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Finding Good Things, in a Sea of Good Things

Streaking down the court, ball in hand and sizing up Joel Embiid before him. Kawhi Leonard begins to slow down and process what his best course of action is. Forcing the issue from behind, Ben Simmons applies pressure to Leonard. Perhaps instincts kicked in for Leonard, and his body took over, demanding he ascend to the rim. For the first time this year, Leonard rises up for a thunderous poster. Emblematic of the Raptors team this year, Leonard is, without thinking, incredibly physical, athletic, and skilled. Meant to dominate.

At 21-5 the Raptors tower above the rest of the teams in the win column this year, even as fans and pundits alike bemoan some of the shortcomings. Be it the bench production, streaky shooting that hasn’t swung back in the positive direction, or certain players usage rates, the Raptors aren’t short of improvements to make. Even so, the team has been, without question, one of the darlings of the young NBA season and a serious bragging right among fanbases.

There’s been plenty written about what the Raptors can improve, and plenty more about what they’ve done well, but I’d like to highlight some things that have gone a little under the radar, in a “look how nice it is in Raptor-Land” type article. A little more sun for us all to bask in, lest we forget the sun has been shining here since October 17th.

Set your feet, knock it down

Delon Wright has made a significant stride in his game, despite having a wrench thrown in his ball handling duties. With a career low usage rate in 2018-19, Wright is looking for new ways to impact the game. Perhaps looking at Fred VanVleet’s 2017-18 year as inspiration, Wright has built his catch-and-shoot three to beyond respectable. He’s shooting 55-percent from downtown in these opportunities, which is fantastic. While 55-percent might not be sustainable, he’s gotten his shot to a point where he’ll reliably hit over 40-percent of those looks.

He’ll likely never be a gifted pull-up shooter, but like many players before him, he’s built a remarkably steady jumper out of a rock-steady base. A lot of work has gone into that jumper, and the Raptors organization is reaping the benefits. It’s been a small progression thus far, as a lot of the shots have gone to VanVleet, but Wright’s consistency will shine as the year goes on.

Toeing the line

There’s been a few games this year where Pascal Siakam has wowed on the defensive end. Teaming up with one of OG Anunoby or Kawhi Leonard for a seamless switch to blow up a pick n’ roll. Staring down a guard that fancies him as a mismatch, but corralling them to the baseline for a dead possession. Running 12 feet in half a second to contest a three-pointer.

He’s a terror for players to shoot over, often times forcing a step-in or a missed shot. Acting out one of the core principles of the Raptors defense, which is to run players off the line. There’s few players better than Siakam at this, as he’s holding players to 26.4 percent from beyond the arc. Popping out beyond the line to contest more threes than even Kyle Lowry or Danny Green, at 5.2 defended per game.

Tough at the rim

Far more animated with the refs, and consistently bemused by officiating, this is a new look for Leonard. Leonard earned his very first technical this year, and has often times questioned officials. This has never been something Leonard has indulged in, so what gives? If Leonard was expecting to go to the line at the same rate as his MVP-worthy year in 2016-17, then that might be the source of frustration.

This year, Leonard has gone to the rim more often as his jumper is still working it’s way back. More often as in, the most often since his jumper became a featured part of his game. Opposing players aren’t surprised by Leonard’s handle and drives to the cup. Leonard receives a lot of attention on his way to the rim, but he succeeds anyway.

Even with his newfound frustration for the officiating, he’s finishing at the rim better than his 2016-17 year. This is happening even though he’s being rewarded with free throws less often. The even better news is that we can likely expect these numbers to rise as his athletic ‘pop’ comes back. With dunks like we saw against the Sixers, there’s gonna be less players looking to get in his way.

Regression doesn’t always mean worse

Regressing to the mean doesn’t always mean a player starts out hot, then cools. The statistics term is applicable to either extreme, be it bad, or good. The Raptors are operating on the lower extreme right now. Green has been by far the best volume shooter, as Lowry has fallen off a cliff. Siakam is shooting a career high, and everyone else is below career averages.

If you think that’s dramatic, it really isn’t. Lowry (who shoots 38-percent in his time with the Raptors) is at 35-percent. Leonard (also a 38-percent shooter) is knocking down 36-percent. VanVleet has fallen off from 39-percent, to 31-percent. I mean the list goes on, but Green has been the Raptors only reliable high-volume shooter. How does a 21-5 team exist this way?

Well, they’re damn good at a lot of other things. For all of the discourse that goes on in the comments concerning Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, they’ve been rockstars this year. Lump Leonard into the group that’s been incredible inside the arc, and thank those 3 for propping up the offense over the past 15 games.

Back to the regression, the Raptors won’t shoot this bad for much longer. We’re looking at something that doesn’t actually equate to a statistical anomaly, but it’s irregular. The Raptors shooters will start shooting well again, and maybe even gain some consistency. We’ve all seen it in the comments, and I’m not above saying it. Once this team starts hitting shots, watch out.

This team, man

Even as we’ve all sat with clenched fists watching VanVleet dribble too much, or Lowry passing up shots. We’ve been witnessing what is easily the best rendition of the Raptors. The sky is the limit, and our top-5 and top-10 rankings in O-Rtg and D-Rtg will likely be top-3 by seasons end. This team is special, and watching them strong-arm other teams, while missing open shots that they create with ease isn’t so bad. A quarter of the way through the season, and everything’s comin’ up Millhouse… erm, Raptors.

Have a blessed day.

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