After an offseason in which all Eastern Conference discourse ostensibly spotlighted the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, the tip-of-the-tongue Toronto Raptors (13-4) have played better than both. Management re-signed three of the team’s key players — Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson — and the three have certainly earned their contracts in the season’s initial months.
Coach Dwayne Casey’s team sits atop the Atlantic Division and holds the best record in the Eastern Conference. They Raptors are one of two teams in the east with winning records against Western Conference opponents, are 7-3 against teams with .500 and above records and are off to their best start in franchise history.
All of this was dealt a significant blow when all-star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan tore a tendon in his groin during the third quarter against Dallas Mavericks on Friday. The team stumbled without him Sunday and fell to the haphazard Los Angeles Lakers.
With DeRozan likely out for the next six weeks, the question becomes: What will the Raptors look like when he comes back?
DeRozan is an ironman, missing just 11 games over fives seasons before Friday’s injury. He’s been the linchpin of the Raptor offense for years. The former Southern Cal star was averaging a team-high 19.4 points and 4.2 rebounds before the injury, and although his shooting had digressed, his defense certainly was doing the opposite — averaging a career-high 1.4 steals per game. Perhaps more importantly, his usage rate is a career-high 28.5.
Without him, the team has a lower offensive rating, a higher turnover percentage and shoot a lower effective field goal percentage. But they’re posting practically the same defense rating, a higher assist percentage and a higher total rebound percentage without him on the court.
The unsung hero of the Raptors this season has been its bench. Last season, Toronto averaged just 26.1 points per game in bench scoring (third-worst in the NBA), and in the 2012-13 season their bench averaged just 33.9 points per game. This season the team’s bench is scoring 38.1 points per game; good for sixth-best in the league and the highest mark in more than a decade.
Terrence Ross is shooting a career-high 45 percent from the field, Louis Williams is playing better than he has in the last five years and shooting a career-high 40 percent from beyond the arc and there are a multitude of three-player combinations working effectively for Casey:
As a team that’s made the playoffs twice since 2000, the Raptors seem comfortable being the under-the-radar, oft-forgotten franchise in the preseason scramble. Losing DeRozan will hurt, there’s nobody denying that. But if he’s out for exactly one month from the date of his injury (Nov. 28) that leaves just 15 games he’ll miss; seven of the teams Toronto faces currently hold winning records, which isn’t a terrible ration. And it’s worth remembering how the team’s been winning this season: production from their bench.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Rivals, Denver Post, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He currently writes for Wall Street Journal Sports, the ESPN TrueHoop Network and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).