as the best team in the conference and you’re a cold-hearted cynic if that doesn’t matter to you.
Any self-improvements only help to service that goal, but it’s legitimately difficult to find areas that need the work. Toronto is one of only two teams (Golden State being the other, shocker I know) to rank in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive rating on the year. They have the third-highest net rating and the third best record in the NBA. No one, as in NO ONE has a better home record and only Houston and Utah have a longer winning streak than the seven game romp the Raps are currently on. But just ask Kendrick Lamar if it’s important or not to notice your imperfections:
“The hardest thing for – not only an artist but for anybody to do is look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge, you know, their own flaws and fears and imperfections and put them out there in the open for people to relate to it.”
So let’s put them out in the open:
Toronto still has trouble passing the basketball.
This might seem absurd, but it’s true. Yes, they’ve changed their offence and yes it’s led to spectacular results but their actual assist percentage ranks 20th in the league at just 56.8%. A large portion of that has to do with the team relying on DeMar DeRozan, and as he’s morphed into a dark horse MVP candidate that hardly feels like a problem. Still, raise your hand if you’ve seen this movie before: The offence tightens up as the stakes get higher, the passing is the first thing to go, and we’re left watching mid-range jumpers clang off the rim. This year feels different but this team needs to raise that percentage over the final 25 games of the season to go into the postseason with confidence in their new system.
The Young need to get Old, now.
The Raptors are in the very enviable position of being competitive while still developing talent. Regardless of the rest of the league failing to recognize any of that talent over the weekend, the young players on this team will be heavily leaned on and rightly so. While some players have already become full-blown-ice-cold-killer-closers, others need more time and pressure to prepare for the playoffs. It’s a big ask to continue to put players like Siakam, Poeltl and Anunoby in pressure situations while also chasing the #1 seed but it’s an important process.
The rotation needs to stay consistently inconsistent.
Most, if not all coaches have the tendency to tighten up their rotations when the playoffs hit. It’s simple, and makes sense: Give your best players the most minutes and only when they are exhausted or suffering do you switch things up. That’s a great formula, and one that wins championships. It’s also not what the Raptors should do.
Toronto has built so much of their success on the fact that they seem to play 100 different guys every night. The #BenchMob has a plus/minus of +3.9 which smashes the next closest team Houston at +2.5. Their energy is contagious and exponential. It’s important to have s many players involved off the bench and it will be important to commit to that philosophy down the stretch and into the playoffs.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is nice in theory, but it’s time to put the work in.
What else can they improve on? What else can you improve on? Maybe you need help writing some term papers?