Raptors Contention Meter: Margin for error small through first 25

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How good are the Raptors, really?

So much of this season — on the back of last year’s championship run — seems to hinge around figuring out exactly what’s what with Toronto’s roster this year and just how good they can be without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Championship goggles, basically. That’s why I’ve created this report that will zero in on exactly how the Raptors are performing against stiff competition in relation to those around them.

Elite rankings

One way to look at how good the top tier teams really are is to isolate how their performance against each other from how they fare against mediocre-to-bad competition. The tables you see below include all the teams with a positive net rating, per Cleaning the Glass, except for Detroit and Oklahoma City. I’m not sold on the Pistons as a truly competitive team and the Thunder have been woeful in closing games against the good teams (2-9) and so they’re off this time as well. The teams included in this are subject to change.

Below, the first table is based on when these good teams play each other, while the second table is based on them playing everyone else.

First off, because we’re just over a quarter of the way through the season, there are early caveats to be had with the standings you see above. For example, though Miami is a minus-5.0 through 12 games against tough competition, it’s skewed by the fact that they’ve played four of those games on the second night of a back-to-back (no other team has played more than two) and 10 of the 12 have been on the road. The Clippers would have a higher net rating if not for those games where either Kawhi Leonard or both he and Paul George didn’t play, and Phoenix haven’t quite been the same since Aron Baynes’ injury.

In the case of the Raptors, of course, there were the two losses in the absence of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and then the three losses that followed their returns have to be taken with understanding that working them back after chemistry that had been built while they were out was going to be a short-term challenge made all the more difficult by the level of competition.

Overall, a minus-2.6 net rating isn’t shabby when considering what Toronto has dealt with in the early going. Still, something to monitor going forward is the fact that both the offensive and defensive efficiency worsens by over five points per-100 possessions when the competition ramps up. There are quite a few teams that have their offensive rating drop, and that should be the case against the better teams. But looking at teams like the Bucks, Lakers, Celtics and Sixers, their defensive numbers are quite similar on either side of the pond. If defence is truly going to be the hallmark of this Raptors team, they’ve got more to prove.

Shots not falling or legs falling off?

After shooting a red-hot 40.2% from 3-point range over the first 19 games, the Raptors have made just 28.6% of their long-distance attempts over the past six. Some of this was going to be regression. While others have trailed off, the most notable has been Anunoby. He was shooting over 50% for over the first month of the season, but has made just five of his last 29 attempts. He’s now a shade under 40% for the season, which seems a more reasonable expectation for where he might be for the season. Some of it has been the re-integration of Lowry and Ibaka into the rotation, and the last few can be attributed a bit to not having VanVleet around as well.

One of the things that I’ve been debating as the season goes along is Nick Nurse’s recent claims that his players have let their offense dictate their defense and that is in part the reason they haven’t been the defensive juggernaut they were over the early course of the season.

But, what if the schemes themselves have worn the players thin early on? On some level, there has to be a question mark over whether the Raptors’ defensive strategy of doubling/trapping stars before ensuing in a mad scramble and recover mode possession after possession has a negative impact on the energy they have left over for the offensive end. If and when they get there, of course. Against those mediocre-to-bad opponents, the Raptors concede an offensive rebound just over a quarter of the time, a mark that would be just below league average. In the 12 games against strong competition, though, that number balloons to 31.1%, including notable nights against the Clippers on the road and the Rockets at home where the strategy to stop Leonard and Harden — while effective from an individual standpoint — resulted in 40-plus percent offensive rebounding rates on each night.

“We had 41 deflections in it — and that is a humongous number — and the only problem with that was we deflected it into 12 points,” Nurse said after reviewing film of the Rockets game. “Couple times we batted it around, we had it, we had it, then they end up with it and bang in a three and it’s just like, some nights the ball wasn’t bouncing right and that’s… what do you blame the loss on? I’m blaming it on the ball wasn’t bouncing right the other night and that just happens some times.”

That’s a lot of activity, to be sure, but if all that noise during the possession is leaving them out of position for the rebound as often as they have been, at some point Nurse may need to review whether it’s more than just bounces not going their way. Toronto’s transition game has become a pivotal factor in their success under Nurse, and the recent lack of it has had them stuck in mud in the halfcourt against good teams, especially of late. While they average a pedestrian 87.3 points per-100 halfcourt possessions against the teams listed in the table, they haven’t even cracked the 80-mark in each of their last four games.

Defense leading to offense? Offense leading to defense? One way or the other, for this team to reach its potential, it’s got to be in position to expend sufficient energy on both ends of the floor.

Current contention status

The Raptors are a very good team, the fact that they take care of business with consummate ease against the “other” teams is proof of that. There’s a difference between very good and great, though, and the results of late show that improvements need to be made to get there.

Going up against the Cavs, Pistons (possibly without a below-par Blake Griffin), Wizards, and Mavs-minus-Luka, Toronto should hit the 20-win mark on the season by Sunday. This report will return some time in early January when another chunk of seriously competitive games can be taken in.

P.S.

This is something new I’m experimenting with this season so constructive feedback (a beacon of this site) is always welcome. I was debating getting into Siakam versus the two varying levels of competition but omitted it for length purposes and figured individual storylines like that are probably best served as their own column. If you think it should all be in here, let me know.

For those of you wondering why I’m back here, there’s this. Until next time.

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