On cloud nine? This year’s version of the Toronto Raptors seems legit

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By L.C.

The Toronto Raptors have been a good to almost great regular season team since the 2013/14 season. Their combined record from then to now has them at a very pretty and impressive 126-82; a total of 44 games over the .500 mark. They have won back to back Division titles (likely headed for a third) and are currently riding an eight game winning streak putting them second in the East only a few games behind the supposedly scary Cleveland Cavaliers.

Being a team from Canada, basketball has certainly evolved over the years and players who have dawned Raptors jerseys would be the first to tell you they are starting to get the respect they deserve from their opponents and from American media outlets. Time, patience, success and consistency have started to slowly change but the team from Toronto won’t warrant the respect they seek until they overcome their playoff demons and move past the first round of the playoffs.

To shed a little light on their team history, Toronto has won a first round playoff series once dating back to 2000/01 when Vince Carter was a member of the team. Since then their playoff record is a combined 8-19 losing series’ in pretty embarrassing fashion to the Detroit Pistons, New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and more recently the Washington Wizards. Their roster wasn’t always perfect and they never seemed to get the best from their go to guys when the game got close but the fact of the matter is in order to get noticed around the NBA, you have to perform when it counts and the Raptors have yet to prove they can do that. This year, like most Toronto sports fans love to say, could be different.

According to Hollinger ESPN stats, the Raptors currently sit sixth in total offensive efficiency behind teams who are widely considered to be the NBA’s elite in Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. That stat may not mean much to most Raptors fans as they actually ranked higher last season and finished third in total offensive efficiency, so why am I mentioning this as a positive? The Raptors got swept by the Wizards! Here is why and I will get to an even more important stat after.

Last year the Raptors were an offensive team to a flaw. Sure they put up points (108.1 compared to this year’s current 105.2) but they were a much worse defensive team than they are right now. These are Lou Williams’ (-3.1), Greivis Vasquez’ (-2.2, -2.1,) and Tyler Hansbrough’s (-0.5, -0.2) defensive box plus/minus when they played for Toronto which happen to all sit on the negative side. The players general manager Masai Ujiri replaced them with – Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph – have posted a combined defensive plus/minus rating of +1.8 compared to a combined rating of -8.1 from the other three players no longer around. While it may not be a revealing statistic for most, it does go to show how Toronto’s defensive game has improved without the offensive minded Williams and Vasquez. Oh and to make matters worse, Williams’ and Vasquez hold a combined defensive rating of -6.6 this year on their new teams. Meanwhile in Williams’ only season with the Raptors he did post a Win Share (An estimate of the number of wins contributed by a single player) of 6.6 which was the highest of his career. This season with the Los Angeles Lakers it has dropped to a 3.3 while Vasquez posted a combined WS of 5.4 during his two seasons with the Raptors. This season? It’s at -0.1 with the Milwaukee Bucks. While I hate to point the finger at former players, it’s evident based on these stats that Ujiri made a good call in letting Williams walk and trading Vasquez for assets.

Getting back to team stats, the Raptors are winning games so far this season thanks to a balanced offense mixed in with a significantly improved defense. According to Hollinger’s stats, the Raptors were 23rd in total defensive efficiency last year (104.8) compared to this year where they sit 10th with a rating of 100.9, respectively. This also goes back to who Ujiri brought in to replace his single minded offensive players. In addition, Toronto’s defensive rebound rate is currently fifth best in the NBA at 78.1 compared to last year’s 73.3, which had them tied in 24th place. Last but not least, the Raptors are holding opponents to 96.8 points per game – currently fourth best in the NBA – where last year they ended the season allowing opponents to score 101 PPG which was 19th best. Considering the Raptors finished third in the East last year with 48 wins while posting below average defensive statistics proves they weren’t as good as many people thought.

I am detailing these stats because they are important to make note of. While Toronto struggled mightily last year to maintain a defensive edge, it’s a different story so far this season thanks to a much better approach at both end’s of the floor. Keep in mind the Raptors have played most of this year without Carroll – their prized free agent signing who excels on defense – and without Jonas Valanciunas as both missed time with injury. Add that to how Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have played, the Raptors are getting contributions from a number of players in a variety of different ways. More importantly their role players don’t just come off the bench to score and instead are finding ways to play efficient and good all around basketball leading the Raptors to their current 29-15 record and eight game win streak.

While the Raptors still aren’t considered a top tier team (they still have some issues closing out games in the fourth quarter and put up occasional clunkers versus teams below .500) they are proving they deserve to be labeled as threats due to their improved all around play. Ladies, gentleman and fellow fans and friends, the fact the Raptors are on this win streak should sit very well with all of you. While it won’t truly matter until they win a playoff series, the fact that these current statistics are all significantly better than the accomplished but flawed team who got swept last year means that the Raptors are headed in the right direction.

Let’s hope everything falls into place down the stretch.