As one of the youngest franchises in the NBA today, the Toronto Raptors’ short history since 1995 hasn’t been filled with a bevy of notable success. During those 20 and a half seasons in the league, only once as the team advanced out of the first round of the playoffs (the Raptors have been to the postseason seven times). In each of the past two seasons, Toronto has won the Atlantic division title, earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs each time. In both occasions though, the team failed to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
If you don’t understand what’s written above, all you need to know is that success and the Raptors have not gone together, for whatever reason. This season, however, the only team that calls a non-U.S. city home is trying to make amends for its past failures. A solid start to the season at 31-15 (with a current 10-game win streak) has the Raptors sitting firmly in second place in the Eastern Conference, only behind the heavy-favorite Cleveland Cavaliers. That current winning pace could see the team eclipse the 50-win mark for the first time in franchise history.
With its strong start to the season, it is worth considering how much of a legitimate threat Toronto is to make a run at the Cavs and the Eastern Conference crown. Here are three reasons why we think they are, in fact, for real.
1. Dynamic duo
For any team to be taken seriously in the NBA, that team must have not one, but two star-worthy players leading the way. The Raptors have just that with their underrated scoring duo in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
DeRozan, who earned his second All-Star selection on Thursday, is in the midst of his seventh season with Toronto and his game has never looked better than it has through 46 games this season. He’s averaging 23 points per night to lead the team, which would be the highest average of his career if he maintains it throughout the rest of the year. DeRozan’s shooting numbers are also up, as he is hitting 32% of his three-point attempts and 84% of his free throws. The USC product has also improved his assists and rebounding totals.
Lowry, who earned a starting spot in the All-Star game for the East (which is being held in Toronto), has also seen improvement in his ninth NBA season — fourth with the Raptors. He is second on the team in scoring at nearly 21 per night, but he leads the club in assists and steals. Lowry is also a solid three-point shooter at nearly 39% and he is hitting better than 88% of his free throws. To further prove his value, the former Villanova Wildcat is pulling in five boards per night.
Both Lowry and DeRozan have started every game for the Raptors this season, increasing their immense value to the team. With these two so effective at their games, role players such as Jonas Valanciunas are more effective as well. It’s taking them some time to truly gel together, but the pairing of Lowry and DeRozan could lead Toronto to heights they have never before seen.
2. Marquee wins
Playing in the East, the Raptors’ schedule certainly isn’t the most difficult in the NBA. However, when they’ve gotten a chance to face off against some of the top teams in the league, the team has really held its own.
Already this season, Toronto has defeated the Clippers (twice), the Hawks, the Heat (twice), the Spurs, and the Cavs — among other notable victories. This is proof that the team can not only win games, but win big games, which is (obviously) a necessity in the postseason.
To further indicate their success against the opposition, during the Raptors current 10-game win streak, they have 6 victories by double-digit margins, which shows that they aren’t just squeaking out wins on a nightly basis. The Raptors are controlling games and asserting their dominance while showing that they can compete with anybody.
3. Solid across the board
Looking over the team statistics for Toronto, you’ll notice that they are performing pretty well in just about every phase of the game. They score 101.3 points per contest, which isn’t great by NBA measures, but they make up for things by giving up the fourth lowest point total per night in the league at 96.6 points. That gives the Raptors the fifth best point differential in the association at +4.7 points.
In terms of shooting, again, the Raptors aren’t spectacular at about 44% for their field goal percentage. On defense though, they only allow their opponents to shoot about 43% from the floor. From beyond the arc, the team is at about 36%, which is good for fifth in the league. On the glass, Toronto grabs about 43 boards per night, putting them in the upper-half of the league. However, the rebounding differential is at nearly +3, which is one of the better marks in the game. One area in which the Raptors definitely do struggle is in assists, where their 18.5 per game as a team is only good for 28th in the league.
What these statistics tell you is that the Raptors are playing very good basketball and that they aren’t relying on one facet of the game to lead them to success. The team has a good enough offense and defense to compete with anybody that they are matched up against. That, along with their proven success against NBA heavyweights and the presence of their dynamic duo, makes us believe that Toronto is set up to have their best season in franchise history. They should be a favorite to challenge the Cavaliers in the conference finals and if they get that far, they should be able to give the Cavs a fight at the very least.