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Views From The Six: The Toronto Raptors Are Ready To Make Some Noise

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto has established itself as Cleveland’s biggest rival in the East.

It’s getting a bit old. Watching LeBron James is an absolute pleasure, but watching him effortlessly roll to the Finals for most of the past five seasons has just gone on far too long. That’s why the parity that has persisted past the halfway point of the season in the NBA’s Eastern Conference is encouraging. 

It’s not that no one wants LeBron in the Finals, just more so that we would collectively feel better if he went through tougher oppositions. With the East starting to catch up to the West, it shouldn’t be an easy road to the finals for LeBron this year, even if he has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy.

Between the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks, the Detroit Pistons and the Miami Heat — whenever they finally get healthy and figure it out — it is night and day from The King’s path just a year ago. Yet even with this added parity, the team that seems most poised to not only finally win a playoff series, but challenge the Cavs, is the Toronto Raptors.

The first question: how can a team that hasn’t won a playoff series with this core the past two seasons be capable of doing this — especially over tested teams like Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston who have all faced the Cavs in the postseason? Will Toronto ever be taken seriously beyond the team that Drake owns/raps about/goes to games for? Let’s just say between offseason improvements and the bad taste left in their mouths from a grueling sweep to Washington, it’s finally Toronto’s time. If you don’t believe my word at face value, check the numbers.

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Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down Toronto’s offseason improvements falls under two categories: roster changes (namely player acquisitions), and self-improvement. Toronto saw Landry Fields, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes, Amir Johnson, Greg Stiemsma, Greivis Vásquez, and Lou Williams depart. While that’s a lot of names, Toronto was shedding mostly useless players.

Johnson is the big loss, a big man who can defend well and shoot. But Williams and Vasquez, despite taking with them 25 points per game, also took with them below average decision making and shooting percentages of 40%. After Kyle Lowry’s breakout All-Star season, they weren’t really that necessary, and a cheaper alternative for Vasquez with more defense seemed more appealing.

As that old group departed, Toronto sought out any quality players or misfits they felt could round out their team around Lowry and fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan. They found just that in Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo, and DeMarre Carroll.

Joseph was pried from San Antonio to play the back-up point, tight defense and possibly feature with Lowry in a dual-point guard lineup. Scola was brought in to be a rotation big, but has shot the ball so well from three — 42 percent — that he’s made up for a lot of what they lost in Amir Johnson. Scola, though, cannot defend close to the levels that Johnson did.

In Biyombo, Toronto was gambling on a young, elite rim protector with plenty of potential. So in some ways, the combination of Scola and Biyombo could be seen to cheaply compensate for Johnson’s departure. Their play has certainly exceeded expectations.

And then of course there was Carroll, the prized summer signing. Carroll was really supposed to be the glue guy and main missing link: an elite defender who could guard the best wing on other teams, hit the three with venom, and move up a position to play the four in a small-ball lineup. He’s only played in 23 games, currently due out until after the all-star break, but when he’s played he’s done just about everything.

ICYMI: @demarrecarroll1 w/ the game saving block last night. #WeTheNorth

— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 31, 2015

On paper the moves seemed fantastic, exactly what the Raptors needed. Yet, even with two All-Stars and some promising young players, this was never going to be a team that could contend for a championship. When the season started, however, it became apparent that several key players had truly stepped up their games, which created more reason for optimism than even for what the new additions brought.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has done a phenomenal job in Toronto lately, winning 97 games and back-to-back Atlantic Division titles since 2014. The view from the six is looking very pretty with Toronto 31-15 to start the year, just two games behind Cleveland. Casey’s Raptors have already taken down the Clippers (x2), Heat (x2), Celtics (x2), Hawks, Cavaliers, Spurs, and Thunder, and narrowly lost to the Warriors by a total of eight points over two games.

While their resume is extremely impressive, Casey knows the NBA to be a star-driven league. The role players and new additions have stepped up, but for his team to take the appropriate steps up, he needed even more from his two stars. And they’ve done just that.

In the current NBA season, Lowry is playing like the best point guard in the league other than Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. Additionally, DeRozan has reinvented himself as a scoring machine configured on efficiency, currently ninth in the NBA in scoring. As DeRozan and Lowry go, so go the Raptors, and when both guys are clicking they can hang with anyone in the league.

Only three duos in the NBA average more than Lowry and DeRozan: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lowry and DeRozan’s combined 44.1 points per game are the most of any duo in the Eastern Conference. But what makes the duo so hard to defend is how much they’ve improved as individuals this season.

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John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Kyle Lowry showed up for the preseason his teammates joked that he didn’t actually show up. They demanded Lowry show up and not send his “evil twin” Skinny Lowry in his place. Lowry’s reputation as a young player was being too heavy, and while he was in fine shape last year, the Philadelphia native came to camp ripped.

So if normal Lowry was already an All-Star, we should have expected a monster year from Skinny Lowry, right? On the season, Lowry is averaging career highs in points (21.0), rebounds (5.0), steals (2.2), FTA (5.6), 3P% (39.1%), and minutes played (36.6).

He’s averaging three more points per game this season, while still handing out over six assists per night. But you got to love that three point percentage returning to good graces after a sub-par shooting year last season. His capability from deep allows him to be a spot up threat now, giving Casey more options. Additionally, Lowry has turned himself into a notably good defender and is slaying the advanced metric leaderboards.

Lowry is 5th in win shares and 3rd in value over replacement player. His incredible play and immeasurable impact has landed him the starting point guard spot in the All-Star game this season, which will be in Toronto. The Raptors’ point guard’s new build has him more explosive and elusive than ever. Lowry might even be having too much fun this year.

Kyle Lowry 😂

— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 23, 2016

As Kyle Lowry enjoys a career year, Toronto still wouldn’t be making this much headway without a similar year from the second man of this dynamic duo, who was also named an all-star this year. 

DeRozan is ninth in the NBA averaging over 23.1 points per game, but it’s how he’s scoring that’s taken his game to another level. While #10 can hit open threes in a gym, it’s just not his forte. Some people prefer blondes to brunettes. DeRozan prefers twos to threes. It’s no surprise that he’s second in the league in two-point field goal attempts. That being said, he is hitting a career high 32% from three and says he will take the open looks the defense gives him. 

Now, how exactly does a volume shooter hit 44% of his shots when he’s not a good three point shooter? It’s not a simple answer; he does so in a lot of ways. DeRozan has improved as both a post-up player and pick and roll ball handler, which is easier with Lowry as a spot up threat. All of this has led to mismatches from switching, as well as more fouls drawn. DeRozan is currently taking a career-high eight free throw attempts per game (he’s 3rd in the league in free throws attempted) and hitting almost 85% of them, also a career high.

But what also makes DeRozan such a difficult guard is his movement. Per Ian Levy of the Cauldron, DeRozan moves more than almost any other player. Defenders have to stick tight to DeMar, despite his lack of three point shooting because he’s always making sneaky cuts and getting hard screens for him. DeRozan is also tossing a career high 4.1 assists per game.

While he is still a so-so defender, DeRozan is learning how to score more efficiently and effectively this year. And he’s doing all this while posting the highest usage percentage of his career at 29.2%. It also doesn’t hurt to be an incredible athlete who can churn out acrobatic finishes like this on a nightly basis.

DeMar DeRozan goes up-and-under!

— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 19, 2016

It also doesn’t hurt to be able to fly like superman and dunk like Vince Carter:

Demar Derozan’s dunk on Okafor (Vine by Sports Craze™)

— Hairdryer Treatment (@HDTreatmentBlog) January 11, 2016

Two all-stars, a great home crowd, and quality offseason additions have Toronto enjoying tremendous success on both sides of the ball. While their stars have improved their game, much is credited to the likes of Terrence Ross shooting the ball better, Jonas Valančiūnas staying solid, and everyone else really finding a nice role to fill. All of these well-defined roles are a key ingredient as to why Toronto has been able to stir up success on both ends of the floor.

The Raptors were a phenomenal offensive team last season, and despite Carroll and others missing time, they are 6th in the league in offensive efficiency. In fact, they only trail the Cavaliers by 0.5 points per 100 possessions for the best offense in the East.

While the Raptors are excelling offensively just like last season, they have seen a remarkable turnaround on the other side of the ball. In Carroll, Joseph, and Biyombo they gained three very strong defenders, and that has helped lead the Drakes to a top-10 defense. Biyombo’s impact, especially with Carroll having missed over 20 games, has certainly been felt the most.

The fourth year man and former lottery pick of Sacramento in 2011 is blocking 2.4 shots and grabbing 13 rebounds per 36 minutes. He also happens to be 13th in defensive real plus-minus, ahead of players like Nerlens Noel and Dwight Howard. Biyombo additionally is 5th in total rebounding percentage (20.9%), 3rd in the NBA in block percentage (5.5%), and 9th in raw points saved per 36 (6.36), via Nylon Calculus

Biz cleaning the glass. #RTZ

— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 27, 2016

Alongside Biyombo’s elite rim protection, the rest of the team has stepped it up collectively, especially Lowry. Lowry ranks 2nd among point guards in defensive real plus-minus, 2nd in steals per game, and 6th in steal percentage. Toronto again is doing all of this without Carroll, who is not only a great individual and help defender, but is someone who can play and guard multiple positions. 

Another crucial detail in Toronto’s defensive improvement, according to Lowry, is a change in their scheme. On a podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Lowry explained that the team is in fact applying a more conservative approach defending the pick-and-roll, with their bigs dropping deep. With the guards fighting over screens, the Raptors are taking on a popular scheme to eliminate shots from beyond the arc and in the paint. 

The only other team in the East to sport top-10 efficiencies on both sides of the ball is Cleveland. So when comparing Toronto to Cleveland’s other rivals in the East, not only are they the most efficient team, with one of the strongest benches, but they have an extra key ingredient that most teams lack: star power.

Sure, the Pacers have Paul George. Sure, the Bulls have Jimmy Butler. But they don’t have two high level stars in their prime - no disrespect to Miami, but both Bosh and Wade are on the decline. The Raptors star power should give them a bit more than anyone else can offer and that extra bit to trade more punches with James, Irving and Love.

DeMar DeRozan reverse alley-oop dunk against 76ers RT @BattlesNBA:

— ThatNBALotteryPick (@ThatNBAPick) January 10, 2016

They have two stars, a top-10 defense, a strong bench, three point shooting, and an amazing home court advantage. With Lowry and DeRozan having career years, if Toronto can get a healthy DeMarre Carroll for the playoffs, the Raptors look prime to win more than just one playoff series come spring time.

There’s plenty of parity in the Eastern Conference, and Toronto will have plenty of work to do to even play the Cavs. They just set a franchise record for their longest winning streak at 10 games. Toronto matches up as well as you can against the Cavs with an elite point guard to guard Irving, an elite wing to guard LeBron, and an elite rim protector in Biyombo. Only time will tell, but it may finally be time to “Fear the North.”

*All stats via, Basketball Reference, ESPN Hollinger and Nylon Calculus 

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

Where did DeMar DeRozan go to college?
Created 1/27/16
  1. UCLA
  2. USC
  3. Arizona
  4. Duke

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