What have been the keys to the Toronto Raptors improvement?
Finishing last season as the fourth seed in the Eastern conference, the Toronto Raptors have stepped up their game this season, sporting a 39-19 record (.672 winning percentage) to fall within 2 games of the conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers.
Improvement has been a hallmark of the Raptors under head coach Dwane Casey since he took over before the 2011-12 season. But their development has yet to translate to playoff success.
Two straight first-round playoff losses have the Raptors chomping at the bit this year to prove they belong in the conversation for title contention. Although playoff success is the goal, regular season performance typically acts as a good predictor of playoff performance. The Raptors have had a regular season that puts them in the NBA’s upper echelon, on pace for more than 50 wins.
This Raptors’ team entrance into the NBA’s elite can be attributed to internal player development and contributions from a deep and strong bench that was bolstered by some savvy offseason acquisitions.
Any discussion about the Raptors’ improvement this season must start with the development of their All-Star guard tandem in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The guards have gone from relative obscurity to one of the best guard duos in the league.
Kyle Lowry has cemented himself as a would-be-if-not-for-Curry MVP candidate with his recent stretch of hot play. Lowry won Eastern Conference player of the week, putting up averages of 28.7 points, 8.7 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game. He also had a triple double against the Knicks and a step back game-winner en route to a 43 point night against LeBron James and the first place Cleveland Cavaliers in a prime time matchup to assert their contender status.
DeMar DeRozan has been known primarily as a scorer throughout his career because of his penchant for taking his opponent one-on-one off the dribble. Usually, that’s considered an inefficient practice, but it seems that the more DeRozan works on creating his own shot, the better he shoots. The amount of field goals unassisted for DeRozan rose from 55% last season to 68.4% this season, yet his field goal percentage rose from 41.3% to 44.2%.
DeRozan’s isolation play is effective both inside and outside the paint. He is aggressive and getting to the line a career high 8.2 times per game, which is good for third in the NBA. When he’s not driving and getting to the line inside the paint, he’s hitting 50% of the 140 pull-up jump shots he’s taken this season, according to NBA.com.
The duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the third highest scoring backcourt in the league and first in the East with 44.5 points per night, but the credit for the Raptors’ regular season success can’t be solely attributed to Toronto’s starting guards. The Raptor’s bench has played an incredibly important role in the team’s general improvement as well. Each bench player for the Raptors this season has played an important role in the functioning of the team as one cohesive unit.
Cory Joseph was signed this offseason to a nifty 4 year/$30 million contract to add some spark off the bench. Joseph injects energy into the team with his dazzling crossovers that have left Brian Roberts and Bradley Beal victim. He plays an important role off the bench as someone who can drive hard and find crafty ways to shift his weight and score around the rim. When he can’t find the space to get his shot off, he still commands enough attention to draw other defenders in for easy kick-outs to other bench-mob members Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson.
Bismack Biyombo is a great defensive complement to the Raptors offensively-minded starting center, Jonas Valunciunas. Although a lot is left to be desired on the offensive end from Biyombo, he knows his place and doesn’t get in the way of the functioning offense. He sets good screens and knows where to be and when to be there.
On the defensive side of the ball is where Biyombo makes his biggest impact. Among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season, Biyombo ranks fifth in holding opponents to just 44.9% shooting when he’s guarding them according to Nylon Calculus. Not to mention he gobbles up 13 rebounds per 36 minutes. The Raptors were savvy this offseason to acquire him for a measly $6 million over two years, considering they are 28-0 on the season when holding opponents to under 100 points.
Terrence Ross is having the best shooting season of his career and providing a major service to the offense from the bench. He has accepted his role as a floor spacer for the drive-happy Lowry, DeRozan, and Joseph, attempting a career-high 56.6% of his field goals from 3 point range while improving his 3-point percentage from 37% last season to 39.4% this season. His true shooting percentage has increased from 51.9% to 57.1% while his offensive rating has gone from 103 to 111.
While the Raptors have a long way to go before they can consider themselves serious contenders for the NBA championship considering that they haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since the 2000-01 season, they look like the most reasonable bet to knock off the Cavaliers in the East right now. The improvement of their starting backcourt and the savvy bench acquisitions to aid their cohesiveness will go a long way come playoff time.
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