Yes it is early, but

With mighty Golden State los­ing at home on Thurs­day, Toronto is the last of the one- loss teams

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON sstin­son@post­media.com

TORONTO — If the 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 Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion. 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 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. OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet have also missed mul­ti­ple games, but the wins have kept pil­ing up.

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 be­fore get­ting se­ri­ous about win­ning some­time af­ter Christ­mas. 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 were 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 very un­likely to re­peat it­self again.

But with all of those caveats noted and filed, my word what a start to the sea­son the Rap­tors have had. For sev­eral sea­sons prior to 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. The mem­bers of Toronto’s most com­mon start­ing five- man unit — Lowry, Leonard, Green, Ibaka and Si­akam — are also each, in­di­vid­u­ally, among the top 10 play­ers in the NBA as mea­sured by plus- mi­nus: points for and against when the player is on the floor.

One more nerdy stat: The Rap­tors have three of the top 20 play­ers in the league as mea­sured by PER, or player ef­fi­ciency rat­ing: Lowry, Valan­ci­u­nas and Leonard. Only two other teams, Golden State and Port­land, have as many as two play­ers with a top- 20 PER. If Ibaka’s PER inches up a tick or two, the Rap­tors would have four.

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. There was ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve that Toronto would have been one of those teams that wouldn’t round into form un­til the sec­ond half of the sea­son.

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 Valan­ci­ua­nas, has turned that spot on the floor into a huge ad­van­tage for the Rap­tors. The two are com­bin­ing for 31 points and 15 re­bounds a game; the team’s cen­tres were av­er­ag­ing 19 and 13 per game last sea­son. And be­cause they don’t share the floor, the team has more room for its end­less sup­ply of ver­sa­tile wing play­ers.

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. Start­ing 11- 1 will do that.

Yes it is early, but it has all gone alarm­ingly well.

POST­MEDIA FILES

The Rap­tors cur­rently sit atop the NBA stand­ings and are mak­ing a strong case so far for Kawhi Leonard, above, to re­main in Toronto when he be­comes a free agent at the end of this sea­son.

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