The Toronto Raptors Can Sustain Their Hot Start

The Toronto Raptors have been bad or mediocre throughout the team’s history. Since trading Rudy Gay in December of 2013, the Raptors have had arguably the best two year stretch in franchise history, eclipsing the team’s best regular season win-loss record in consecutive years, with 48 wins in the 2013-14 season and 49 last season.

Last season, the Raptors started out hot, winning 13 of their first 16 games before 2014 All-Star DeMar DeRozan suffered a groin injury. Even after the injury, Toronto continued their success behind point guard Kyle Lowry, pushing their record to 24-7 near the end of last December. Lowry made his first All-Star appearance, having led the Raptors to a 36-17 record by the All-Star break. However, it was all downhill from there for the team; the Raptors won only 13 of their 29 games after the break, finishing just shy of the franchise’s first 50 win season. Toronto went on to be swept by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs, putting an end to a disappointing second half of the season. Lowry clearly wore down by the time the playoffs came around, suffering injuries and playing at a subpar level. The Raptors offense stagnated, and head coach Dwane Casey was rightfully scrutinized for not adjusting to the Wizards small ball attack. The defense was a mess all over the place, the isolation offense couldn’t draw the same fouls that the guards relied on in the regular season, and starting small forward Terrence Ross disappeared completely. It was time for some change in Toronto.

Coming into this season, the Raptors kept the same core – featuring Lowry, DeRozan, and young center Jonas Valanciunas – but general manager Masai Ujiri retooled most of the roster, signing backup point guard Cory Joseph, and most notably giving a 4 year, $60 million deal to small forward DeMarre Carroll. So far this season, the two new additions have been key to the Raptors best crunch time lineup – a small ball unit featuring Carroll at power forward alongside Valanciunas, along with three guards in Joseph, Lowry, and DeRozan. The Raptors started the season 5-0, and after a rough three game losing streak with Carroll sidelined due to injury, Toronto has improved to 7-3. Most fans, both of the Raptors and around the league, are skeptical as to whether this hot start is sustainable. Seeing as the Raptors fizzled out after the All-Star break last season, why should anyone be convinced that they won’t do the same this time around?

Despite all of the reasons to question this team, the difference between last year’s Raptors to this year’s is significant. Sure, the team has blown close games to New York and Orlando, games they should have won, and the Raptors have only had one real quality win – an impressive one in Oklahoma City. But the on-court product has been very different than last season for the Raptors thus far. The first thing that stands out is that Kyle Lowry came into training camp in the best shape of his life, and he has looked ready to lead this team to another playoff appearance. But this time, Lowry seems determined to maintain his elite play throughout any potential playoff run. The Raptors will go where Lowry takes them.

Another big difference is that the defense has been much improved from last season, with Carroll, Joseph, and new backup center Bismack Biyombo making an impact with good individual and help defense. Carroll gives Toronto someone to defend elite wing players, which Terrence Ross just couldn’t do with his skinny 6’6” frame. As bad as Biyombo is at catching the ball on offense, he is a good shot blocker and Joseph often puts pressure on opposing point guards as soon as they cross half court.

Besides the defense, the Raptors offense has looked better, even if it doesn’t reflect much in the statistics. Cory Joseph played his whole career in the Spurs’ motion offense before signing with his hometown Raptors, so he’s used to either moving the ball, shooting off the catch, or attacking the basket as soon as he gets the ball. The same goes for DeMarre Carroll, who spent the last two seasons playing in a system similar to that of the Spurs under head coach Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. While Joseph and Carroll may not rack up a ton of assists, both play smart basketball and keep the ball in near constant motion, which is a key to a good offense. The Raptors have put the ill-advised isolations of Lou Williams behind them, and even DeMar DeRozan has reduced his number of tough shot attempts. DeRozan is averaging an outrageous 9.4 free throw attempts per game at a stellar 82 percent from the line, with an attacking style that opens up the floor for everyone else. Joseph has been useful as an additional creator off the dribble, and he along with Lowry have controlled the tempo and pace of most Raptors games thus far. Perhaps most importantly, the Raptors have looked for Valanciunas in the post more than ever. The big man has capitalized, shooting an excellent 62 percent from the field, good for just over 15 points per game. While the offense is still a work in progress, the Raptors have shown a willingness to move the ball and play an unselfish brand of basketball that will pay off in the long run. Toronto just needs time to incorporate the new players and gel on offense. Once the Raptors do that, they will have no problem sustaining it come playoff time – unlike the difficult shots that they thrived on last year in the regular season, shots which couldn’t be made in the playoffs.

Toronto is far from a sure bet to win even a single playoff series. But this season, more than any other before, the Raptors have a chance to build off a solid start and make some noise when it really counts. This time, they won’t blow that opportunity.