The 2013-14 Toronto Raptors are nothing less than a pleasant surprise.
The question of whether a playoff berth is possible has already been answered, but can they further shatter preseason expectations and actually advance past the first round? With their talented personnel and advantageous playing style, it’s probable.
Unfairly labeled as tankers after dealing Rudy Gay two months into the season for the likes of Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and more cap filler (a deal that predictably made Toronto better), Toronto is now one of the most cohesive teams in basketball.
They refused to move Kyle Lowry and watched DeMar DeRozan become an All-Star. Few teams shoot the ball better. Few teams rotate so fluidly on the defensive end.
Right now they’re 38-29, two games up on the Brooklyn Nets for first place in the Atlantic Division and a fortunate three seed in the Eastern Conference. For Raptors fans, this territory is far from familiar.
Quick question: How many playoff series in NBA history have ended with the Raptors winning? That’d be one: Back in 2001, a 24-year-old Vince Carter led Toronto past the New York Knicks in five games (it was a five-game series).
That’s it. That’s Toronto basketball’s illustrious playoff history.
You know the phrase “treadmill of mediocrity?” How NBA teams that aren’t contending for a title or looking forward to the lottery can find themselves stuck in the middle, hopelessly losing in the first round every year?
For years, Toronto wasn’t even good enough to become one of those teams. Some organizations aspire to win the title. The Raptors aspire for mediocrity. Not anymore.
The Raptors have the league’s 10th-best offense. Since the All-Star break, they boast the fourth highest true shooting percentage and the ninth-best net rating (per possession-based point differential).
Toronto isn’t a fast team, and they’re slowing down as the season chugs along. They’re one of the five slowest teams in the league over the past 15 games, averaging a measly 93.74 possessions per 48 minutes.
The debate about whether teams are more likely to find success playing fast or slow is ongoing but a majority of playoff games are unhurried. It may be nothing, but the Raptors already adopting a style that’s conducive to playoff basketball could be beneficial.
According to mySynergySports, Toronto is also the NBA’s most efficient team ending possessions with a hand off. They score at least one point on 50.9 percent of such plays. Here are two samples of the same set, where Amir Johnson starts left, then spins right to hand the ball off to a point guard.
Right before the ball changes hands, Jonas Valanciunas screens for the point guard to give him even more space and time to operate. It’s just one example of how sly Toronto’s offense can be.
Hand offs aren't common. Most of Toronto's offense is an overflowing collection of pick-and-rolls, post-ups and spot-up jumpers, but those plays provide a perfect snap shot of how Dwane Casey layers his offense with misdirection sets, making defenses work super hard in the half-court.
Since the All-Star break, they have the fourth most free-throws in the league on the ninth most attempts (giving them the third most accurate percentage). DeRozan is the catalyst here, making a valuable 81.6 percent of his 7.8 attempts per game.
Then there's Lowry. The Raptors score 107.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and a Boston Celtics-like 99.6 when he sits. That's insane impact.
He was trade bait just a few months ago, but the unrestricted free agent at season’s end has played himself into a possible $50 million deal with an on and off-court transformation that makes this team incredibly potent. Here’s Yahoo! NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski waxing on Lowry’s changed persona:
Lowry, 27, has transformed himself and transformed a franchise this season. When everyone expected the Raptors to be liquidated for draft picks, young players and salary-cap space, Lowry played the biggest part of holding the team together and chasing an improbable Atlantic Division title. He does it all for the Raptors, and he's rapidly validating himself as one of the NBA's finest point guards.
This development is especially important to Toronto's defense, where Lowry serves as the team's brain, heart and fist. The Raptors have the eighth-best defensive rating in the league; it begins with Lowry, a quick-footed bully on and away from the ball.
It ends with smart rotations both on the interior and perimeter. The Raptors allow the 10th lowest field goal percentage in the restricted area (59.7 percent) but allow the third highest percentage from the corner. That second part isn't great news, but it's mitigated by opponents getting off only 5.2 attempts per game.
Look at the rotations on this particular play in a recent game against the Atlanta Hawks.
It's only one possession of thousands—and they certainly don't play this well on all of them—but look at how quick everyone moves. They know their assignments and react accordingly to Atlanta's ball movement and dribble penetration. Again, breakdowns exist with Toronto just like they exist with every team, but knowing rotations like this are possible is fantastic.
Toronto's first round opponent is up in the air. The Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards, Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats are technically all possibilities but if the season ended today Toronto would square off against Washington.
They’re 3-1 against the Wizards this season, with the only loss coming in triple overtime late last month. That information is meaningless for a number of reasons, but the Raptors should still be favored against just about any team in the East not named Indiana or Miami.
They can score efficiently, react quickly to ball movement on the defensive end and have a fearlessness ingrained through Lowry's tireless two-way effort.
Picking the Raptors to make the playoffs was laughable in October. Now, choosing them to advance past the first round borders on common sense.