This year's Toronto Raptors are easily the most successful in recent franchise history, but are they the best version of the club to ever exist?
That's harder to say.
A win over the Boston Celtics on March 29 assured Toronto of a playoff berth—its first since 2008. But on its own, that fact isn't quite enough to solidify the 2013-14 Raptors' case as the top iteration in the franchise's 19-year history.
We'll need a more thorough dive into the data to figure that out.
One thing's for sure, though: The current Raptors are plenty excited about the team's first postseason entry in six seasons.
Per Eric Koreen of The National Post, DeMar DeRozan crowed after Toronto's playoff-clinching win:
It makes it feel all worth it: the hard work, the struggles, the nights going home just frustrated, don’t want to turn on no sports [on the television]. It really shows you that if you stick at it and don’t give up, not to sound cliché, that it definitely pays off. Amir knows we’ve been through tough times here but we just look at each other like, you can’t give up now. You’ve got to learn from it even when things are going bad and that’s what we did.
Good vibes count, but results count more. So any analysis of whether or not this Raps team is the best ever has to start with wins and losses.
Wins and Beyond
Toronto is 42-31 through its first 73 games, making its current win total already the fourth-best in franchise history. With another nine games left to add to their total, the Raptors could very easily wind up with more victories than they've ever had in a single season.
Here's how the 2013-14 Raptors' winning percentage stacks up against the 10 most successful years in franchise history:
|Winningest Seasons in Raptors History|
Maybe Toronto will surpass the 47 wins we saw in 2000-01 or 2006-07. For what it's worth, there have been signs since January that it was on such a pace:
All wins aren't created equal, though. We need a little context, some advanced stats and metrics to figure out where these Raptors rank relative to the rest of the league. After all, the narrative surrounding the East this year has been its comical weakness. Without looking deeper, we can't be sure this season's Raptors aren't fattening up on a diet of soft foes.
Though it might not sound like much, Toronto is actually one game above .500 against Western Conference opponents. Only three other teams in the East—the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers—have been above the break-even mark against the West this year. That's one indicator of Toronto's quality.
Another is its net rating, which, at plus-3.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, is fifth-best in the NBA. In terms of franchise history, it's Toronto's best ever. The 2007-08 team came close, posting a plus-3.5, but no other group is even in the conversation.
So, the Raptors haven't just taken advantage of a weak conference—though that has certainly helped. And we also know their pace-adjusted ratings are excellent, both when measured against their peers this season and against the historical ones of their own franchise.
We haven't yet landed on any one number that says these Raptors are the best version ever, but breaking things down into offensive and defensive ratings could help. In looking at Basketball-Reference.com's relative ratings, we get a clearer picture of how Toronto has fared compared to the rest of the league. This helps immensely, as it's not always safe to rely on raw offensive and defensive ratings to measure a team. Those are adjusted for pace, but they can't show how much better or worse than league average a team is.
Check out Toronto's "relative ratings" from the 10 winningest seasons in the chart above. Higher numbers are good for offense, while lower ones (negative ones, especially) are good for defense:
|Raptors 'Relative Ratings'|
|Year||Relative ORtg||Relative DRtg||Relative Net Rtg|
As was the case with wins and net rating, the 2013-14 Raptors are among the best the franchise has ever had. What's becoming apparent, though, is that this year's Raps are extremely well balanced. When measured against teams in the franchise's past, this one rates at or near the top in virtually every statistical category.
When it comes to exceeding expectations, it's easier to be declarative: No Raptors team has thrashed expectations like this one.
What Nobody Expected
Remember, the word "tanking" was a part of nearly every sentence involving Toronto for nearly half of the season. Koreen wrote about the organization's future right after the Rudy Gay trade in December:
The Toronto Raptors are tanking. They have no intention of winning this year. If you are a Raptors fan, you might as well start cheering for losses. The Raptors’ draft lottery odds cannot get high enough. Some fans, of course, have been doing this already.
Koreen wasn't alone in feeling that way. Everyone observing the Raptors felt tanking was inevitable.
In that same National Post piece, Koreen quoted Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri as saying: "The one thing I can say is we won't be trapped in the middle. I can honestly say that. We will not be stuck in no man's land, that's for sure."
Ujiri kept his word, but not in the way anybody thought he would.
Instead of avoiding the middle by bottoming out, the Raptors stunned everybody by rocketing up the standings. Nobody saw that coming, which means the recently clinched playoff berth, likely Atlantic Division title (the second in franchise history) and home-court advantage in the first round were similarly unforeseen.
In that sense, you could argue that even if this year's Raptors aren't the best ever, they're certainly the most pleasantly surprising, which, in some ways, is even better.
Over the Top
What comes next will matter more than anything else.
Toronto has won just one playoff series in franchise history, a first-round triumph over the New York Knicks in 2001. It nearly won a second, but dropped Game 7 of that year's Eastern Conference semis to Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers.
This season, the Raptors are looking at a first-round tilt with the Washington Wizards, a team they've beaten three times in four tries. The lone loss was an overtime affair that could, obviously, have gone either way.
With home-court advantage, it's safe to assume the Raptors will take care of Washington in the opening round. That achievement will put them on par with the 2000-01 team in terms of team success. From there, this year's club will have to do something truly impressive to advance further than any Toronto team before: beat the Miami Heat in a second-round series.
There are a number of ways the rest of the regular season could play out, but as of this writing, the Raptors would square off against the Heat in the conference semifinals (assuming Miami takes care of business in the first round).
With no success in three meetings against the Heat this year, a historically deep playoff run will be especially tough to come by for the Raptors. But if they can pull it off, there'll be no question as to this team's organizational supremacy.
Even if they don't venture as far as the conference finals, it'll still be an extremely close question. After all, falling to the two-time defending champs in a playoff series shouldn't erase all of the excellent statistical achievements Toronto piled up this season.
There's already a strong case to be made in favor of this year's group, but beating the Heat in a postseason series will absolutely solidify the 2013-14 Raptors as the best edition ever.