The clock struck midnight to end 2017 and this past year brought a lot of change in the world. Donald Trump is president, there’s a new crop of rookies that are looking like they’ll be hugely impactful for years to come, and Chris Paul has joined the Rockets, giving them a 1-2 punch that could push the Warriors to the limit in a 7 game series. Some things remain the same though. The Raptors suffered an embarrassing exit at the hands of the Cleveland Cavs to end last season for the Toronto.
What does 2018 have in store for Toronto? Perhaps more of the same? Maybe they take the next step? Without a big trade, the personnel is very similar for Toronto. Out is Demarre Carroll, Patrick Paterson, PJ Tucker, and Corey Joseph, all solid contributors but replaceable and in is CJ Miles and rookie OG Anunoby. The Raptors are also banking on bigger contributions from youngsters Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, and Norman Powell. That more or less works out to a wash, if not a slight improvement. The biggest change was an apparent change in culture and direction from President Masai Ujiri who decided to keep coach Dwayne Casey and instead of making sweeping changes, decided to just change the style of play. Instead of relying on DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to create their own shot and score on their own, the Raptors have hammered home the idea of ball movement to create shots and the results are showing already. Last season the Raptors were dead last in the NBA in assists per game at only 18.5. This season they’re up to 11th in the league at 22.8 apg. A result of the better ball movement is that the Raptors are shooting the 3 at a much higher frequency as they get more open looks. Last season they were 9th from the bottom in 3 pointers made and attempted and this season, they’re not only 11th in made 3 pointers per game, but they’re 4th in attempts per game.
Season over season, they’ve made changes to be a team that has many options at crunch time, including moving the ball, so they’re not forced to just give the ball to DeRozan and get out of the way. But are these improvements enough to take them to the next level?
Defensively the Raptors continue to be a top 10 unit, ranking 9th in total defense (102.8ppg), 7th in opponents fg percentage (45.1%), 5th in opponents 3 point percentage (35%), and 3rd in turnovers forced per game (15.6). These are key elements to any team looking to contend. But the Raps were strong defensively last year as well. What makes anyone think they’re ready to contend with the Cavs or Celtics?
What needs to happen
At the end of the day, there are only 3 things that will get the Raptors to the NBA finals. The first is if Cleveland and/or Boston has a major injury to its stars? That has already happened for Boston, but Brad Stevens has his team playing exceptional ball and Kyrie Irving has taken a huge leap toward being a top 5 NBA player this year. If they suffer another major injury, or the Cavs were to lose Lebron or maybe Love, that might open the door enough for the Raptors to push through.
The second way that the Raptors might be able to take that leap is if they continue to believe in the ball movement, get better 3 point shooting, and for the first time in their careers, DeRozan and Lowry don’t flat out suck in the playoffs. Those two are famously awful in the postseason with DeRozan shooting 40.3% from the field and Lowry slightly worse shooting at 39.4% in their playoff careers. For them to play up to their season averages in the playoffs, would likely be a huge step to get Toronto over the hump.
The final thing that could push the Raptors into the NBA Finals is if they can get the number one seed going into the playoffs, they can defend the home court, just as they’ve done thus far this season starting a league best, 14-1. This would also ensure that Boston would face Cleveland and the Raptors would only need to beat one of them, instead of having to defeat them both.
Will it happen
This is the question that all Raptors fans ask themselves every season. Will this be the year? Can the Raps go where they’ve never been before? They can and they will. DeRozan is at a new level, having added the 3 pointer to his game, and Delon Wright is playing the best basketball of his career, really adding a punch to the Raptors bench unit. When you combine the great depth the Raptors have, and the possibility that they make a trade deadline acquisition of someone who can have even more impact for them, this is the year that the 6ix stands above all else.
Toronto has bought into the new culture that Masai has pushed, and this will be the year they take out LeBron and the Cavs or Kyrie and the Celts and go to the NBA Finals.