It’s early in season but Raptors are on fire
Toronto’s revamped roster wasn’t supposed to heat up until second half of the season
If the Toronto Raptors are looking for a new motto to replace We the North, here is a suggestion that has the benefit of also being grammatically challenged: Yes It is Early But.
As in, yes, it is early, but the Raptors have the best record in the NBA. With mighty Golden State losing at home on Thursday night, Toronto is the last of the one-loss teams.
As in, yes, it is early, but Kyle Lowry is leading the NBA in assists. Remember when he arrived to training camp and everyone wondered if his obvious displeasure over the Demar Derozan trade would translate into poor play? Instead, he is channelling his anger in a way that would make Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars fame proud.
As in, yes, it is early, but the Raptors are giving Kawhi Leonard every bit of a sales pitch with the things they can control: they are 8-0 with him in the lineup and 3-1 without him, all of those games coming on the road.
Just like the new motto says, it is early. So early. The Raptors have played less than 15 per cent of their schedule and the NBA has become a league where the best teams spend much of the early part of the season working out the kinks.
More relevant to fans of the Toronto franchise is its own recent history, when the team has looked great in every month that is not May, when it counts the most. Last year’s edition looked like an entirely different team as late as March, but the defence dropped off down the stretch, which turned out to be a very accurate ominous portent, as ominous portents go.
One could forgive Raptors fans if they’re a tad hesitant to read too much significance into the first 12 games of a season. One minute you are reading all these stories about how the Raptors have reinvented themselves and then Lebron James comes along in the playoffs and casually rips out the team’s heart again. At least that particular scenario seems unlikely to repeat itself.
But with all of those caveats noted and filed, what a start to the season the Raptors have had. For several seasons before this one, the team had prized continuity as one of its greatest strengths. After team president Masai Ujiri blew all that up with the firing of coach Dwane Casey and the Derozan trade, it was fair to wonder how much that continuity would be missed.
And the answer is apparently not much at all. Leonard and Danny Green have wasted no time getting comfortable in Raptors red and Nick Nurse, the former assistant and first-time NBA head coach, seems the farthest thing from overwhelmed by the job.
The early returns are a team that has been comically good. The Raptors are again in the top 10 in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating, which was a hallmark of the late Casey years. A significant difference this season is that it is Toronto’s starting five that has been particularly effective, where in past years a good chunk of their statistical excellence came from a deep bench that beat up on other bench units.
This year, as measured by net rating per 100 possessions, the Raptors’ have five of the eight most effective players in the NBA. Four of them, Lowry, Green, Leonard and Pascal Siakam, are regular starters, while the fifth, Serge Ibaka, has shared starting duties with Jonas Valanciunas.
It was assumed that the additions of Leonard and Green would transform the Raptors significantly, so there is nothing too surprising there, except for the fact that it has happened so quickly.
But what has been utterly unexpected is the degree to which Nurse has gotten more out of the guys who were here before he took over. Siakam has made a leap or two, literally and figuratively, and the coach’s decision to move Ibaka to the centre position, where he now splits duties with Valanciunas, has turned that spot on the floor into a huge advantage for the Raptors.
The rough patch will come and how this team reacts to adversity is one of the few things it hasn’t had to show yet.
Yes, it is early, but it has all gone alarmingly well.