From Playoff Pretender to Legitimate Contender

The Toronto Raptors have proven that regular-season success doesn’t mean a thing if a successful run in the postseason does not follow it.
But it’s hard not to take notice of the fact that, after an offseason marked by a franchise-altering level of change, the Raptors have not only picked up right where they left off in last year’s regular season, but – at least through the early part of the season – very much have the look of a team ready to go from playoff pretender to legitimate contender.

Through the first six games of the 2018-2019 season, Toronto has the second-highest point differential in the NBA (+10.8 points), and are tied for the second-most points per game scored (116.8 points). On Monday evening, they’ll be playing in one of the NBA’s marquee matchups, as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks, who just so happen to be the only other team in the NBA with a 6-0 record (like Toronto).

There’s some irony to the fact that the Bucks and the Raptors are the two hottest teams to start this season. The Bucks were something of a “known commodity”: a young and athletic team that was on the cusp of being a true force in their conference, especially after pairing an established head coach (Mike Budenholzer) with a ready-to-become-a-superstar talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But we didn’t have anywhere near that level of certainty with Toronto. After finishing with the best record in the East last year, and even accumulating more regular season wins than the Golden State Warriors, the Raptors were not only completely embarrassed and obliterated by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers yet again, forcing the franchise to take a long and difficult look at its current construction.

Fans of the NBA know what happened next. The Raptors dismissed head coach Dwayne Casey, who just so happened to be the reigning NBA Coach of the Year, and elevated assistant coach Nick Nurse to become Casey’s replacement. The Raptors traded away DeMar DeRozan, who not only was named All-NBA Second-Team last year, but might’ve been the most beloved player on the team by the fans. And in exchange for DeRozan, the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs, the latter of whom missed virtually all of the 2017-2018 season with a strange and oft-discussed leg injury.

Needless to say, at least early on, General Manager Masai Ujiri’s new-look Raptors have provided emphatic answers to all of the questions about whether all the changes that took place were for the better.

Leonard has been everything the Raptors could have hoped for, averaging a team-high 26.6 points per game (13th in the NBA), eight rebounds, three assists, and 1.6 steals per game; the idea that Leonard might not be at 100%, and/or could get better as the season goes on, has to send a cold sweat down the backs of Eastern Conference rivals.

While it’s very early, point guard Kyle Lowry is on pace to shatter his career-high in assists, as he currently dishes out over ten assists per game to what’s easily one of the deepest rosters in the NBA (and he’s scoring just under 20 points per game himself to boot).

The Raptors five-man lineup of Leonard, Lowry, Green, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka have the second-highest net rating among qualifying five-man lineups this season. Even Jonas Valanciunas, who gets the start for the Raptors most nights, is on pace for a career season himself, with a current player efficiency rating of 27.3, which not only leads the Raptors but is among the top 20 in the league.

What makes Toronto even more fascinating, if not scary, is the fact that they can now count quality (in the form of a bona fide star in Leonard) as well as quality (in the form of the incredible depth of wing players possessed by the Raptors). The Raptors are legitimately a 10-deep team, with guys like OG Anunoby (for whom they have very high hopes), Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and Greg Monroe all on their bench. While the rest of the NBA praised the Boston Celtics for having the collection of guys that allows them to play both big or small lineups, Toronto can do the same thing.

In fact, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, one of the most respected writers on the NBA beat, astutely made the observation that the Raptors almost have something of a “Houston Rockets North” feel to them: a team full of wing players, orchestrated by a veteran point guard, with a coach who’s given the team the green light to shoot three-point attempts or attack the rim.

After all, as Windhorst pointed out, Nurse “grew up” in the Houston Rockets system, having coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Houston’s D-League affiliate) to a D-league title in 2011. Less than two years later, the Raptors hired Nurse to become Casey’s assistant, effectively serving as the team’s offensive coordinator. Many people around the team and the league credit Nurse with being the guy who transformed Toronto’s offense into one that features more ball movement and more three-point shooting. Given the team’s current construction, and given Nurse now being the man in charge, both of those offensive components should only increase.

If you take a good look at any shot chart among Toronto’s wins this season, you’ll see a whole bunch of dots right around the hoop, or scattered behind the three-point line. Leonard is averaging over four three-point attempts per game, the second-highest mark of his career. Lowry is connecting from three at just under 52%. Green is shooting a team-high 6.7 attempts from three per game, hitting them at a 45% clip. Once Toronto starts getting to the free throw line more (they’re currently 26th in free throws attempted per game), that’s going to make this team even more dangerous.

With a win against Milwaukee, Toronto can officially put the rest of the Eastern Conference on notice, especially after already picking up a win against the Boston Celtics (whom everyone presumed to be the favorites in the East). Sure, there’s still plenty of basketball to be played, but the fact that the Raptors have been able to accomplish what they have while they’re still coming together in this newly constructed iteration of a team should be rather ominous for any of Toronto’s Eastern Conference foes.

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