Perhaps the league’s most pleasant surprise through the first couple weeks of the seasons lies in the Eastern Conference, where the Toronto Raptors have powered their way to a 7-1 start and the NBA’s second biggest point differential, behind only the West’s Houston Rockets. More advanced statistics favour the Raptors also – per new, more accurate league efficiency stats from Nylon Calculus (using actual possession totals drawn from play-by-play rather than estimates used everywhere else), the Raptors have both the league’s top offensive rating (115.5) and the second best net rating (+11.6, again behind only Houston). Toronto has not exactly played a murderers row through these eight games, but even when accounting for this by using opponent-adjusted per-100 metrics from basketball-reference.com, the Raptors rank second for overall net rating.
The team’s starting unit of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas has set the tone results-wise, drastically outperforming opponents in 80 minutes together so far, a total that would be higher if Johnson had not missed three games due to injury. Interestingly enough, though, certain trends exhibited by this individual line-up are actually nearly the exact opposite of those shown by the rest of the team as a whole, while others seem to line up perfectly. So while it remains early, let us take a look at some of these more notable trends on both sides of the coin, and try to get a clearer picture of just what this team is really all about.
There are multiple areas where, given that team-wide numbers will be tugged in whichever direction this line-up is trending by virtue of their higher volume, it is tough to believe the gaps between overall team figures and the ones put up by the starting unit playing together.
Perhaps most notable is a massive rebounding discrepancy. On the whole, Toronto has been one of the league’s worst teams on the boards this year; they post a 48.2 percent rebounding clip that is the sixth worst in the NBA, and, per SportVU numbers, they are just 27th in percentage of rebounds recovered per chance (when one of their players is within 3.5 feet of the board). But with their starters on the court, this tale of woe has not been anywhere close to true – Toronto is rebounding an absurd 60.1 percent of all missed shots in their minutes together, including 82.1 percent on the defensive glass, both numbers that would easily lead the league.
Some of this is simple variance that will even out with time, but with 128 total rebounding opportunities available to this line-up so far, it is certainly a noteworthy trend. The way Valanciunas is deployed defensively likely plays a large role, as the Raps take a very conservative style versus pick-and-rolls he is involved in covering. In several distinct cases, they have even gone so far as to appear comfortable punting on mid-range contests in favor of keeping the big center in rebounding position:
Whether this is a conscious strategy from coach Dwayne Casey or just Valanciunas being slow and lazy is hard to tell, although it would certainly be an interesting and somewhat unique game plan if Casey has indeed introduced situational caveats that call for abandoning a shot contest in favor of rebounding position in certain scenarios. There are surely a number of other contextual factors going into their spectacular numbers here early on as well, but they are tougher to parse out at this point. This same unit rebounded exactly 50% of available misses last season, and it will be interesting to see whether the unavoidable regression to the mean drops them all the way to this sort of mark or whether they have truly made noticeable improvements.
This is not the only area where the starters diverge fairly wildly from the majority of other Toronto line-ups, however. Turnovers are another big point of discrepancy, on both ends of the court. The Raptors as a team are third best in the league so far at causing opponent turnovers on a per minute basis, but this specific five man unit is forcing the equivalent of a bottom-ten mark. Toronto has scored 21.1% of their points after opponent turnovers, but this group is clocking in at barely half that, a mere 12.9%. The aforementioned conservative style versus a very common play type may play a role, as Valanciunas’s lack of pressure in screen action is very unlikely to create a turnover, but Johnson’s own pick and roll coverage is much more varied (he has more license to hedge out than Valanciunas given his much better foot speed), and it is tough to account for success here in other line-ups while this particular group fails.
Similarly, while the team as a whole has the second lowest turnover percentage in the league, the starters are coughing the ball up at a top-ten rate. This could speak to quality of competition somewhat, as they will play against opposing elites most frequently, but could of course be simple variance to a degree as well. In any case, it is somewhat surprising to see the overall team trend in such a different direction than their highest-volume line-up.
Of course, the starters set the baseline in a number of ways as well, some expected and some quite strange. Leading off here is a trend that falls firmly in the latter category: both this line-up and the team as a whole have struggled to a large degree with ball movement. The Raptors are getting assists on just 50.7% of their made baskets, a bottom-five mark in the league and down from 58.1% last year, which ranked middle of the pack. This particular unit, in part due to the turnover issue already discussed, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.22/1, another bottom-ten mark league-wide.. And it does not appear to be an issue with shotmaking, either, as SportVU tells us the Raptors are second last in assist opportunities per game (all passes that would lead to an assist if the subsequent shot was made).
How can a team in today’s NBA be so lacking in ball movement but retain the league’s best offensive rating, particularly with no transcendent superstar talent on the roster? A big part of it is continuity, something the starting line-up is chalk full of after spending so much time together last season. Casey has a number of pet sets he likes to go to offensively, including an overload action with both Johnson and Valanciunas on the strong side setting staggered down screens for a wing to pop up high. Here is a simple iteration of the set:
But as the group has become more comfortable together, they have introduced a number of counters that play to defensive tendencies, which in several cases lend themselves to more isolation-oriented basketball. For instance, watch Elfrid Payton and the rest of Orlando’s defense shading toward DeRozan as he uses the double screen. Lowry sees them leaning too far and exploits it for an easy look:
Or here, in the same set, they will look to a quick-hitter post-up for DeRozan or Ross on the weak side:
Lowry is instrumental here. He has full license within Casey’s system to improvise and attack as he sees fit, and he is one of the league’s very best at recognizing the sorts of little over-pursuits shown above and capitalizing, often for his own good shots. He loves to attack while the defense is still off-balance, and Casey has built in a number of heady drag and pseudo-drag screens for him in these scenarios, often not even from one of the bigs:
DeRozan is vital as well, and his talents speak to another area where both the starters and other units are in tandem – fouls drawn. Toronto as a team was fifth in personal fouls drawn on a per-minute basis last year, and they have only improved there this year so far, up to second. Their gap between fouls drawn and fouls taken trails only the Cleveland Cavaliers (who only sit at this perch because they basically never draw or commit fouls so far this year compared to the rest of the league), the starters setting the tone with a robust six more fouls drawn than committed per-48.
DeRozan is the lynchpin, with a free-throw frequency that was excellent when he entered the league and has ballooned to borderline ridiculous levels over the last couple seasons. So far this year, he is attempting more than one free throw for every two field-goal attempts, a rate that is only equaled in the non-big world by names like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and his own teammate Kyle Lowry (Valanciunas is also excellent here, though this is slightly more common for bigs). DeRozan has got a nose for the basket and is thoroughly unintimidated by bigger human beings in his way:
Put it all together, plus healthy doses of post play from Valanciunas and even occasionally Johnson, and it is easier to see how the Raptors have remained such an elite offensive team despite their ball-movement issues. They will have to mix things up as the counter process naturally evolves and defenses start getting wise to their adjustments, but given their comfort in the system and Lowry’s elite grasp on the game, this should not be an issue.
Toronto will certainly see some standard regression, both to their overall team numbers and within their starting five. But this is a franchise doing all the right things recently. And in an Eastern Conference that is suddenly far more wide open given the struggles in Cleveland and concerns over Derrick Rose’s health, the Raptors are primed to make some serious noise.