The 2017-18 campaign has, so far, been the most enjoyable season for die-hard Toronto Raptors fans in the last decade. While it may have been an arduous process to follow this team daily in seasons past, this campaign has helped turn over a new page in the history of the franchise; the Raptors are universally considered an enjoyable team to watch throughout an 82-game season. As I’m sure you can all agree, that wasn’t always the case with this organization.
Dwane Casey’s squad continues to improve as the season moves along and is currently the only team in the East with both a top-five offensive and defensive rating. They’ve also put together four win streaks this season spanning five or more games. The Raptors past seven contests – all wins – have been sensational, with the team regularly dissecting opponents’ defences on a game-by-game basis. Toronto has outscored teams by an average of over 18 points per game during that span. The degree of dominance has gotten to the point where Casey has had the luxury of sitting DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka for entire fourth quarters. That’s happened in six of seven games during the winning streak. The team’s recent string of success has pushed them slightly ahead of the Boston Celtics for first in the Eastern Conference entering the all-star break. If their strong play of late is any indication, the Raps are unlikely to surrender the number one seed any time soon. Toronto also enters the all-star break with the best record they’ve had at this point of a season in franchise history. The team’s record at the break has been trending up for the past five seasons, ever since DeRozan and Lowry started to significantly impact the franchise.
In years past, whether the Raptors thrived in the regular season or not, there was always a sizeable amount of skepticism regarding the team’s chances in the postseason. This year, though, there seems to be much more confidence in this roster, mainly because of the team’s newly-integrated efficient, selfless style of play. The Raptors no longer look timid like they used to in big games. Instead, they’re beginning to thrive in those situations.
As has been documented many times over, the Raptors adoption of an offence predicated on ball movement has made them that much more dangerous to guard. Double-teaming DeRozan or Lowry is now a tactic of the past given the improvement of the supporting cast and the pair’s increased willingness to dish the rock to teammates for clean looks. The only way defences can hope to contain Toronto’s backcourt is by successfully guarding each of them one-on-one, which doesn’t always prove fruitful.
Aside from more ball movement on offence, the Raptors bench has outshined all expectations. In the preseason, there was a ton of question marks regarding whether Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet would be able to fulfill significant roles in the rotation this season. If there’s one takeaway entering the all-star break about this team, it’s that Toronto’s second unit has arguably the most depth of any team in the entire NBA; all doubts about the young talent developed with the Raptors 905 have been put to rest. And as mentioned earlier, the bench’s resoundingly strong impact has allowed the Raptors starters much needed time to rest throughout the season, especially of late. From a financial perspective, the cheap contracts belonging to members of the second unit are currently a huge positive when it comes to Toronto’s ability to retain the majority of its talent, too. Yes, this team does owe the trio of DeRozan, Lowry, and Ibaka almost $80 million over the next few seasons, but having affordable complimentary pieces will make giving out that amount of dough a little bit easier.
Based on the team’s lack of movement at the trade deadline, it’s clear management has a great deal of internal confidence in the team as well. Last season, Masai Ujiri made a number of big moves around the deadline, bringing in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to bolster the team’s defence. This year though, the only move Ujiri and his staff made was a minor one that saw them ship Bruno Caboclo out of town to Sacramento in exchange for another unproven prospect in Malachi Richardson. The lack of roster turnover shows how Ujiri believes this year’s squad has enough talent and depth necessary to thrive in the playoffs, and finally, surpass the likes of Cleveland and Boston. Aside from picking up a player that’s bought out to fill the team’s 15th roster spot, this year’s Raptors team is essentially set in stone. Minimal outside help is required with this bunch; the roster is just that talented.
Given the Raptors successfully revamped style of play, elite-level bench unit, and balance throughout the roster, one can only figure that the best has yet to come for the Raps since the team is still continuing to improve.