The past few years have undoubtedly been the most successful in Toronto Raptors history. Since Dwane Casey took over as head coach in 2011, the team has improved tremendously. In fact, as Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan have become franchise cornerstones and established stars north of the border, the Raptors have posted their four best records in team history, in as many years. Despite this sustained success, legitimate title contention has been hard to come by. Stuck in a conference dominated by LeBron James over the past decade, Toronto has never appeared capable of making a serious run to the Finals. Even when they took the Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, you would be hard pressed to find someone who expected the Raptors to win the series, despite tying it at 2-2. After another disappointing finish a season ago, this time being swept by the Cavaliers in the second round, the pressure was on for Casey and this core of players to make significant improvements.
The Raptors currently hold the fourth best record in the league at 29-13, on pace for their best season in franchise history, but many refuse to classify them as true title contenders. As a result of their shaky postseason play, they have developed a reputation in recent years as a team that only performs well during the regular season before falling apart when it really matters. It would be easy to assume this trend will continue. However, certain adjustments have made this Toronto squad a different beast than those of recent seasons. With a new offensive philosophy and a consistently stingy defense, the Raptors may just have the recipe to finally contend for the title they have been working towards over the last half decade.
The first step of improving an offense that has become ineffective in the playoffs is identifying the problem. For the Raptors, it became clear after last season that their heavy isolation style was easily dissected by strong defensive units. Casey has addressed that, and then some. The Raptors have completely transformed from a team dependent on one-on-one plays to one that moves the ball around as well as any other team in the Eastern Conference. In 2016-17, Toronto isolated 8.5 percent of the time, ranking sixth in the league, only behind teams with elite one-on-one players, like the Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets. With one of the more athletic rosters in the league, it must have been frustrating for Raptors’ fans to watch as DeRozan, Lowry, and even less talented players constantly slowed down the offense to break down their defender without looking to pass. This season has been markedly different, as the offense only goes to isolations 5.7 percent of the time, ranking 25th in the association.
This change in playstyle has been directly correlated with an increase in pace. Last year, the Raptors were one of the slowest teams moving up the court, ranking 22nd, but Casey has implored his players to push the pace, and they now sit at ninth. With speedier play, comes more scoring opportunities and the Raptors have been a paradigm of that fact. In perhaps its most dramatic shift from a season ago, Toronto has moved up 20 spots in terms of field goal attempts per game. More shots has meant more scoring and the Raptors have improved from 106.9 points per game last year to 112.3 this season.
Despite this clear upgrade in offensive production, some may point to the decreasing scoring outputs of Toronto’s two best players, Lowry and DeRozan. DeRozan has seen his points per game drop from 27.3 last season to 25.4 this year, with Lowry declining from 22.4 to 16.2. As for DeRozan, while he has seen his scoring numbers diminished, his efficiency has increased tremendously, as he converts on his shots 48.1% of the time his best rate since his rookie year. In addition, he has finally added a consistent three-point jumper to his game, making 1.1 per game at a respectable 35.6 percent clip.
DeRozan’s lower scoring numbers can also be attributed to another alteration in the Raptors’ offensive philosophy: more passing. DeRozan is having a career year as a playmaker with five assists per game this season after averaging just 3.9 a season ago. His increased propensity to involve other players has extended to the entire team. Toronto has seen its assist percentage increase from dead last in the association in 2016-17 to 23rd this season. Overall, Casey’s squad moves the ball far more this year, averaging 17.8 more passes per game than last season. This change in playstyle has allowed for a more free flowing offense, which is vital to keeping defenses guessing come playoffs time.
This newly found ball movement has led to more players having an increased offensive presence. Established veterans like Serge Ibaka, C.J. Miles, and Jonas Valanciunas have continued to score at an impressive level, while younger talents such as Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, and Jakob Poeltl have all found success in their offensive niches. Having an offense that is less concentrated in the hands of DeRozan and Lowry makes it that much harder for opposing defenses, as they can no longer focus all their attention on the Raptors’ two stars. When the postseason rolls around, teams will have to compete with a completely revamped Raptors attack.
As Toronto’s offense has transformed, its defense has remained one of the league’s best. The Raptors’ third ranked offensive rating is complemented by a fourth ranked defensive rating. Of course, there are still issues that need to be resolved. Lowry’s reduced scoring numbers are more a result of a poor shooting season than the team’s change in offensive approach. Also, according to Basketball Reference, the Raptors have faced the third easiest schedule so far this season. And there is always the puzzle of guarding LeBron over the course of a seven-game series. But whenever a team ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, it puts the rest of the league on notice. With Toronto motivated to shed its ‘playoff disappointment’ label, comprised of elite talent, and completely revamped on offense, it is time for fans to take notice too.