It is understandable why people thought that the 2016-2017 Toronto Raptors were not serious contenders to make much noise in last year's playoffs. Nearly 47% of their points per game came from their All-Star backcourt. There was little passing involved in the offense, with coach Dwane Casey running mostly isolation plays which became predictable and easy to defend in the postseason. The opposing defense would simply force the ball out of the hands of Lowry and Derozan, leaving the team to rely on role players who just could not get the job done.
In the 2017 off-season, Masai Ujiri - President of basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors - decided it was time for things to change. “We need a culture reset,” said Ujiri in a media address in early May. The team began this by getting their Dynamic Duo of Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan to buy into a new system. This new system would involve more players on offense through less isolation basketball, utilize the three point shot more and in the end make the offense less predictable and harder to defend.
So far in the 2017-2018 season, it is clear that Toronto has succeeded in changing their offense to fit the modern NBA. The Raptors went from dead last in assists per game last season (18.5 per game), to 8th this season (23.5 per game). They also attempt 8.1 more three point shots than last season, while making 2.8 more per game. When you view the polarity, it is clear that the change has brought many positive factors to this team.
The style of play is not the only part of the Toronto culture that needed a reset. The new found confidence the Raptors have is a tremendous boost to the team morale. The chemistry possessed by every member of the organization also contributes to this boost. Since parting ways with some sub-par players who put a damper on the overall happiness, it is clear that the locker room is as safe and welcoming as ever.
When it comes to professional sports, the Toronto Raptors are one of the most disrespected franchises by American television and other media outlets. Despite being constantly forgotten and ignored by analysts, the only Canadian team in the NBA competes with (and even surpasses) America’s favourite championship contenders in many categories of statistics.
The Raptors own the fourth best offensive rating in the NBA, as well as the third best defensive rating. They are one of two teams to be top 5 in both of those categories, the only other being the defending champions - Golden State Warriors. Their efficiency and discipline is among the league’s best, currently averaging the fourth fewest turnovers per game while being fifth in true shooting percentage. It is very impressive to have such a disciplined team, when the roster is fifth youngest among potential playoff teams.
One of the most impressive concepts of this under dog team may quite possibly be how well they have played so far against established dominant contenders this season. When playing contenders such as Boston, Cleveland, Golden State and Houston, they hold a modest record of 3-3, with five games remaining against those teams (two vs. Cleveland, two vs. Boston and one hosting Houston.) Although 3-3 is not an outstanding record, the numbers in those games are what really make you reconsider. The Raptors are averaging a staggering 117.3 points per game during those six games, while only allowing 107.0 points to be scored against them per game. That is a +/- of +10.3 when playing other contenders, which is even better than their +/- overall this season of +8.6 per game, second in the NBA only to the Houston Rockets.
Out of all of the success that the Toronto Raptors have had this season, the most important has been the bench production. There was a big question as to who would step in to provide leadership and consistent production coming off of the bench when veterans such as Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker left the team in the off-season. When the style of play changed to help distribute the workload, a bit of that responsibility fell on all of the younger, less established players who hadn’t had much NBA level experience.
Players such as Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira were all forced to produce consistently despite each having no more than three years experience. The Raptors made a sign and trade move in the off-season with the Indiana Pacers, trading Cory Joseph to the Pacers for sharpshooter C.J. Miles, a 12 year veteran. Immediately this group of players began to train together, building a chemistry that has helped them grow tremendously as individuals.
The Raptors “Bench Mob” brings a gritty, fast pace style of play to the game, swaying each contest in favour of Toronto. The scoring of the bench currently sits at seventh place, at 41.2 points per night. The Raptors' bench - on average - outscores the bench of the opposing team by 4.1, with a net rating of 9.4, both being best in the league. They own the best defensive rating among benches. Moreover, the Toronto Raptors’ bench is relied on often, playing the third most minutes of all benches in the NBA, and they consistently get the job done.
The Toronto Raptors have proved time and time again this season that it is no mistake that they are the first place team in the Eastern Conference. They have the young pieces, the chemistry, and the perfect coaching staff to run it all. If they continue to play at this high level, there is no question that this team can make a deep run in this year’s postseason, and quite possibly bring a championship to Parliament Hill. .