The Dark-Horse Contender Nobody Is Talking About Ahead of 2022 NBA Playoffs

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2022

TORONTO, ON- APRIL 7  - Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) as the Toronto Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 119-114 in Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. April 7, 2022.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Steve Russell/Getty Images

To anyone still sleeping on the Toronto Raptors ahead of the 2022 NBA playoffs: You're not alone.

Also: Wake up.

This is not meant to be a pious revelation delivered from atop a soapbox. On the contrary, it isn't a revelation at all. The story of the 2021-22 Raptors has been demanding more attention for a while—the better part of the season, actually. It just hasn't come, not in the way it deserves.

You'd be forgiven if their latest victory, a 119-114 win over the Sixers on Thursday night without OG Anunoby or Fred VanVleet, was an eye-opening experience. Even at the peak of their powers this season, the Raptors have never headlined discussions dedicated to identifying dark-horse contenders.

alex @steven_lebron

never underestimate the 2021-22 toronto raptors

Toronto's success has instead unfolded subtly, almost quietly, in the backdrop of surprises, failures and role reversals deemed more integral. Revivals in Boston and Dallas, surges in Memphis and Miami, implosions in Los Angeles and New York, drama in Philly and Brooklyn, even key injuries in Chicago and Denver have cornered the "Hey, look at this!" market.

Blame to some extent falls on the volume of variability. Few NBA seasons in recent memory have included as many surprises. The sheer breadth of unpredictability, both pleasant and not so, has lent itself to a certain chaos ahead of the playoffs that's difficult to fully track or comprehend.

The Memphis Grizzlies have clinched the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. The Brooklyn Nets are an aspiring seven seed. The Los Angeles Lakers will sniff neither the postseason nor play-in. Ditto for the New York Knicks, who finished fourth in the East last year.

James Harden plays for the Philadelphia 76ers. CJ McCollum plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. The Cleveland Cavaliers have a chance to make the playoffs without LeBron James. The Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks have transitioned from two of the league's biggest letdowns to home-court-advantage teams with navigable paths to the conference finals—and perhaps beyond.

Little to no room has been made for other what-the-hell instances, particularly when they hail from non-glamour markets. 

And yet, here are the Raptors, in a should-be transitional year, on a 48-plus-win pace, readying themselves for a return to the playoffs after shipping out the greatest player in franchise history for what most considered a punchline return.

What happens next, once the postseason tips off, is debatable. Emphasis on debatable. The fate of this team is not foregone. To think Toronto has only accelerated its next era and remains another year or two away from doing much else undersells just how damn good it is now.

The Raptors last sat at .500 when they were 23-23. Since then, they are 24-10, with a top-five defense and top-seven point differential per 100 possessions.

Pascal Siakam has cemented himself as a viable All-NBA option. He's averaging 24.4 points and 5.4 assists during this 34-game span while knocking down 54.1 percent of his twos and 36.0 percent of his threes.

Vivek Jacob @vivekmjacob

Pascal Siakam has been the best player on a court tonight that's included Joel Embiid and James Harden.

Fred VanVleet became an All-Star and remains an All-Defense candidate. Scottie Barnes has overachieved in every imaginable area, but especially on offense, where more expansive touch and feel than advertised has earned him crunch-time reps at the point of attack. He might win Rookie of the Year over Evan Mobley—and deserve it.

Gary Trent Jr. is a passing-lane menace who can score at more levels and in more ways than you think. Anunoby has looked most comfortable on offense when the Raptors are at their healthiest and continues to be a defensive superhero. Chris Boucher has found ways to impact games when his three-ball isn't falling while also fouling less.

Thaddeus Young is canning 40 percent of his treys since arriving in Toronto and arguably emerged as the team's best reserve on the back of his defensive IQ. Precious Achiuwa has gone from a footnote in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade to a suffocating positionless defender who flashes just enough dynamism, on just enough occasions, to give off that plucky mystery-box sheen.

Dan Favale @danfavale

this 32-second clip is a TRIP —precious achiuwa transition three —drake's reaction —"i'm speechless!" —"and you're going to forget about kyle lowry!" https://t.co/7QivmDc7JB

This is where some will be inclined to look for the exit. Are we really applauding the progress and process of Precious Achiuwa? And the acquisition of 33-year-old Thaddeus Young? And then assigning that playoff value?

There is plenty of merit behind any skepticism. Toronto is early, even by its own admission. "We're not a team of now," president Masai Ujiri said during an appearance on CBC's Front Burner podcast before the season (h/t The Athletic's Eric Koreen).

Ascendance ahead of schedule almost always comes with incompleteness. The Raptors are not supposed to be here, and they're built like it.

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 28: Scottie Barnes #4 of the Toronto Raptors and Pascal Siakam #43 celebrate during the first half of their NBA game against the Boston Celtics at Scotiabank Arena on March 28, 2022 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
Cole Burston/Getty Images

Relative shallowness ranks among their most defining flaws. Four players are averaging above 35 minutes per game. Three of them—Anunoby, Siakam and VanVleet—are in the league's top 10 of minutes per game, period. Barnes is the first rookie to clear 35 minutes per game across 70-plus appearances since Andrew Wiggins in 2014-15.

Extended and somewhat extended absences from Anunoby, Siakam and VanVleet have exacerbated the issue. Toronto's five most important players—the aforementioned three plus Barnes and Trent—have appeared in just 21 games together.

Perfect bills of health don't exist, though. Especially this year. And even at full strength, the Raptors have red flags.

Chief among them: the half-court offense. Siakam and VanVleet are the only true primary creators on the team, and the bench is devoid of any reliable floor generals. Toronto is 26th in half-court efficiency on the season and just 25th since leaving .500 in the rearview.

Hot outside shooting could be a safety net when things bog down, if only the Raptors had it. They are 26th in three-point-attempt rate and hovering around league-average efficiency from deep over this half-season stretch.

i. adan @Imman_Adan

Imagine Pascal Siakam with proper spacing. He’s so crafty and nimble because the raptors just have no shooting 😩

Subsisting on top-two transition and offensive-rebounding frequency won't cut it in the playoffs. Certain defenses will have the personnel to limit both, at which point the Raptors will need to diversify. 

Or maybe not.

A probable first-round matchup with the Sixers currently awaits. The Raptors should be thrilled. Philly's transition defense struggles even at full capacity, and its second-most important stopper overall, Matisse Thybulle, currently isn't eligible to play games in Toronto.

This says nothing of the Raptors' bandwidth to actually navigate the half court. The Pascal Siakam captaining them now isn't the same guy who barely looked like he could maintain a straight-line dribble during the 2020 playoffs.

There is greater directionality and feel and composure to his methodical attacks, and he has proved capable of deferring to Barnes for possessions at a time. Almost no one outside Toronto will tab him as the best player in any given playoff series, but his latest offensive leap absolutely gives him that kind of ceiling, almost regardless of the opponent.

Steve Jones Jr. @stevejones20

Embiid on Siakam. The play was for GTJ to screen for Pascal Siakam to get Maxey in the action. Embiid goes under both times, Siakam decides to go to work. He's been tough. https://t.co/LFjiINMbzL

VanVleet, meanwhile, remains universally scalable. He is optimized away from the ball but has more of a command over the set offense than ever when called upon. Between him, Siakam and Barnes, the Raptors can chisel out enough first-chance half-court scores to overcome dwindling second-chance and fast-break volume. (For what it's worth, they are also ninth in half-court efficiency over their most recent 7-1 stretch.)

Maybe this view of the Raptors offense skews toward overly optimistic. That's fine. Their defense is built to overcome it—to dictate pace and style, and if need be, to inflict and thrive within arduous grinds.

No team forces turnovers on a larger share of their opponent's possessions. That hyper-aggression isn't going anywhere. The Raptors have the length and athleticism and overarching versatility to upkeep their frenetic energy against anyone, so much so they're nearly matchup-proof.

Switching is second nature to them now and usually unfolds without a hitch. Some of head coach Nick Nurse's lineups are egregiously, unforgivably anti-offense (see: playing Achiuwa, Barnes and Khem Birch together against the Sixers), but they also make it difficult to find or hunt mismatches.

The number of actions and screens Philly needed to go through Thursday night on certain occasions just to get Joel Embiid in more ideal positioning was exhausting to watch. Imagine having to actually face such a collectively unabated motor for 48 minutes, every second or third day, up to seven times. Good luck.

Jason Maples @JJMaples55_MST

No exaggeration.... IMO Embiid going to have to put close to 40 per game up to beat the Raptors in series

None of this is to say the Raptors will enter the playoffs as quasi-title favorites. But putting a cap on their postseason stock would be comparably extreme. They are not just some intrepid, happy-to-be-here upstart destined to fold.

Surviving the first round almost feels like a betting-favorite scenario at this point, so long as the Sixers remain their matchup and superstar shot-making continues to elude Harden. And things don't get much more harrowing in prospective semifinals showdowns. 

Should the Raptors really fear a Nets team that won't have Kyrie Irving for the games played in Toronto? Or an Atlanta Hawks squad averse to getting back on defense off live-ball misses and turnovers? Or a best-in-the-East Heat team that has turned in a below-average half-court offense when Lowry, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler share the floor?

Punching an Eastern Conference Finals ticket is not Toronto's most likely playoff outcome. It's also not outside the realm of possibility—which is the entire point.

Amid the fanfare and furor over this season's steady, unrelenting avalanche of "Eureka!" developments and progressions and pivots, the Raptors are crafting a message for everyone, repeatedly, without reprieve:

They're here, too.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Thursday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.