Don’t Sleep on the Toronto Raptors
Heading into the NBA season, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers were the two most talked about teams regarding who could win a LeBron-less Eastern Conference. For a team that won 59 games on their way to finishing first in the East and went on to upgrade from DeMar Derozan to Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors have been overlooked as an Eastern Conference contender. Surely, their early playoff defeats to LeBron James, despite great regular season success, have led to people dismissing the team. With LeBron James out in LA now, we’ll take a look at why the Raptors team could finally break through and win the Eastern Conference. (all stats as of 10/25/18)
Behind Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry the Raptors are off 5-0 so far. Trying for their best start to a season in franchise history and they’re one of three teams to rank top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in non-garbage time minutes (garbage time being where the results of the game are all but decided). This is according to Cleaning the Glass, while NBA.com/stats has the Raptors ranked third in the league in net rating. It’s early, but with the stats back up, what can be seen if you’ve watched them play this season: the Raptors are one of the three or four best teams in the league.
What exactly has made the Raptors so good this season? It all starts with their stars: Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. While he started off a bit rusty, shooting a combined 19-47 in the Raptors wins over the Cavaliers and Celtics, Leonard has returned to his MVP-candidate form in averaging 28 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game for the undefeated Raptors. Kawhi is making spectacular plays on both ends of the floor. As good as Kawhi’s been for Toronto, Kyle Lowry has been even better, averaging 19.8 points, 10 assists, and 1.6 steals on a scorching 57.6% from the field and 53.3% from deep. Lowry’s been a steady presence for the team and appears to be in complete control of new head coach Nick Nurse’s offense with a 5-to-1.4 assist to turnover ratio.
While the two-way play of Lowry and Leonard has been stellar, Toronto’s depth is what makes the team a true threat to emerge on top of the Eastern Conference. Along with Leonard, Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Danny Green, the Raptors have the luxury of starting Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas at center. Toronto’s bench unit is loaded with talent and pedigree. Behind Leonard is OG Anunoby, a rangy and versatile wing who started at small forward as a rookie for the Raptors last year and likely would have been a lottery pick if he hadn’t torn his ACL halfway through his sophomore year at Indiana. Lowry is backed up by Fred VanVleet, who finished 3rd in Sixth Man of the Year voting last year. VanVleet’s strong two-way play allows for him to play minutes alongside Lowry as well. Norman Powell and Delon Wright also play key roles on Toronto’s bench, with Powell being an uber-athletic wing defender and Wright a 6’5″ guard who can guard three positions and take on secondary ball-handling duties.
The Raptors are armed with a host of perimeter players that can handle the ball, pass, defend, and shoot regardless of who’s in the game. The Raptors are set up to once again have the best team in franchise history. It remains to be seen if they can finally translate their regular season success to the post-season. But, with LeBron now out of the way, their path to an NBA finals berth is clearer than ever and there’s no doubt they have the talent to get there.