Breaking Down How the Toronto Raptors Are Shocking the NBA

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Breaking Down How the Toronto Raptors Are Shocking the NBA
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

The Toronto Raptors' ascent up the ranks of the Eastern Conference began with the trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, but it hasn't stopped since that fateful day in early December. 

Since the swap, Toronto has climbed all the way up to the No. 3 spot in the East with a 19-17 record, and it's a spot the Raptors should remain in throughout the 2013-14 season. The Atlanta Hawks will eventually falter without Al Horford, and no other team has the right mix of personnel and chemistry to make a serious run at No. 3. 

It's not like Toronto has been slowly crawling up the ranks, though. 

There's quite a bit of domination there. Everyone has been playing well, and the wins have been flowing into the record books. 

But why? 

Well, Gay loves controlling the rock. 

There's no secret there. According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's racked up three minutes of possession per game, though the number accounts for both the Sacramento and Toronto portions of his season. To put that in perspective, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant also check in at three minutes of ball-handling responsibilities each contest. 

So when that was eliminated from the Toronto game plan, someone had to pick up the slack. 

Well, not someone. Two someones: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

Take a look at how the pair of backcourt studs have performed since Gay played his last game for the Raptors, a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 6: 

Infogr.am.

Both players improved almost across the board. 

Lowry is shooting the ball more efficiently while racking up increasingly gaudy per-game assist and point totals. He's also more involved in the offense and dishing out the ball to teammates on a higher percentage of their made shots, all of which has led to a little bit of All-Star noise. 

As Mike Ganter writes for the Toronto Sun, "He has been the consummate team player in Year 2 of his Raptors tenure."

But DeRozan's growth has been even more key. 

In the past, the 24-year-old 2-guard looked to shoot and didn't try much else for the Raptors. But that's no longer the case, as he's actively seeking out teammates who have the ability to knock down more efficient shots. 

Since Gay was traded to Sacramento, DeRozan has recorded at least five assists in nine games, which makes up 50 percent of his outings. During the portion of 2013-14 that occurred before the deal, he was 1-of-18 when it comes to recording at least 50 cents worth of dimes.

That's only 5.6 percent. 

In 2012-13, DeRozan reached five assists in 12 of his 82 outings, which is only 14.6 percent. 

This is clearly a positive development, and it's allowed the Toronto offense to explore all new sorts of possibilities. Jonas Valanciunas, for example, thrives when he has a point guard or wing player willing to create for him, and the roster has quite a few players—Terrence Ross and Steve Novak—who enjoy spotting up beyond the arc. 

DeRozan is also playing off his previous reputation for reckless shooting, as you can see from the play below, which occurred in the Jan. 13 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

The dynamic 2-guard has used multiple screens to curl through the Bucks defense, and he emerges on the right wing just in time to catch a pass from Kyle Lowry. Khris Middleton got caught in traffic, so he's still catching up to DeRozan

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

His first move is a quick pump fake. 

After all, he had enough space to make the threat of a jumper a realistic one. And Middleton bites. 

Though he doesn't quite get into the air, the vertical movement is all DeRozan needs, so he takes off down the baseline. 

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

As DeRozan cuts beneath the basket, the entire Milwaukee defense collapses around him. 

Count them in the picture up above, and you'll notice that all five players are in the paint or close enough to touch it. Obviously that doesn't leave many players capable of closing out on the perimeter. 

From here, DeRozan has two options. 

He can either kick the ball out to Ross on the left wing, or he can hit Lowry near the top of the key. 

Screenshot from NBA.com's media archives.

Noticing that Giannis Antetokounmpo and his pterodactyl arms are waiting to close out on Ross, DeRozan makes the right call. He hits Lowry right in the bread basket, and the point guard drills the ensuing three-point attempt. 

That may only be one play, but it's emblematic of the way DeRozan has been playing since Gay left. 

Perhaps it's because he feels more responsibility in the offense. Perhaps it's because he knows that he can pass the ball without worrying about never touching it again during the possession. Perhaps Dwane Casey has finally realized that he should design plays, something that often didn't happen when Gay was functioning as an ineffective bail-out option. 

Regardless of the reason, DeRozan is playing the right kind of basketball. But he's not the only wing player who has broken out since Gay was moved to the Kings. 

Ross has as well. 

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Before Gay was traded, the uber-athletic Slam Dunk champion was averaging 6.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 assists per game. Since Dec. 6, he's moved into the starting lineup, putting up 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.9 assists during the average contest. 

Ross has become more than a transition finisher, as he's starting to hold down spots on the wings and drill three-pointers quite frequently. RaptorsHQ.com has even begun to question whether he could be a future All-Star, comparing him favorably to Klay Thompson: 

What Ross has shown is the ability to be an elite catch and shoot player at the level of Klay Thompson, something the Dinos should be able to harness as part of their offensive repertoire for years to come.  And defensively, he promises to provide much more than Thompson due to his length, quickness, and athletic ability. With these two pieces in tow, the Toronto Raptors look to have a very nice piece for the future and if he can continue to add to his game, fans may not be looking back at the 2012 NBA draft as the "we didn't pick Drummond draft."

But this isn't about any one player. 

The Raptors are playing winning basketball because they're starting to act like a team rather than a collection of individuals. Gay's shoot-first mentality—even when it came at the expense of efficiency—had a trickle-down effect for the rest of the roster. 

For better or for worse (usually for worse), he was the face of the franchise. Like when he banned box scores from the locker room, despite the Raptors' ahead-of-the-times mentality about adopting technology like SportVU cameras

But now, the Raptors have become a team, and they're playing quite well. 

All you need for proof is a look at the team's overall offensive numbers: 

  Points per Game FG% Assists per Game Turnovers per Game
Pre-Gay Trade 97.3 42.4 17.3 14.9
Post-Gay Trade 101.2 44.8 22.2 14.2

The most impressive part isn't the points per game, but rather the assists. 

Without a black hole/ball-stopper in the lineup, the Raptors are distributing the ball unselfishly, and they're recording a much higher number of assists per game. And at the same time, they're not turning the ball over as often. 

It all points toward winning basketball. 

Will the Toronto Raptors keep this up?

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The emergence of Lowry, who has developed from a mid-level starter into a bona fide stud, has been crucial. The passing skills of DeRozan open up all sorts of new possibilities in Casey's offense. Ross' emergence as a legitimate starter is key. 

But above all else, it's the newfound team mentality that is promoting winning basketball north of the border. And that's not going to change anytime soon. 

So much for tanking. 

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