Last season, the Toronto Raptors had the best record against the Western Conference, going 22-8 (73.3 winning percentage) against the loaded West.
The Milwaukee Bucks (20-10), Philadelphia 76ers (20-10), Golden State Warriors (35-17), and the Denver Nuggets (34-18) also had great results against the West in the regular season and went on to have success in the playoffs, with the Raptors and Warriors meeting in the NBA FInals (the Warriors were second to the Raptors with a winning percentage of 67.3 against the West).
Despite the regular season not meaning as much in the modern NBA (with load management and whatnot), certain trends and statistical categories are still important. For example, it’s understood that good teams win on the road in the NBA. Well, if last season was any indication, a team’s record against the Western Conference may be an even better indicator of postseason success.
The 2019-20 season only just got started — which is the caveat of any article written this before December — but the early signs have been positive for this Raptors team. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the offseason — and then losing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to injuries seven games in — the Raptors are 8-4 with the seventh-best point differential (+4.9) and fifth-best defensive rating (103.0) in the league.
More impressive, though, is that they are winning despite a tough early schedule that saw them play their previous five games on the road against some of the best teams in the Western Conference. The Raptors upcoming schedule is light, with home games against the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic, and New York Knicks coming up. This organization has built such a strong culture and become so consistent that those were always going to be expected wins.
What we didn’t expect — and what’s more important — is how the Raptors fared on their recent Western Conference road trip, going 3-2 with wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, and New Orleans Pelicans while giving themselves a shot to win all five games. What that road trip says about these Raptors is that they can hang with any team in the league by playing hard, being organized with smart defensive schemes, having unlikely contributors step up off the bench, Steady Freddy proving he can be a starting point guard, and Pascal Siakam emerging as a superstar.
Again, it’s early. But by showing that they can hang with any team in the league while severely shorthanded, the Raptors are proving to be contenders in what was supposed to be a transition season.
Remember the offseason — less than two months ago — when everyone was assuming the Raptors would move on from their veterans Lowry, Ibaka, and Marc Gasol in order to build for the future? That is no longer in the picture. If one of those veterans is going to get moved — and I wouldn’t bet against it — it’s going to be a move that makes this Raptors team better, not some future team. That much they have earned.
It might seem like a stretch to call the Raptors contenders who might buy rather than sell at the deadline, but the Eastern Conference is without a clear favourite, and so many things have broken right for the Raptors early on: Pascal Siakam is making another unlikely leap into the MVP conversation, and along with him guys like Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby are stepping up into expanded roles with efficiency and a certain swagger that you would expect of championship players.
The veterans all look more comfortable without Leonard around, as does Nick Nurse who is being more creative and has his team buying into his system without a ball-stopper changing the offense. The bench finally got it going on the road trip.
Don’t get me wrong: this team is worse than last year’s Raptors. But in Siakam, they have a budding superstar who can replicate some of the things Leonard did on a night-to-night basis and, more importantly, in the playoffs where having a superstar matters most, especially one who can switch between guarding all five positions on defense and shoot or work out of the post on offense.
Siakam proved the most of any Raptor on this road trip. He averaged 27/8/5 while being asked to guard some of the best talents in the world (especially when OG was out with an eye injury). Nurse trusts Siakam to guard the best player on the opposing team, which allows the Raptors to dictate matchups. Against the Clippers, for example, Nurse pulled Rondae Hollis-Jefferson late, who was tasked with guarding Leonard after Anunoby left the game, and closed the game with Siakam guarding Leonard. The Raptors lost, but Leonard had just five points and two turnovers in the final quarter.
We were told ahead of the season that Siakam was going to the number one option, but those words are thrown around a lot in the NBA regarding the best player on bad teams. No one saw this leap coming from Siakam, who is averaging 26/9/4 on 47/35/82 shooting with a usage rate of 30.1 and a true shooting percentage of 56.0, putting himself in serious consideration for both MIP and MVP, while almost being assured a spot on the All-Star and All-NBA teams.
That’s a big improvement for someone who started playing basketball at 15 and who averaged just 7.3 points two seasons ago.
Siakam is the biggest reason the Raptors are 8-4, and he’s the reason they have a real shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference this season. If the team’s first West Coast road trip is any indication, the non-Leonard Raptors are really, really good.
They’re also a ton of fun.