The Toronto Raptors are 46-18 this season, which is good for the two seed in the Eastern Conference. Last season they were 46-18 through 64 games, which was also good for the two seed in the Eastern Conference.
The 2018-19 Raptors had one of the best players in the NBA on their roster: Kawhi Leonard. To recap: the Raptors lost one of the sport’s preeminent players to free agency and have won the same amount of games through 64 games as they did last season.
This is a testament to Toronto’s remarkable player development.
Be honest: did you think the Raptors would be a contender in the East this season? Yes, they still had some respected veterans such as Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. They also had some compelling youngsters such as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. That said, many felt they would, at best, sneak into one of the bottom seeds. Some argued that Leonard’s departure should’ve triggered a rebuild.
From a talent standpoint, the Raptors weren’t the second-best team in the East. The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and a healthy Indiana Pacers team had more talent at their disposal. Well, that didn’t seem to matter, did it? Case in point: the Raptors have a keen ability to develop talent.
One could argue that head coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors are getting the utmost production from their players as humanly possible.
Remember when Siakam was a reserve? He’s now averaging a solid 23.6 points per game. Remember when Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell were mere bench scorers? VanVleet is now a staple in their starting backcourt, averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 assists per game while Powell puts forth 16.4 points per game. Remember when OG Anunoby was a defensive specialist? He’s now contributing more offensively, averaging 10.7 points per game.
Furthermore, their veterans are looking fresh as ever, specifically Lowry and Ibaka; the two are having resurgent seasons. Lowry is moving well, creating for others as well as ever, and having one of the best seasons of his career from a production standpoint, averaging 19.7 points and 7.7 assists per game. Meanwhile, Ibaka is averaging a career-high 16.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game (a career high since the 2013-14 season).
You might ask who they replaced Leonard with? The Raptors didn’t make any headline-grabbing move, rather signing Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to short-term deals to man rotation roles. Teams rarely have the same amount of success after their lone star departs.
The Cleveland Cavaliers finished in one of the bottom two seeds in the East after LeBron James left in the 2010 and 2018 offseasons; the Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t moved past the first round of the playoffs since Kevin Durant left in 2016; last season the Orlando Magic made the playoffs for the first time since trading Dwight Howard in 2012; the Chicago Bulls haven’t moved past the first round of the playoffs since trading Derrick Rose in 2016.
The Raptors are in a unique class.
Others have stepped up, and one could argue they’ve never been in better shape. There’s no questions about anyone’s future, no sense of urgency to win a championship, and they’re a team with an abundance of continuity.
The faces and their tendencies remain the same. They’re producing at a higher level, and it has the Raptors in the same situation as last year: in contention. It’s not outlandish to think that they could be the favorite to win the East — if the 2019-20 season resumes.
There’s nothing they don’t do at a respectable level. They play selflessly, hit the boards, limit turnovers, stick outside jump shots at a considerable rate, and are an elite defensive unit.
In fact, they’re first in the NBA in opponent points per game (106.5) and opponent three-point shooting percentage (33.7) and second in opponent field goal percentage (42.9) and defensive net rating (104.9). Most, if not every player on their depth chart plays competitive defense.
Think about some of the rebuilding teams in the NBA: what’s their biggest problem? Player development. Teams such as the Bulls, Cavaliers, New York Knicks, and Atlanta Hawks have loaded young cores. Yet, they’ve shown close to no signs of progression this season. It’s part of the reason why David Fizdale (Knicks) was axed, and Jim Boylen (Bulls) could hold the same fate. Heck, there have been rumblings that Lloyd Pierce (Hawks) could be on the heat seat.
If you can’t develop talent you can’t win in the NBA. If you can’t win you won’t attract high-profile players. In all likelihood, the process repeats itself and/or results in organizational stagnation. Think about where the Raptors young studs and the aforementioned young teams were a couple years ago: how big of a differentiation was there between the teams from a talent standpoint?
It’s almost as if the Raptors are becoming the New England Patriots of the NBA. They’re not always the most talented team in the sport, rather they get players who fit the bill for the role they’re looking to fill. Then they get steady play on both ends of the floor and considerable production from them.
The Raptors can only get better, which makes zero sense given how they lost one of the best players in the sport and have a roster devoid of a prototypical superstar. Yet, here we are: their record and conference standing is the same.
Nick Nurse, his assistants, and president Masai Ujiri know what they want and how to get what they need from their players. They’re becoming a model organization.