Toronto Raptors: Best kept secret in the Eastern Conference

The Toronto Raptors have always been a forgotten franchise. Once a NBA backwater, they are now getting the Spurs treatment.

The oft-disparaged East which the Toronto Raptors currently hold the crown to, has been the story of the NBA. The everlasting soap opera that is Lebron and the Restless combined with the endless fawning over Kyrie Irving‘s Boston Celtics are the epics of the 2017-2018 season.

Yes, intrigue over personnel and personal issues run amok throughout the lower rungs of the East and yet they’re heralded as the class of it. The NBA is fascinated with everything in the conference but the Raptors, and it has reached comical levels.

If you watch ESPN you’d be convinced the East only has two teams, with a reoccurring appearance of the Washington Wizards.

However, If you pull back far enough, the East is just a bunch prattle below a revolutionized Toronto Raptors team perched in the first seed. The Raptors have always been a forgotten franchise. Once an NBA backwater, they are now getting similar treatment that the San Antonio Spurs were famous for.

The Dinos have grown into an organization that’s highly respected around the league. They draft well, develop well and play well. The franchise’s growth came in spurts and has only recently been incremental.

With 50+ wins in the past three years and regular playoff success, you’d still be hard pressed finding people who see the Raptors as the beast in the East. But you’d be a fool to consider them otherwise.

The teams below the Drakes, supposedly competing for the best team in the East, are actually tragically one-dimensional. Boston is a hard-nosed defensive squad with a single brilliant scorer in Irving.

Uncle Drew’s bucket buying is immaculate, but it’s only enough for a middle of the pack offensive efficiency to match the league-best defence.

The Cleveland Cavaliers represent the inverse.

LeBron James guarantees an elite offence even if he were wearing a headband large enough to cover his entire face, while the defence that was literally the worst in the league (barring the Kings) is 28th, per CleaningTheGlass.com.

The Raptors are plagued by years past; 50-win seasons marred with an infamously sticky offence and porous defence in the postseason etched Toronto into a maligned corner.

They were good but not great and good in the East means LeBron fodder. This year, as the top-three in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Raptors are a classical example of a championship calibre team.

Although isolation was (and still is) effective for the Toronto Raptors, it was ugly and predictable. DeMar DeRozan‘s pump fakes can only carry a team so far.

Dwane Casey’s revamp of his offensive philosophy is a revelation, as the Raps sit seventh in assists per game in harmony with an elite offence.

Gone are the days of singular screen and rolls. Kyle Lowry bought into the culture change. Last year, that shot was a contested attempt for a layup (that he typically finished). This year, it’s a pass to the open man in the corner for a reenactment of the 2014 Spurs’ offence.

In an effort to decentralize the offence, the ball finally swings from side to side. Multiple people touch the ball, bodies are finally moving and although the primary action of the play is the same as last year, it’s masked. The pick and roll is still a money play for the Raptors, but at least there’s something to it now other than a skeletal attempt.

Stars can thrive in isolation and rudimentary offenses; that’s why they’re stars. The others typically need multiple probes at the chance for a basket. And that’s part of the reason the role players and bench have been so effective.

The Raptors’ bench is the best in the NBA; that’s no hyperbole. Out of all lineups that have played more than 100 minutes this season, the five-man unit of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles has a + 24.9 net rating, which leads the entire NBA.

The Raptors’ bench fits together near seamlessly. Almost everyone can shoot it and with two real ball handlers on the court, it rarely suffers from lack of penetration. In fact, their velour offence is only matched by their rottweiler defence.

Sometimes a good defense is a good offense. VanVleet is an unrelenting defender and Casey loves to deploy the bench in non-conventional defenses. Moving the ball to the front court should be like getting out of bed for Chris Paul, but VanVleet finds a way to make it difficult for him.

With the rest of the Rockets already in the front court, Vanvleet is one-on-one with the fourth-best point guard of all time. By jarring the ball loose, FVV creates a double team using the baseline. Anticipating the spin, VanVleet jams CP3 again and creates a foot race with a horrible pass, forcing a turnover on an inbounds off a made basket.

Youth, grit and length are premium qualities in the NBA, although rarely seen in refined use together. With the athleticism to play aggressively but the discipline to remain reserved, the bench envelopes their opponent. Run of the mill inbounds are full-court pressed sporadically, ATO’s are double teamed on the catch and point guards are constantly denied passes.

Offenses are always off-kilter, unable to really settle into an offense that’s consistent. How can you? When the defense is so energetic and unpredictable, it’s hard to get the ball over half court let alone run an effective horns set.

The young  bench is a juggernaut that’s saved the Raps from the brink, strung out small leads and blown out moderate ones. And since Feb. 1, the Raptors’ bench has ranked first in assists (13.7) and first in thee point makes, while only ranking second in points per game (47.4) and second in field goal percentage. They can go offence, defence, big or small; the Raptors have it all.

The great Phil Jackson once said to be considered a championship contender, a team must win 40 games before they lose 20. The Toronto Raptors will almost absolutely win 50 before dropping their 20th game. Currently at 49-17 and with the Brooklyn Nets as the next team on the horizon, 50 wins is a mere stepping stone in what was previous years’ milestones.

The Raptors’ new bench gives the roster an invaluable flexibility that’s enabled the Drakes to trample teams to what is projected a possible 60 win season per 538. And without completely compromising the integrity of the team, players are interchangeable for any situation. Lowry plus the bench was the dominant lineup for the Raps in previous years and DeRozan plus the bench was a net negative; the two lineups stabilized this year into net positive looks.

In a season where both DeRozan and Lowry are having down years in minutes, usage and scoring, the team is buoyed by their enhanced efficiency and the ascendance of the rest of the cast.

The dinos are the most complete, elite, team in the NBA.

Despite all the noise made about other Eastern teams, the Raptors were the first team in the NBA to clinch a playoff spot and are the most likely team to reach the finals, with a 59 percent chance according to 538. Every visual and statistical indicator points to the Drakes being the best team in the conference. The path to the finals runs through them, not the Cavs. The Raptors are the class of the east.

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