What We Learned About Toronto Raptors During Season's First Half
With a high seed in the Eastern Conference at stake and just the second Atlantic Division crown in franchise history hanging in the balance, the Toronto Raptors will look to expand on their (surprisingly) productive first half of the season and continue making a positive impression around the league.
This team was just 15-26 at this point in 2012-13 as they searched for redemption and some semblance of success after an awful 4-19 start.
Now this season has certainly had its ups and downs, but being a game above the .500 mark at 21-20 at the midway point of the schedule is certainly something to be proud of.
There's a buzz in the city of Toronto surrounding the Raptors that hasn't been there for quite some time. It seems too good to be true, so you almost want to pinch yourself to be sure that you're not just imagining things.
It's caught a lot of people by surprise, that's for sure.
This was supposed to be another rebuilding year as the team searched for a new identity under the tutelage of reigning NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri. Turning the Raptors into a winning product was going to be a process and not something that happened overnight.
Do you think anyone is complaining though?
From the aftermath of a blockbuster trade which shook the roster to its core to the emergence of not one, but two players with legitimate All-Star credentials, here's a look back at what we've learned about the Raptors after 41 games and what this all means for the months that lie ahead.
Defense Has Been a Staple of the Raptors' Early Success
What head coach Dwane Casey has achieved by turning the Toronto Raptors into one of the top defensive teams in the NBA is truly remarkable.
One of the reasons he was hired for the position in the first place was due to a reputation he created for himself by helping anchor the defense of the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
The backbone of any great basketball team is its defense, so if the Raptors were to remain competitive with some of the upper-echelon rosters around the league, they would need to improve in that department.
Toronto ranks sixth in defensive efficiency at 100.0, which is the amount of points the team allows per 100 possessions. They're also sixth in opponents turnovers at 15.2, which is surprising considering the Raptors aren't in the top half of the NBA in either steals (7.1) or blocks (4.5).
The 96.2 points per game scored by the opposition is third-best in the association.
During a five-game winning streak from Dec. 27 to Jan. 3, the Raptors held opponents to under 90 points on four occasions, including a 79-point outing from the Chicago Bulls on New Year's Eve.
This isn't the work of one man. There isn't one guy on the Raptors who's recognized around NBA circles as being an elite defender. It's simply been a team concept that all of the players have bought into.
When the energy and effort is there on the defensive end, there is no one in the league Toronto can't hang with.
A Solid Bench Can Make a World of Difference
On top of the financial stability that came with trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento, the assortment of talent Toronto received in the deal to shore up the depth on its bench was just as valuable, if not more so.
The combination of Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes have been a godsend for this team, playing important minutes for the Raptors and providing peace of mind should the inevitable injury ever occur to any of the starters.
The likes of Dwight Buycks, D.J. Augustin (from earlier in the year), Steve Novak and Landry Fields were not giving Dwane Casey the desired results. Having four former Kings players who all have experience playing alongside one another come in was an immediate upgrade over anything this team was trolling out before.
Vasquez is a legitimate backup point guard for Kyle Lowry who can cause mismatches with his size, Hayes provides a veteran voice in the locker room and strong defense around the rim, Salmons is instant offense and Patterson, who may be the biggest surprise of all, can rebound and score inside and out.
Right now, I'd take any one of Patterson, Salmons and Vasquez for Gay, straight-up. How did that trade happen?— cathalkelly (@cathalkelly) January 4, 2014
The second unit as a whole only averages 25.9 points, which is 26th in the NBA. A lot of that has to do with how poorly the bench was producing prior to the trade.
As we progress further into the season, the Raptors will need to continue getting big nights out of its underrated bench mob, if only to help take some of the load off the shoulders of guys like Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who both average over 36 minutes apiece.
Terrence Ross Isn't a Lost Cause
Patience isn't a strong suit of the everyday NBA fan, especially when it comes to the play of rookies and second-year players.
The struggles of Terrence Ross early in his career were no secret to anyone, but now it appears that he's ready to turn the corner and become a valuable contributor to this basketball team.
The departure of Rudy Gay freed up more shots and minutes in the rotation for someone like Ross, but unless he was willing to step up and take on those new challenges and opportunities head on, it would have been all for naught.
There are still some growing pains that present themselves on occasion.
His consistency just isn't there as of yet. He's been known to string together solid performances for two- or three-game stretches and then completely disappear and be a non-factor.
To be fair, his overall play has been night and day from what it was just a year ago.
While his shooting from the field still needs work (40.7 to just 40.9 percent), his ability to stretch the floor and knock down three-pointers with relative ease (33.2 to 39.3 percent) helps keep him off the bench.
His perimeter defense has also taken strides in the right direction. He's become more adept at keeping his man in front of him and using his quickness and athleticism to his advantage, rather than losing his concentration and constantly being blown by off the dribble.
Ross was never running on borrowed time, but there were certainly those who were starting to raise their eyebrows at him in a negative way.
The second half of the season will provide all of us with a further understanding of where he's at with his game as he continues to grow.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry Are Both Worthy of NBA All-Star Consideration
The chances of both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan being selected as reserves for the 2014 NBA Eastern Conference All-Star team are slim to none, but if there was ever a year for two members of the Toronto Raptors to make it, this would be it.
In 2001, both Vince Carter and Antonio Davis were named to the squad, marking the first and only time in franchise history where that feat has been accomplished. Could Lowry and DeRozan earn that distinction and make history once again?
It's highly doubtful, but it's not because they don't deserve to.
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DeRozan has elevated his game to an entirely new level in a post-Rudy Gay world, averaging career-highs across the board. He's taken on more of a responsibility to score while also improving in his passing and making smarter decisions with the basketball.
It also helps his cause that other stars around the league are giving him a ringing endorsement.
My brother @DeMar_DeRozan better be a All-Star this year!! He is out here hoopin!!!!!!!— James Harden (@JHarden13) January 12, 2014
Lowry may not be putting up the scoring numbers that his teammate is, but you could make the case that the 27-year-old point guard is more important to the Raptors success than DeRozan.
From his clutch three-point shooting to his willingness to put his body on the line for the good of the team (leads the league in offensive fouls drawn with 20 as of Jan. 21, via Hoops Manifesto), Lowry has proven that he's as tough and reliable as they come.
Trade rumors and his expiring contract aside, Lowry is simply playing some of the best basketball of his career. NBA.com even has him ranked No. 10 on their KIA Race to the MVP Ladder.
Not bad for someone who was supposedly on his way out of town almost one month ago.
Tanking Is No Longer an Option
Are you still pining for Andrew Wiggins on the Toronto Raptors? How about Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker? Does the idea of Marcus Smart or Dante Exum donning the red and white tickle your fancy?
I believe it was St. Louis' own Nelly who proclaimed in his hit song back in 2010 that "it was only just a dream."
That's as eloquently as I can put things for those select fans who continue crossing their fingers and toes for a high lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft. The Raptors aren't awful enough (in fact, they're not awful at all) to be in the conversation for any one of those aforementioned names.
That train has come and gone, my friends.
It would take a rather monumental collapse in the standings to catch up with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers (14-28), Orlando Magic (11-32) and Milwaukee Bucks (8-33), and that doesn't even include some of the bottom feeders in the Western Conference.
It's not out of the realm of possibility, but those teams have set themselves up for failure this season and are now looking to this deeper than deep 2014 draft class as their ultimate opportunity to strike it rich.
There's no turning back now for the Raptors. If "tanking" was something Masai Ujiri truly wanted to do, he would have made his intentions abundantly clear by now through his words and actions.
The franchise is all in.
Why would anyone even think of halting their progression by throwing in the towel at such an impromptu time?
If Ujiri wants to move up in the draft, he'll find a way to do so this summer. It would be difficult, but not impossible.
Follow Toronto Raptors Featured Columnist Christopher Walder on Twitter at @WalderSports