Sadly, the Toronto Raptors threatened to enter 2015-16 as one of the NBA’s great “meh”-teams. After yet another somewhat embarrassing first round ouster, it was posited by some that coach Dwane Casey was playing on borrowed time, and that the team’s core was too impish in some areas and far too overanxious in others.
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So far, however, there’s nothing middling about the team’s play. The Raptors are the only undefeated group left over in the Eastern Conference, rattling off five straight victories to start its season. The Raps hung on to pull off a 103-98 win in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, just one night after knocking off the Mavericks in Dallas. Those three other wins came against the Bucks, Celtics and Pacers – three outfits expected to fight for playoff spots with the Raps.
Suddenly, all the offseason tough guy gobbledygook that coaches and general managers like to scream about getting tougher, lighting up the pace and playing better defense actually appears to have made a difference. The Raptors, after a spring and summer’s worth of tongue lashings from coach Dwane Casey and GM Masai Ujiri, appear ready to turn the corner.
Not just another lame division title. But an actual postseason presence.
The pace is up and the boys look tougher, but it’s the improvement on the defensive end that stands as the most stirring part of the early-season turnaround. The Raptors were 25th in defensive efficiency last season, a shockingly-low mark for a playoff team, let alone a division winner. They’re just on the outskirts of the top five so, after these five games, and the third-rated offense hasn’t suffered.
Offseason pickup DeMarre Carroll is doing as expected, his offense is still a little touch and go at this point but he’s guarding three positions and communicating well on that end – it’s always nice to see a hot shot free agent acquisition act like a lead dog from the word go, rather than meekly trying to fit in. Fellow free agent Cory Joseph doesn’t start, but he plays absolutely killer defense for this squad. Luis Scola can still be taken advantage of on that end, but he’s made up for it by grabbing an absurd amount of defensive rebounds thus far.
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Then you have, off the bench, the wonderful Bismack Biyombo, who will not let anyone punk him:
Bismack Biyombo on illegal screen call and subsequent exchange with Russell Westbrook: "Nobody is going to punk me" pic.twitter.com/ACdKUrTbxa
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) November 5, 2015
"We're not backing off of nobody," the centre continued. "We're not going to back off. We're going to come in every building and we're going to play our game. We're going to be tough; we're not going to back off anybody. That's just our mindset and we don't care who it is. We respect them, we respect their building, we respect their fans. But guess what? We're going to play here, we're going to go back to Toronto and we're going to handle our business."
The Raptors merely cover all the facets. They contest shots well and have the third-best field goal percentage defense. They cause enough turnovers, they’ll manage the boards well and the team rarely sends opponents to the line.
All of these seem like expected hallmarks, but to see these sorts of early numbers coming from what is mostly the same Toronto rotation from last year is startling. Yes, it’s just five games, but to see this group jump 20-some defensive spots in several areas portends well for the next 77 games.
And yet, somehow, the offense is still the thing.
The veteran Scola has been a perfect addition to play alongside center Jonas Valanciunas. Jonas is averaging nearly 16 points and ten rebounds in just 30 minutes a contest, on 60 percent shooting thus far. An in-shape Kyle Lowry is over 19 points per game, hitting 43 percent of his three-pointers, and while DeMar DeRozan’s 11 free throws per game mark won’t last (it’s twice his career average), if he stays aggressive he’ll continue to have won over the referees.
The team needs to keep beating the drum, though. For six months and maybe more. From the Sporting News:
“We should be pissed off,” Casey said. “The way we ended the year, we should be, but what we have got to do now is be pissed off but have it in our rearview mirror. Now, we have to handle business. We can’t cry over spilt milk. We have to use last year as a motivation to stay focused on the job at hand.”
If the Raptors keep (at times, literally) pushing it, that’s enough to possibly make a three-round run in an East that looks vulnerable in spots from everything short of Cleveland on down. What matters from that point on, however, is going to be tricky. It was always going to be tricky.
In giving a contract extension to Terrence Ross, the Raptors are more or less set at its core. These are players that, like their coach, are holdovers from the Bryan Colangelo era. Current GM Masai Ujiri won’t be especially keen on blowing things up if the Raptors elbow past the Wizards or Bulls on their way toward an Eastern Conference finals showdown with Cleveland, but there might be an itch in his finger if the team struggles again come spring, and if DeRozan opts out of his player option to become a free agent.
From there, Ujiri would be faced with capping out his team – even with the massive new salary cap – in order to hand $20 million a year to DeMar DeRozan. He’s made an All-Star team before and may well be on his way toward another appearance, he’s only 26, but … $20 million a year for DeMar DeRozan. I guess it’s just something we’re going to have to get used to.
Dropping DeMar wouldn’t leave the Raptors enough cap space to go after another star. The team still has that draft pick from New York coming in, but that probably won’t be high enough to nab a franchise player.
After it all, Ujiri might yet again be “stuck” with the players he didn’t draft, and the coach he didn’t hire.
So far in 2015-16, though, that’s not looking like an entirely terrible thing. Toronto won’t be the first team in NBA history to go 82-0, but if it keeps up top five’ish appearances on both sides of the ball, the squad can’t help but work their way into one of the NBA’s best records, possibly the best record in its Conference.
Nothing “meh” about that.
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