The Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark

We’re 21 games in! How about a quick check-in on the Toronto Raptors at the quarter-season mark?

The bench has been the best part of the season

This is the story of the Raptors season, to be certain. Coming in to the year it was really unclear how the Raptors would replace Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and PJ Tucker, and how the young guys would respond. So far they have exceeded every expectation.

The youth amongst that group is kind of unbelievable. Outside of bench dad CJ Miles you have a rookie: OG Anunoby. Three sophomores: Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. Two third-year players: Norman Powell and Delon Wright. A fourth-year player: Lucas Nogueira. And all of those guys were drafted by the Raptors or acquired in draft day trades. It’s pretty much unheard of to build such a solid second unit out of your own picks, all of whom came out of drafts following playoff seasons. I think we have to give Masai Ujiri, Dwane Casey and the coaching staff, and all of these young men a ton of credit.

The depth has also helped them weather minor injuries extremely well; the Raps have had a few small injuries (Jonas Valanciunas, Norm, Serge Ibaka), one potentially serious injury (Delon) and one baby birth (CJ). They haven’t missed a beat! I’ve been frustrated at times with Casey’s long bench, but I’m starting to come around; everyone can play, they can all play together (except maybe Ibaka and JV—see below) and when an injury does happen, guys fill in seamlessly. It’s enabled Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to get more rest (even at the same time), which, hopefully, will reduce the likelihood of any injury to them this year.

The new offense looks great—until the Raptors abandon it in close games

The ball movement and three-point bombing has been fun to watch, hasn’t it? They’re third in the league in both scoring and point differential (+7.3); 37% of their shots are threes (up from 29% last year) and their assist rate has jumped from 47% (dead last in the league!) to 57% (still only good for 19th, but hey…). They’re even running on occasion—7th in the league in fast break points per game. All good things!

Thing is, the old habits creep in whenever the games get close. They walk it up. The ball doesn’t get swung from side to side. It goes to DeMar DeRozan and it sticks. Everyone clears out and it’s the DeMar iso-ball show. It’s cost them a winnable game in Boston and maybe another one at Golden State. And sure, sometimes when the defense tightens up that’s all you can get… but I think the old habits are dying hard in high-pressure moments.

The Serge Ibaka/Jonas Valanciunas pairing is not working out

Serge Ibaka is not rebounding. Jonas Valanciunas is not defending. They have the two worst defensive ratings (and net ratings) on the team. It was understood when signing Ibaka that he was a better fit in today’s NBA playing centre. But the Raptors aren’t using him there enough. And the game has just passed JV by, sadly. His type of centre play just isn’t the way the game is played now. Of course, the problem is they are #3 and #4 on the Raps’ salary chart, so can you sit one of them? Maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you just sub JV out sooner (three minutes) against most teams, and bring Siakam in; and bring JV back in sooner, replacing Ibaka, to play a little more with the second unit. And against certain teams (Detroit and New Orleans come to mind) he gets more run. Poeltl remains your third centre.

Kyle and DeMar have been good, but not great

At this point I don’t know if either one of the Raptors’ all-star guards will be selected to the team this year. Both are putting up totally fine numbers but Kyle started slowly and has picked up, while DeMar started strong and has tailed off a bit (only 4.4 FTAs in the last five games). I mean, I can’t complain—the team is 14-7 and in third place, after an incredibly tough schedule to start the year. But I can’t help but feel we haven’t gotten peak play from our backcourt yet. They can’t be tired—their minutes are both down and the stretched-out schedule has meant more off days. They could be a bit banged up I guess. Or maybe they’ve finally caught some of that regular season fatigue? If that’s the case I’m gonna have pretty damn high post-season expectations, especially after their well-known playoff struggles!

Those third quarters…

I wrote about it the other day, but, the Raptors third quarters are really the only negative on the year. On the one hand, you could call those Knicks and Pacers games outliers; after all, on the year they’re only getting outscored by a point in the third. But… looking a little deeper, their net rating in the third is a negative 5.3, good for 22nd in the league; their defensive rating is 115, good for dead last. So it’s something that still needs work. Subbing JV out sooner, as noted above, may help. But mostly I think it just comes down to coming out of half-time being prepared to play, not taking a lead for granted or taking teams lightly. CJ said last week it’s all mental and I tend to agree.

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Overall I’m extremely pleased with the team at the quarter-mark. The early schedule has been tough (and they’ve got another four-game west coast trip coming), to be here at 14-7 after the departures the team saw in the offseason is damn impressive. Let’s see if they can keep it up for another 61!

Image via Getty images 

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