Because you might not know this, but they're actually pretty good.
Wait, the Raptors? Aren’t they sort of traditionally bad? Didn’t you, in Heroes and Villains 2013, say that the Raptors were playing badly?
Well, yes—they were bad. Indeed, in their first 18 games this season, they won six and lost twelve. However, since then, the Raptors have been winning at an above-average pace and are currently 39 and 31, good for fourth overall in the Eastern Conference. At this point, it’s not quite mathematically impossible for us to miss the playoffs, but for all intents and purposes, a playoff spot is guaranteed. (Especially since we will play the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers—the two worst teams in the league by far—a total of three times in the next three weeks.)
In two words: Masai Ujiri. The Raptors’ new GM, who won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award last year as GM for the Denver Nuggets before the Raps made him a very rich offer that he then accepted, pulled the trigger on a trade that sent arguably our biggest-name player, Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings. Around the league, everybody assumed this meant that Toronto was intentionally tanking the season to get a high draft pick in this year’s NBA draft—and get a shot at Andrew Wiggins, the Brampton-born phenomenon widely expected to be a top pick this year.
In fact, right after the Rudy Gay trade, very reliable reports emerged that “the Masaiah” had put point guard Kyle Lowry up for trade and was in talks with the New York Knicks; the problem was that Masai wanted a very high price for Lowry, which nobody was willing to pay. So Lowry remained with the team—and the team started winning games at a rapid pace, which meant that Masai’s price for Lowry got only higher. And ultimately, we didn’t trade Lowry at all.
So why do I need to get on this bandwagon? I mean, I understand that the Raptors are winning, but are they good? I keep hearing that the Eastern Conference is terrible.
Granted, the Eastern Conference is terrible. However, the Raptors—or, at least, the post–Rudy Gay Raptors—are not terrible at all. Since the Raps traded Rudy, we’ve become a top-10 team in the entire league in both offensive and defensive efficiency; this is not something you achieve by being a bad team. More importantly, we’ve played well against the Western Conference (where most of the best teams play) this year, and most of our losses against the top-tier teams have been extremely competitive ones—such as our heartbreaking loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday, where it took Kevin Durant, the best player in the NBA, scoring 51 freaking points and going to double overtime to beat the Raptors by one point.
…does that mean we can win the championship?
Can win, yes. Will win… probably not.
Here’s the thing: the NBA is very much a league where the best team usually wins. The Raptors are a strong young team with a lot of talent, but there are a lot of good teams playing at our level or better. Two of the best teams in the league play in the Eastern Conference: the Miami Heat (featuring LeBron James and former Raptor Chris Bosh) and the Indiana Pacers (the best defence in the entire NBA, and it isn’t even close). In order for the Raptors to make the NBA finals, we would almost certainly have to beat both of them. And then we’d have to beat the best team from the Western Conference—and whether that’s the Thunder, the L.A. Clippers, the Houston Rockets, or the defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs, that would be an uphill battle for the Raps.
But we’ve got a shot. John Hollinger’s playoff predictions on ESPN currently have us with a 17-per-cent chance of making the finals (a respectable third place in the East) and a 4-per-cent chance of winning the title. That’s not bad for a team making its first playoff appearance since 2008.
Okay. I’m tentatively in. Tell me about this team.
It’s a good team with a lot of talent and depth. More importantly, it’s a young team as playoff teams go (traditionally, NBA playoff contenders tend to be loaded with veterans who know how to work refs during the playoffs and who get less rattled by stress), so this shouldn’t be a flash-in-the-pan team; this is the future of Toronto basketball, and it’s looking very good.
The Raptors play grind-it-out basketball; rather than being a fast-paced, high-scoring team, they play a defence-minded game, take their time on their own possessions, and get as many stops as possible. They’re also a remarkably unselfish team and take pride in “going fifteen deep” (in that they say they can put anybody on the floor, and they won’t suck. This is maybe a bit debatable, but it’s their brag). They’re also the best fourth-quarter team in the NBA (and it’s not even close; their fourth-quarter point differential is the best in the league, and more than double the second-place L.A. Clippers). And they hustle like all get out.
Of course, being a young team has its drawbacks. The Raptors may be the best fourth-quarter team in the league, but that’s in part because they tend to get sloppy in the middle of the game—a very typical Raptors game is “jump out to early lead in the first quarter, watch that lead erode/disappear in the second and third quarters, storm back in the fourth quarter.” The Raptors also aren’t the most efficient of teams (bottom half of the league in field goal percentage), don’t get a lot of steals (bottom third of the NBA), and they foul a lot (second most fouls per game in the NBA)—all of which are evidence of their overall low level of experience.
Basically, they’re a young, gritty team playing blue-collar basketball, which should appeal to Toronto sports fans.
Who do I need to know on this team?
The three most important members of the team are Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan (who plays shooting guard or small forward, depending on matchup), and Amir Johnson (power forward, plays some centre occasionally when the team goes “small-ball”—i.e., smaller and faster).
Kyle’s the brains of the team: a recent AMA on Reddit by Raps guard Terrence Ross revealed that Kyle isn’t just the offensive mind behind the team—as point guard, he calls a lot of the Raptors’ offensive plays—but also has a knack for recognizing the other team’s offensive plan when they’re coming down the court towards the Raptors’ bucket and warns his teammates accordingly. Lowry’s an undersized (six feet tall, small for the NBA) pit bull of a guard who plays like someone six inches taller; he’s particularly skilled at forcing opposing teams to commit offensive fouls.
DeMar’s the heart of the Raptors: Kyle runs the Raptors, but as the team’s best scorer (averaging 22.8 points per game this season), DeMar is the one who usually puts the team on his back and scores buckets to get the win. DeMar’s always been considered a one-dimensional scorer, but this year he’s dramatically increased his assist rate, and more importantly, he’s playing more aggressively and drawing more fouls (which means he shoots more free throws). All of this resulted in DeMar getting his first appearance in the NBA’s All-Star Game this year. Also, DeMar has the season-defining quote for the Raptors, which came shortly after the Rudy trade when reporters asked him if the team was tanking:
You can sink and drown, or you can stay afloat. And we’re out here like Michael Phelps.
Finally, Amir “Tall Money” Johnson is the soul of the team. He loves Toronto, and isn’t afraid to show it—whether by participating in zombie walks, or going to Nuit Blanche, or buying an entire store’s worth of copies of the new Drake album and giving them out to people on the street. But more importantly than that, Amir is the lynchpin of Toronto’s defence. His stats aren’t particularly showy or impressive (although this year will see him record the second-most blocks in a season of any Raptor after Chris Bosh), but if you look at advanced metrics, it quickly becomes clear that Amir’s defence (and usefulness on offence) make him invaluable to the Raptors.
Okay, brains, heart, soul—check. But these guys have been on the team since the beginning of the season, right? Why are the Raptors winning now?
Because of the Rudy Gay trade. When the Raptors traded Rudy—a ball-hungry scorer of a player with serious efficiency issues—it had two positive effects on the team.
First, trading Rudy Gay meant we replaced Rudy, an inefficient scorer, in the lineup with second-year player Terrence Ross. Ross—last year’s Slam Dunk Champion—is a promising young player in multiple aspects: he’s a killer three-point shooter, a tenacious defender, and as you might expect, can throw a mean dunk on occasion. He’s still inconsistent, but for a young player that’s nothing unexpected, and Ross’ superior distance shooting “spaces the floor” (i.e., draws defenders away from the basket because they have to defend against his three-point shot, which opens up opportunities for other players to attack the basket) much more efficiently than Rudy did. (Rudy’s opportunities with the ball have been distributed relatively evenly across the team, but nobody has benefited more than Ross has.) Plus, Ross did tie Vince Carter for the Raptors’ all-time single-game scoring record this season, so there’s that.
Second, we got back multiple useful players from Sacramento in the trade: most critically, point guard Greivis Vasquez and power forward Patrick Patterson. Vasquez is a solid playmaker with a nice layup and a decent three, and Patterson, up until his recent elbow injury, had become the Raptors’ primary scoring option off the bench as a big who’s capable of both attacking in the paint and scoring from mid-range. Contending teams need guys off the bench who can create instant offence, and Patterson and Vasquez have created depth in the Raps bench in that regard. We also got back two solid defensive veteran players from Sacramento in John Salmons and Chuck Hayes, so essentially Masai traded Rudy Gay for a lot of bench depth.
What about this Jonas kid?
Jonas Valanciunas (“YO-nus val-an-CHEW-nus”) is the Raptors’ starting centre and biggest hope for the future. He’s very promising, but still raw; he still makes defensive slip-ups, relies a little too much on his pump fake on offence, and has a bad habit of getting upset when a referee calls an awful foul on him. But he’s got heart and guts and hustles, and the talent is clearly there, so the Raptors play him as much as possible because he needs experience desperately and the only way to give it to him is play him as much as possible. Since the Rudy Gay trade, he’s been getting far more opportunities with the ball and more play time, and he’s generally improved on both ends of the court.
What’s this I hear about “The Raptor”?
The Raptor is our creatively named mascot. He’s widely considered to be one of the best mascots in the league, and he only very recently returned from an Achilles tendon tear at the start of the season. This is good news, because hopefully he will eat some cheerleaders again, as is his wont—but more importantly, he serves to remind the rest of the NBA that our team name is about a goddamn dinosaur, and that beats the heck out of “the Pacers” or “the Heat.” You can’t have a single player be “a Heat,” after all.
So… who are we going to face in the first round of the playoffs?
Difficult to say. Right now, the likely scenario is that we’ll finish either third or fourth in the Eastern Conference. In either scenario, the current standings mean that we’ll have one of four possible opponents.
- The Chicago Bulls lost their star point guard, Derrick Rose, at the start of the season due to injury and were expected to have a lost year (and maybe even tank for a pick), but the Bulls are the ultimate refuse-to-die team; now led by their All-Star centre Joakim Noah in Rose’s absence, the Bulls are one of the best defensive teams in the league and one of the most physical teams as well. In other words: any series with the Bulls will be a slugfest. During the regular season, Toronto went 2-2 against Chicago.
- The Brooklyn Nets are a veteran team with the most expensive team payroll in NBA history (over $102 million, and that’s before you count the enormous amount of luxury tax the Nets will pay to other teams in the league), but they ended up being decimated by injuries before the new year. In 2014, however, Brooklyn is 27-11, and they’re led by former Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett, who isn’t the dirtiest player in the NBA only because refs never call his fouls fairly. Several of the Raps have publicly expressed their wish to take on the Nets in the first round; as they did with the Bulls, the Raps split their season series with the Nets 2-2.
- The Washington Wizards are probably the most likely candidate for us to face in the first round, as Toronto is likely to end up third overall and the Wiz to end up sixth. Led by John Wall, both this year’s Slam Dunk champion and either the best or second-best point guard in the Eastern Conference (depending on whether you think Kyle Lowry is better or not), the Wiz are an exciting young team that plays both ends of the court well and should have their deadly power forward Nene back at full health in time for the playoffs. However, during the season, Toronto took three games out of four from Washington.
- Finally, although they’re arguably the weakest of the four teams we could be facing, Toronto probably doesn’t want to play the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round of the playoffs, because for some reason, the Raptors have always had bad luck against Charlotte—even though they’ve almost always been the better team overall. And this year’s been no exception, as the Raps went 0 for 3 against the Bobcats. Charlotte is yet another defence-first team, and relies on “Big Al” Jefferson and Kemba Walker to power their offence, which should make for a good matchup versus the Raptors—and yet somehow, Charlotte always seems to have our number.
All of this sounds fun! So what’s this about pizza?
Ah, yes. The pizza.
Pizza Pizza started a promotion several years ago: if the Raptors win a game and score 100 or more points, your ticket is redeemable for a free slice of crappy Pizza Pizza pizza. It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but Toronto fans, who are unaccustomed to their team winning and who pay high prices for tickets, value it. The problem, of course, is that the Raptors, as constructed, are a defence-first team that rarely scores over 100 points.
The net result of this is that there are a number of fans who, when attending a Raps game, will boo the team when it wins and they don’t get their pizza.
Now, we here at Torontoist have constructed this helpful chart illuminating the simple problem with this behaviour:
So in conclusion: do not boo your goddamn basketball team for winning the game and not getting you a free slice of goddamn pizza. Do anything else. Cheer them. Applaud. Chant MICH-AEL-PHELPS at them (because that would be really cool, we think). If you simply cannot bring yourself to cheer your basketball team as they win games, then sit on your hands and stay quiet, but if you boo the team because you didn’t get your free pizza, we are pretty sure that we are allowed to dump the ice from our drink on your head.