How good are the Raptors, really?
So much of this season — on the back of last year’s championship run — has hinged on figuring out exactly what’s what with Toronto’s roster this year and whether or not the defending champions can put together a serious defence of their crown. That’s why I’ve created this report that zeroes in on exactly how the Raptors are performing against stiff competition in relation to those around them.
Best vs. the best vs. the rest
After starting out the season 5-12 against plus-.500 teams, Toronto has gone 6-2 over their last eight games. Over that span, the Raptors have an offensive rating of 114.9 and a defensive rating of 106.8. And yes, that’s despite all the injuries the team has suffered. The two losses came against the Bucks (without Marc Gasol and Norman Powell) and the Nuggets (without Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Gasol). Resilient is not a good enough word to describe this team, they are a level above that. If there is a word above resilient then I thank you in advance for letting me know in the comments. Basically, never underestimate the heart of a champion and all that jazz.
The Bucks, Lakers and Raptors being a combined 105-10 against teams with a negative net rating is pretty hilarious.
Current contention status
The biggest and best thing about these Raptors is that they will scratch and claw and hold on for dear life and even when they look as though they’ve fallen off the ledge Nick Nurse inspires some Houdini act to bring back them back from the dead. Write them off at your own peril. For all that might be questioned about not having the traditional appearance of a true contender in the absence of a superstar and what their halfcourt offence looks like with Pascal Siakam as the focal point going up against elite defences, I know this much:
If you are going to take the Larry O.B. out of Toronto, you are going to have compete until you literally have nothing left to give, continuously solve the revolving door of defensive schemes Nurse throws at you, and play with the same level of expectation of winning that the defending champions have because they’ve done it before.
Looking ahead, Norman Powell has gone from being potential X-Factor to Toronto’s second-best scoring option in the half-court. Throw in the amount of transition opportunities he helps facilitate and this is a significant offensive burden lifted off the shoulders of Pascal Siakam. To the Cameroonian’s credit, he is showing signs of improvement in terms of reading where double teams are coming from, how he can draw specific defenders in depending on what move he goes to, and then create a terrific passing opportunity. Their last game against the Jazz was a prime example. Throw in the short mid-range jumpers he’s been hitting with more regularity of late and there are real signs that this next phase could be another one we look at and say, ‘Hey, this is when Siakam made The Leap.’
Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the respective combinations of LeBron James and Anthony Davis as well as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all represent the level of talent that could, and will be favoured to, undo the Raptors’ title hopes — the Celtics’ assembly of wings will likely have their say in the second round — but Toronto has established they will be the immovable object. Just how unstoppable those forces can be will be the question.
Of course, the other big question is whether or not they’ll actually be healthy come the playoffs. Through 64 games, the Raptors have played a grand total of five games with the entire roster healthy and so it’s becoming harder and harder to anticipate that the trend will be reversed when it matters most.
General league observations
Showdown weekend was one worth remembering, with LeBron James playing some of his basketball and the Lakers showing enough to make believers of any doubters that they can topple not only the Clippers in the playoffs, but the Bucks as well. As Mike Budenholzer continues to show his inability to coach off feel and puts all his eggs in one basket — with an admittedly incredibly effective strategy — I struggle more and more to see how he can coach the Bucks to victory over either the Lakers or Clippers in a seven-game series. Is it weird to think the Bucks are favourites to come out of the East but that the Raptors or Celtics are bigger threats to either of the L.A. teams?
The Sixers have entered a steady decline in the customized standings above but it must be noted that they have a minus-17.2 net rating over their last three games against the Bucks, Clippers and Lakers — all games in which they were missing Ben Simmons or both Joel Embiid and Simmons. Their season seems destined to go up in flames much like the Celtics did last year and it’ll be interesting to see how they navigate the off-season if things do indeed transpire in that fashion.
Houston trading Clint Capela and prioritizing Russell Westbrook in their offence was done with the intention of raising their floor, and while we’ve seen some of that, they’re in a phase where we’re also seeing that it reduced their floor. The Rockets toying with variance? Colour me shocked.