After a summer spent turning over a significant chunk of the roster, the Toronto Raptors have never looked better. Winners of nine of the last 10 games and 20-8 overall, no team in franchise history has played at a higher pace or scored more points per 100 possessions. Only two other teams this season, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive rating.
This is, of course, by design. Shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers unceremoniously eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs, team President Masai Ujiri made clear that his roster needed “a culture reset.” No longer would Coach Dwane Casey be solely reliant on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, long the bona fide all-stars of the franchise. No longer would the team play at one of the slowest paces in the league, turning games into grind-to-a-halt stalemates. Instead, the team would rev the offensive throttle, take analytically-advantageous shots in the half court and spread its length defensively along the perimeter to mitigate three-pointers.
Those alterations make Toronto a contending unit against both conferences. Armed with enough firepower to trade punches with the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers, the Raptors match up well with all three. Toronto’s strengths fall directly in line with the deficiencies of the Rockets, Warriors and Cavaliers, too.
The Rockets, Warriors and Cavaliers have noticeable struggles on the defensive end — namely, in transition, against dribble penetration and the runners that result from said action, and defending the roll man in pick-and-roll sets. Against each play type, all three rank in the bottom half of the league in points allowed per possession. Toronto ranks third, eighth and third, respectively, in points per possession on those play types.
Quick-twitch ball movement has been key for the Raptors in generating points. Last year, with Toronto holding the ball for a league-leading 3.02 seconds per touch, an NBA-high 52.8 percent of Raptors baskets were unassisted. Casey’s squad has shaved more than eight percentage points off that figure and, after finishing the 2016-17 season 29th in assists per 100 possessions, Toronto now sits firmly in the top half of the league in the metric.
Ball movement has simply led to better looks. The Raptors took a league-worst 15.3 percent of shots last season with a defender more than six feet away, or what NBA.com considers “wide open.” This season, that is up to 25.3 percent.
Golden State, Houston and Cleveland aren’t elite in many areas, but they certainly aren’t at disallowing open looks; each allows opponents to shoot more than 23 percent of attempts with six feet or more space. As is always the case, open looks are the most efficient, sustainable shots in basketball. If Toronto’s offense can find those gleaming avenues for scoring — as it has throughout the season — then it gives the team an even better chance of scoring with or outscoring its opponent.
Some of the offensive improvements are attributable to shot makeup. Attempts at the rim and beyond the three-point line, in terms of expected point value, represent some of the best looks in the modern game. Toronto is taking 6.5 more three pointers per 100 possessions than it did last season, jumping from 20th to seventh in the league rankings. When it comes to shots from less than five feet, Casey’s team has jumped from 22nd in attempts to fifth.
Fueled by a seemingly tireless motor this season, the Raptors rank third in transition points per possession (1.19) and have scored the sixth-most points of any team on the break.
Lowry and DeRozan finally have help, too.
It’s been five years since Lowry averaged this few minutes, shot attempts, points and usage, yet he’s posting the second-highest true-shooting percentage of his career. DeRozan is averaging the second-fewest minutes of his career and his shot attempts are down, yet he’s posting a career-high true-shooting percentage (57) and assist rate (23.9 percent) and is within sniffing distance of a career-high player efficiency rating. The bench has also picked up the slack: Toronto’s second unit is scoring 38.3 points per contest (12th most); last season it scored just 31.8 (fifth fewest).
Houston, Golden State and Cleveland are deft at pouncing on second-units, waiting for opponents to substitute in bench players only to pick them apart with ease. Having a bench unit capable of treading water is critical in these elite-level matchups. If the season ended Monday, this would be Toronto’s best second unit in franchise history, as defined by net rating. The Raptors don’t need to worry about watching the scoreboard implode when DeRozan and Lowry are substituted out, because there are capable replacements ready for action.
Defensively, the Raptors, brimming with length on the wings, have moved up the league rankings in deflections (15.6 per game, second most), loose balls recovered (7.1 per game, eighth) and contested shots (61.6 per game, 11th). Casey’s defensive acumen is taking hold along the perimeter; only three teams allow fewer three-pointers per 100 possessions than Toronto (25.9). Last season, the Raptors ceded the 10th-most.
It’s no secret that Houston, Golden State and Cleveland represent three of the top three-point shooting teams of all time. Indeed, the three lead the entire league in three-pointers made per contest. Only eight teams more efficiently defend the three-point line, according to data provided by Synergy Sports. Diluting the effectiveness of the most potent aspect of an opponent’s offense is paramount in these matchups. And Toronto — finally — evokes fear along the perimeter.
In terms of net rating, or the difference in points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions, Toronto is the third-best team in the NBA this year, making the Raptors are the least-discussed contending team in the league. In some respects, this is for good reason; Toronto has never reached the Finals before. But this season, armed with a progressive, near-inverted offensive methodology and a sturdy, hyperactive defense, the Raptors are racking up wins in new ways. The rest of the league would do well to take note.
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