Are We There Yet?

Revisiting how the Raptors measure up against the most successful teams of the last decade following the culture change.

As we approach the final few games of the regular season, now is as good a time as any to re-examine Toronto’s league ranking trends in a myriad of statistical categories. In a piece in the summer of 2016, I gathered the league rankings of the NBA champions, finalists, and conference finalists from the last 10 years. I had hoped that the data assembled would point to specific statistical categories that were consistently elite for franchises that were still playing basketball in late May and June. Some of the conclusions were straight forward and unsurprising (defensive rating, shooting efficiency and net margin ranking highly), others less so (limiting turnovers, rebounding percentages and free throw rate ranked low). Checking up on where the Raptors stand this year presents an excellent opportunity to shed light on the effectiveness of the revamped culture.

All of these statistics are to be taken with a grain of salt, as they are highly skewed by a certain LeBron James who appeared in seven of the last ten finals. Nonetheless, I found these rankings to be interesting, and added Toronto’s results thus far this season in the hopes of identifying emerging trends.

Raptors vs. Themselves

Toronto has been an offensive powerhouse in the regular season for a number of years (ever since Ujiri took over), and this season represents only a minor improvement in offensive rating. However, the way they generate their points has changed drastically.

Their assist totals have sky rocketed from the literal bottom of the league last year to 6th this season, while pushing their pace to a middling level and maintaining one of the best turnover percentages in the association all at the same time. The three-point shooting stands at the center of the offensive evolution, as they rank 4th and 3rd in total makes and attempts respectively, up from 21st and 22nd last season. Their long-distance shooting percentage from deep has fallen (19th), but the overall effect on the team’s true shooting percentage has been a significant net positive (4th).

The only other major decline comes in their free throw rate (13th). This is far from a negative though, considering the way the club struggled in the postseason with a free throw-dependent offense. In another encouraging (and somewhat surprising) development, the Raptors currently rank second in the league in blocks.

Raptors vs. Champions and Finalists

So where do these statistical improvements reside when compared against the mean regular season rankings of the champions and finalists of the last ten years? Did management and the coaching staff prioritize and emphasize the ‘right’ areas for improvement? This is where things get really exciting. The table is sorted from the lowest mean champion ranking (‘most important’) to the highest (‘least important’).

Comparing the top half of the table, the statistical categories that most champions excelled at, one can glean that the Raptors are right there in nearly every metric. Specifically, their improvements in assists and three-pointers place them in the same tier as those elite squads. The only metric where they’ve fallen behind the curve is long distance accuracy, which does raise concern. Whether that issue comes back to bite them in this season’s playoffs or not, the system itself appears to have been modified to line up with what it takes to go all the way in the NBA, effectively raising their ceiling in the long term. If they continue adding capable shooters (or develop them internally) around Lowry and DeRozan, their final weakness would be eliminated, and the sky would truly be the limit.

It’s also interesting to note that of all the statistical categories I’ve looked at, free throw rate ranked lowest in importance to winning the golden trophy. With their dependence on getting calls greatly reduced, Toronto’s system appears to be tailor-made for postseason success in the modern NBA. They could stand to improve their defensive rebounding, but there’s reason to hope they can corral them at a slightly better rate with more focused effort once the playoffs get underway.

Raptors vs. the Other (Contenders)

And now onto the main dish – how do this season’s other contenders fare when it comes to the apparent success metrics of the last decade?

The Cleveland Cavaliers are touted as the East’s favourites until proven otherwise, and LeBron James is as good an argument as any to use in defense of that claim. But is he alone enough to pull them through to the finals? Their offense is still elite when healthy, but is it possible to win a title with a 28th ranked defense? Granted, they will likely play harder on that end in the postseason, but their lineup is very limited in its upside in that regard. No NBA champion in the last decade ranked outside the top 10 in defensive rating, and only one runner up placed outside the top 20 in the same time span. Incidentally, that squad was last season’s 22nd ranked Cleveland Cavaliers…

The team to beat in the West is the reigning champion, Golden State. Looking at their rankings, it’s pretty easy to see why they are the favourites to go all the way yet again. Despite a ‘down year’ and a host of injuries after three straight finals appearances, the Dubs rank at or near the very top of each ‘important’ metric. The Raptors are comparable to them in most categories, with the exception of their long distance accuracy, where the Warriors rank first on the back of some of the game’s best shooters. Their only weaknesses appear to be rebounding (25th and 23rd on defense and offense respectively), along with a penchant for turning the ball over (28th). It’s little surprise then, that they, much like the Raptors struggled against the league’s best offensive rebounding squad, the Oklahoma City Thunder, losing two of their three meetings this season.

The squad that is aiming to come at the champions this season is Harden and Paul’s Houston Rockets. Boasting the league’s best record, best offense, and for once a top ten defense, they appear poised and ready for the task. And yet, some niggles remain. The Houston Rockets take and make the most triples in the Association, but they also depend on a steady diet of free throws (2nd in free throw rate). This used to be Toronto’s postseason worry, and rightfully so – no champion in the last decade ranked in the top 3 of the category. In the last four years, no champion ranked in the top 20. While that alone is not necessarily a cause for concern, their ranking in the assist count should raise another flag – 24th. Only James and Wade’s Miami Heat managed to win the title in the last decade while ranking outside the top 15 in total dimes (21st). Can the isolation-heavy Rockets prove exception to the norm?

Finally, the pseudo-contenders from Boston show promise on the defensive side of the ball, and are shooting the three at an impressive clip, but that’s just about all the evidence they can muster. Their future looks extremely bright, but in the present their offense (17th) is unlikely to keep up with the other contenders’ firepower over a full playoff series.

The Bottom Line

The Toronto Raptors’ overnight culture reset has paid dividends already, passing both the statistical and eye tests, leading to the franchise’s best regular season yet. Will it translate to the playoffs as well? Are we finally there yet?