The Raptors had just set a franchise record for wins with 49 in a season. They had the four seed and felt confident going into the playoffs against an inconsistent Washington Wizards team. Then Toronto got swept. What had happened to the 2014-2015 Toronto Raptors?
For one thing, their 49-33 record was beyond misleading. The Raptors started off an excellent 24-7, but after an injury to Derzoan that caused him to miss 22 of the last 51 games, the Raptors finished a mediocre 25-26 to close the season.
The other problem with Toronto was that they were much too dependant on their offense last season. Their offensive rating was 4th in the NBA, an excllent mark to say the least, but their defensive rating was 25th in the league out of 30. Teams that can’t play defense don’t win many games against teams that do, and against a physical Washington Wizards team that allowed 11 less points per 100 possessions against Toronto than the Raptors’ regular season average, Toronto was an easy sweep for Washignton.
This season, however, is different. Toronto has played 28 games in a much-improved Eastern Conference, and they have a very good 17-11 record. This record is considerably more impressive when one considers that half of these games were played without starting center Jonas Valanciunas. In his place has been the offensively challanged Bismack Biyombo. The Raptors have also played 10 games without starting small forward DeMarre Carroll. Not only are Valanciunas and Carroll two of the best players on the Raptors, but they are two of the best defenders as well. Despite losing these players, however, Toronto has managed to have a much improved defensive rating at 11th in the league, and they are also 4th in the entire NBA at opponent points per game.
Toronto has embodied a style of play that is common in playoff basketball. They have a much greater emphasis on defense. That is why offensive specialists like Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez are gone, and defensive guys like Biyombo, Lucas Nogueira, and Carroll are here.
Here are the Raptors stats from the past two seasons. Their offense has clearly taken a hit. Down are the field goal percentage, three point percentage, and points per game, but considering the slower pace Toronto plays with, this once discouraging chart is promising. The free throws per game are up despite the slower pace, meaning one or two of two good things is happening: The Raptors are either playing through their big men more, or their guards are attacking the rim, both of which are more reliable forms of offense than jump shots.
Playing through the front court or having the back court attack the rim is much better than jump shots. Shooting jump shots in the playoffs is what turned normally all-star level guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, as well as former Raptor and 6th man of the year Lou Williams into toxins for the Raptors last season. Here are the trio’s regular season stats from 2014-2015:
Now here are their 2014-2015 playoff stats:
From the regular season to the postseason, all three of these Raptors’ field goal percentages decreased. All three of them took more field goals and less free throws. Free throws are obviously good shots to take, and while many field goals are good shots, that is very unlikely to be the case if two all-stars and a sixth man of the year are all shooting 40% or below for an entire series.
If it is indeed the case that the Raptors are playing through their big men, that is another great sign. While Lowry, Derozan, and Williams failed in the playoffs, Valanciunas and the bigs thrived. Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson, and Amir Johnson, who, while he is not with the team anymore, is very comparable to current Raptor Bismack Biyombo, shot 50, 55.6, and 69 percent from the field respectively in the playoffs. Patterson also shot 46.7% from deep. Playing through the big men would have been a much smarter course of action than the inefficient guards last season, and if defenses play the Raptors similarly, there is no reason not to think playing through Valanciunas would be better this year too.
If the Raptors establish good habits now, whether it is getting to the free throw line two more times per game in a slower offense, playing through their bigs, or playing much better defense, than they are bound to prevent catastrophes like the 2015 playoffs from happening again.
So what is the Raptors’ ceiling with their new and improved habits? Unfortunately for them, the East grew a lot tougher, but Toronto is currently 4th in the East. If they make it past their first round opponent for the first time since 2001, than they have a chance to upset some teams. The Raptors already beat teams ranked higher than them like Indiana, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, and San Antonio. They beat the Cavaliers and Spurs without Valanciunas, so it while it would be unfair to limit the Raptors before they have a chance to prove themselves in the playoffs this season, a second round exit is most likely for “We the North.”