The Toronto Raptors set the league on fire when they season started, winning 24 of their first 32 games, putting them atop the Eastern Conference, appearing destined for one of the best seasons in franchise history. Coach Dwane Casey piloted the frenetic aircraft to the apex of the East, but Toronto has since regressed, going 9-15 since the all-star break. What once was the No. 1 seed became a two, and now the team finds itself in a fight over the No. 3 seed, which would prevent a difficult first-round matchup with Washington in the playoffs.
Toronto is as polarizing as they come: A team that wins fourth quarters but has lost nine games this season when it led by double-digits. The Raptors take very few inefficient shots from the midrange, get to the free throw line in volume and rank 29th in bad passes leading to a turnover, yet are 13-17 in the last three months. Their box score denotes comprehensive above-average play, but the team has lost its footing and is as peculiar as Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas’s pregame ritual.
Injuries have derailed the roster. Even if DeMar DeRozan plays the final four games of the regular season, he’ll end it having missed the most games of any season in his career. Johnson, who is having a career year and is shooting the highest field goal percentage of any player on the team, suffered a severe ankle sprain and missed time. Perhaps the worst malady of them all is happening now: Kyle Lowry missed his seventh consecutive game Wednesday night because of back spasms, and it’s unclear when he’ll return. He hasn’t played since logging 10 minutes in a loss to the Detroit Pistons more than two weeks ago, and hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in more than three weeks. The all-star point guard is the team’s linchpin: insert him into the lineup and the team hums along, disconnect him and watch the team sputter.
Prior to the injury, Lowry was on pace to set career highs in scoring per 36 minutes and usage rate. After an all-star-worthy 2013-14 season, the Raptors signed the first big domino of free agent to a multiyear deal worth $48 million over four years. That investment coincided with Casey tasking Lowry with more of the scoring offense (a career-high 14.9 field goal attempts per game). In 66 games this season he regressed in shooting efficiency from inside (41.6 percent compared with 42.3 percent last season) and outside the arc (33.7 percent compared with 38 percent last season). But Lowry buoyed Toronto without DeRozan, the team’s leading-scorer.
Basketball pundits aren’t universally sold on the notion that experience begets playoff success. However, most would agree that a deep playoff run with Greivis Vasquez, who has been starting in Lowry’s place, at the helm, seems neither feasible nor ideal.
The Raptors are 6-6 without Lowry and have allowed opponents to reach the 100-point mark in six of those games. Protecting the basket has been the most glaring issue for Toronto this season: Casey’s roster held opponents to 98 points per game last season (seventh); opponents are scoring 101.2 (19th) this season. The lineup is a smorgasbord of players who over-help, who see protecting the paint as an arduous task and are pick-and-rolled into oblivion most nights. A season ago, Toronto gave up triple-digits in points 40 times combined in the regular season and playoffs—and the team has already given up triple-digits 45 times this season, allowing its once-stalwart defense to be lambasted by sub-standard opponents.
Opposing teams shoot a higher field goal percentage, crash the glass harder, and score at a higher clip without Lowry on the court; the reverse is true for Vasquez.
Lowry—the fast-twitch, more spatially aware of the two—is a more proficient defender. Vasquez hasn’t kept up with sprightly opposing point guards. In those situations, Casey chose to switch Vásquez onto shooting guards for his defensive assignment — plugging Terrence Ross, who also cannot defend light-footed point guards, into the spot. As expected in most instances where a 6-foot-7 small forward guards someone nearly a foot shorter, opposing teams have myriad avenues to expose the mismatch.
Vasquez does free-up scoring opportunities for DeRozan, though, who is averaging 24 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting in Toronto’s last 10. This is a team that takes the fifth-most pull-up jumpers of any team in the league and virtually plays isolation ball the whole game, with 10.3 percent of the team’s plays coming from the play type. Lowry creates 16 points per game through assists—the 10th-most of anyone in the league who has played 60 or more games. And Vasquez’s 8.6 highlights an obvious disparity, but ball movement has been ostensibly cleaner with Vasquez on the court. He’s one of the best three-point shooters that Casey has. The team has been taking care of its possessions, too: Toronto is averaging 12.75 turnovers in its four games in April, the lowest average of any month this season. Part of that falls on Vasquez, who has been handling the point position for an average of 33 minutes over the past five games.
Toronto’s get-out-and-run start to the season felt profound because it was: Toronto made the postseason last year for the first time since 2007-08 after starting slow (14-14 in the first 28) and ending with momentum (23-13 in the last 36). The same won’t be said about this season, even if the team blazes through its final four. Vasquez has certainly been serviceable in Lowry’s absence, but the versatility provided by Lowry’s two-way acumen is something Toronto needs if it hopes to rekindle the mythos of last year’s playoff run. As it stands, it looks like either way the team is in for an uphill climb in the playoffs.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).