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Why We Can and Can't Believe in the Toronto Raptors' Hot Start

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2014

Nov 22, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) hugs guard Louis Williams (23) in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Hot starts can be misleading in the NBA, their existence both aesthetically appealing and totally temporary. In some cases, though, they're the beginning of something spectacular and sustainable.

Which is it for the scorching Toronto Raptors?

Blistering beginnings have the players up north contending for the NBA's best record, turning heads and rewriting expectations one win at a time. But while the Raptors are rolling, their dynamite displays are laced with caveats and conditions—none of which is more important or relevant than a classic forewarning.

It's still early.

And because it's still early, the Raptors are shouldering the burden of proof, trying to validate their onset performance as a sneak peek by dispelling any notions, however germane, to the contrary.

Causes for Belief

Nov 9, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) yells from the bench as Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) looks on against Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Philadelphia 120-88. Mandatory Credit:
USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors are doing pretty much everything.

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Both sides of the floor are bankrolling their ladder-leaping dawn. The Raptors rank in the top six of both offensive and defensive efficiency, and it's difficult to bet against a team that can rely on any one aspect of the game to win.

Only three other squads can say the same right now. The Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors all rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Each of those teams has won at least 78 percent of its games and is recognized as a championship contender.

Memphis is the only other contingent that ranks in the top six of both, and its tied with Toronto for the league's best record (12-2). The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, were the only team to finish in the top six of both in 2013-14. They won the championship.

This balance is encouraging. More importantly, it seems sustainable for the same reason it exists: The Raptors aren't overly reliant on one person.

Five players are averaging double figures for the season. The bench, which ranked 20th in efficiency for 2013-14, is deepened by the instant firepower of Lou Williams and now ranks sixth in efficiency, per HoopStats.com.

Last season, there was also an unhealthy reliance on Kyle Lowry, who became a dark-horse MVP candidate out of necessity more than anything else. That dependency still exists, but it's no longer detrimental. The Raptors have found an identity outside of him.

When Lowry is on the floor, their top-two offense is even better. When he's off the floor, it's their defense that is picking up the slack; they're allowing 89.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, the equivalent of running an NBA-best defense.

Espousing this next-man-up mentality has allowed the Raptors to win in volume and a variety of ways.

In their victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, they turned a 24-6 deficit into 17-point drubbing. Against the Phoenix Suns, they staved off a fourth-quarter surge that almost saw them forfeit a 17-point lead in time to secure another win.

Ahead or behind, it doesn't matter. The Raptors are playing with depth and resolve. And since falling to the Chicago Bulls in what would have been their first "We're here to stay" victory of the season, they've dispatched projected contenders in the Suns, Cavaliers and Grizzlies. That's in addition to the staunch Milwaukee Bucks defense they torched for 124 points.

"In sports, we talk a lot about identity: a team must know who they are before they can succeed," writes the National Post's Eric Koreen. "However, knowing that you can summon any number of identities when the situation calls for them is a weapon, too."

A weapon the Raptors, like so many title-seeking bands before them, now enjoy.

Traces of Doubt

Nov 15, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) celebrates with guard Louis Williams (23) and guard Kyle Lowry (7) during the fourth quarter in a game against the Utah Jazz at Air Canada Centre. The Toronto Raptors won 111-93
USA TODAY Sports

Favorable scheduling has, without question, boosted the Raptors' early-season standing.

Even after unseating the potentially playoff-bound Suns and superstar-stuffed Cavaliers, they've still played through one of the league's five easiest schedules, a luxury that ESPN Insider's Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) unpacks further:

The Raptors capped a seven-game homestand by rolling to a 52-point lead in point differential during a rout of Milwaukee on Friday. They've played nine of their first 13 at the Air Canada Centre, winning eight. Among those home wins, Toronto can count the Thunder, 76ers, Magic, Jazz and Bucks among its victims. Overall, based on the quality of the offenses and defenses the Raptors have faced, only the Knicks have enjoyed an easier schedule in the NBA. (Yes, New York fans, you read that right.)

Though the Raptors have taken care of business on the road, winning three of their four away tilts, they've only beaten sub-.500 teams. The lone winning faction they've faced away from home, the Miami Heat, cut them down.

Some of their quality wins must even come with asterisks. The Washington Wizards didn't have Bradley Beal, the Oklahoma City Thunder were missing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the star-crammed Cavaliers won't relinquish double-digit leads forever. How many of those wins are actually wins under normal circumstances?

There's also the matter of their infirm offensive model. Success by committee is great when it holds for the entire season, but the Raptors do have more than one player performing above their head. 

The Raptors' offensive model, while dominant to date, is not perfect.
The Raptors' offensive model, while dominant to date, is not perfect.USA TODAY Sports

Can Jonas Valanciunas flirt with double-doubles all season? Will Terrence Ross continue shooting the lights out from deep (42.4 percent)? Does Williams have what it takes to remain in the top 12 of player efficiency rating (23.6) among those who log at least 19 minutes per game? 

Will Williams, Lowry, Ross and Valanciunas all register career-high PERs for the entire year?

Beyond that, the Raptors offense is also thriving amid DeMar DeRozan's unimpressive efficiency. Not only is he shooting a career-low 40 percent overall—including a career-worst 15.4 percent from long range—but his offensive potency plummets by 15.1 points per 100 possessions without Lowry on the floor, hence the reason DeRozan averages just 3.8 minutes away from his comrade per game, according to NBA.com (subscription required).

The Raptors rank abnormally low on the assist (28th) and rebounding (26th) rate scales as well.

For all they've already done, then, there is still so much for them to work through as the competition becomes fiercer and their standing atop the East is met with more resistance.

Believable or Make Believe?

Nov 9, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey congratulates Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) as he comes off the court against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Philadelphia 120-88. Mandator
USA TODAY Sports

What the Raptors are doing now isn't sustainable.

But that's not a bad thing.

Wins over Cleveland, Washington and Oklahoma City won't come as easily in the future. There are also still plenty of games against the savage Western Conference left to play. The Raptors will fall off their pedestal at some point. And that only means they won't win 70 games, the rate at which they're securing victories now.

It doesn't mean they're going to fall off the face of contention.

"We found a way down the stretch and that's the most important thing," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said following his team's victory over Phoenix, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).

That's what these Raptors are doing, after all: Finding ways to win. It doesn't matter the opponent or circumstances. They're collecting wins. Even after adjusting for their light schedule, these Raptors still rank third in margin of victory, behind only the Blazers and Warriors.

Consider too that each of the five teams that won at least 11 of their first 14 games in 2013-14 ended up with 54 or more for the season. Not one of them—the Blazers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder or Indiana Pacers—could be deemed pretenders.

Portland and Indiana are the closest things to cautionary tales. The Blazers are a particularly interesting case study. They began last year as a two-way giant, going 31-9, only to see their defense stumble and their home-court advantage vanish. They still managed to contend for conference supremacy.

In the end, nothing else matters. The Raptors do play in the enfeebled East and they have enjoyed an easy schedule. But while they're bound to cool off between now and season's end, their initial run of dominance is shaping up to be more formidable fact than fleeting fiction.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.