Ah, another regular season has come and gone.
The Toronto Raptors do play their final game on Wednesday against the Miami Heat, but after that it’s finally playoff time, and as such, I think it’s worth reflecting on what a miraculous and enjoyable season 2017–18 has been. From the rise of the bench to reaching for 60 wins, there are a myriad of surprises that have popped up with this team that no one could have seen coming.
What follows is my top five list (in no particular order) of those surprises. Enjoy.
OG’s Immediate Contributions
OG Anunoby wasn’t even supposed to play this season. Or, at least, that’s what a lot of people said when the Raptors picked him up 23rd overall in last summer’s draft, as the rookie was just coming off of an ACL injury.
Fast forward to the present.
OG has played 72 total games and will likely see run against Miami as the team continues to hope he’ll get in rhythm for when playoff teams leave him wide open.
That’s not to say that OG can’t shoot. No, his recent performance against the Orlando Magic (5–8 from deep) and his overall three-point percentage for the season (36.6 per cent) prove otherwise. Still, he has had some droughts over the course of the year, and teams would much rather put pressure on a rookie than a more established veteran.
But it’s been OG’s relentless defense and off-ball movement that have made him such a standout in his first year. He’s arguably the Raptors’ best overall defender (and certainly their best perimeter defender), with sturdy lateral quickness and lanky, poky arms, and as such Casey has tasked him with the duty of guarding the opposing team’s best player on a night-to-night basis. On many of those nights, he’s been successful.
On the other end, he’s a cerebral player, cutting to the rim when defenders forget about him for easy layups or put-backs. Even if he doesn’t make a shot, he’s rarely in the wrong spot. As his athleticism returns, his finishes have also improved.
The season’s first turnaround point was when Norman Powell went down with injury and Casey replaced him with OG in the starting lineup on November 14th. Prior to that, the starters had a -3.9 net rating—since the insertion of Anunoby in Powell’s place, the starters’ net rating is 11.2 and for the season they are the second-best lineup in the league (by net rating) of those that have played at least 40 games together.
Who could’ve imagined that the kid who fell so far in the draft because of his injury would turn out to be a key piece of the East’s best club?
Speaking of which …
Winning the East
Even if you were optimistic about the Raptors before the season began (I was), you probably didn’t have them finishing in this spot (I didn’t).
This is the first season in franchise history that Toronto has finished as the first seed in the Eastern Conference, and, as mentioned earlier, they still have a chance to snatch their 60th win in their last game of the regular season to be the first Raptors squad to reach that fabled mark.
Along the way, they’ve managed some remarkable feats. They have the best home record in the league (tied with Houston) at 34–7, they got their marquee win against the Rockets in their second meeting, they went 34–2 (undefeated at home) against sub-.500 teams, and they have the league’s second-best simple rating system score (7.4), a metric that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule.
They are also the only team in the East to have a top 10 offensive (third overall) and defensive (fifth overall) rating, a big part of which is owed to …
The Culture Reset
This is also the most potent point one can make when arguing for Casey’s Coach of the Year candidacy: The Raptors completely changed their style of play without a substantial turnover in core personnel. Personnel, mind you, that garnered them the league’s sixth-best offense the season prior.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are great isolation basketball players. It’s not that what the team was doing before didn’t work at all (it did!), it was that a) the constant high usage rates of both stars led to them playing a ton of minutes and getting banged up over the course of the season, which did not help Toronto any come the playoffs and b) when the postseason did arrive the Raptors offense became easier than ever to defend, and teams would simply load up on DeRozan and Lowry to give Toronto fits.
The Raptors could’ve kept doing that. Masai Ujiri and Casey could’ve simply shrugged and said that they believed in their two stars, and that they would run it back and try again, hoping for a different outcome. But instead they took a step back and examined where the team was at, and the level of progress they’d made against teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers with their approach.
They decided it wasn’t good enough, and they made a gutsy change.
Credit, too, must go to DeRozan and Lowry, who bought in to the decision. Many stars would’ve grumbled or complained or downright refused, and while it definitely took time for the Raptors staples to adjust, they put in the work and paved the way for the rest of the squad to play an entirely different brand of basketball than in years past.
The results, of course, are inarguable.
Toronto went from being 30th in assists per game last season to sixth this season. They went from 22nd in the league in threes taken to fourth.
Thankfully, the transition was made easier by the young guns, who Voltron-style formed themselves into …
The Bench Mob
Arguably the most fun and most surprising thing about this season, when the Raptors rid themselves of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph and lost P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson last summer, it was made clear that they were going all in on their young players (especially Powell after his impressive playoff showing against the Milwaukee Bucks), banking on them to provide some good minutes and hoping that they would develop and learn on the fly.
What they never could’ve expected was the group of Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl morphing themselves into the most potent second unit in professional basketball while also giving off a coming-of-age film sort of vibe.
VanVleet has been debatably the best of the bunch, and is the stoic leader. Jak and Skills seem like the best (and coolest) of friends who have now starred in a few commercials together. Wright is the quiet and yet controlled one. And Miles is the dad of the group, there to calm things down if the going gets rough.
Of lineups that have played at least 20 games and 200 minutes, the Bench Mob ranks fifth overall in net rating (18.7) and blows any bench unit (and most starting units, of course) out of the water.
They are a fantastically fun group to watch, playing the Raptors’ new style to perfection with their constant ball movement, off-ball screens, and cuts. They act in tandem like a machine, working and re-working until they find a point of weakness and strike.
And so it goes, and so it goes, until the other team is on the bad end of a frantic run, typically led by …
Fred VanVleet, Closer
The lesson here, kids, is always bet on yourself.
It really says something about VanVleet’s character and his play this season that the guy most fans are willing to put their unconditional trust into for the playoffs is the undrafted 24-year-old.
Casey has always had a proclivity for dual point guard lineups, especially to close things out, dating back to the Jose Calderon days. With an embarrassment of riches at that spot now, Casey had no shortage of options to choose from, but decided on VanVleet, who has been spectacular.
Toronto’s closing lineup, which consists of the starters plus VanVleet, has been by far their best lineup with a net rating of 24.6 over 101 minutes played together. It’s also their most powerful offensive group, with a whopping offensive rating of 128.4.
VanVleet can shoot it, sashay to the rim with the best of them, and is a grinder defensively, but it’s his heart, hustle, and mannerisms that separate him from everyone else. He’s the type of player who will pick up Chris Paul full-court to force a turnover, the type of player who will fill passing lanes at the perfect times, the type of player who will dive onto the hardwood for a loose ball, and the type of player who knows zero fear, even in the moment.
It’s this last aspect of VanVleet that everyone loves so much.
He just balls, man. He goes out and gets the job done.
And now, the job is the playoffs, and things are just getting started.
It’s been a fun 2017–18 regular season. Let’s hope the postseason is just as memorable.