At 22-9, the Toronto Raptors really don’t have much to complain about, not that a really good record has ever slowed down any team’s complaint department. They boast the NBA’s top rated offense (114.1), top rated five-man unit (+30.8) and are second only to the Golden State Warriors with a Net Rating of +9.5 points per 100 possessions.
However, they aren’t in second place overall in the NBA and have lost three times to the Cavaliers and twice to the Warriors. The result has been a fanbase looking for change, an upgrade among the players they don’t believe are pulling their weight.
Those currently being picked on in social media include starter Jonas Valanciunas and sixth man Cory Joseph who just don’t seem to be having the expected impact after the team’s franchise record setting season and rising expectations from last year. Even DeMarre Carroll has seen (if he follows social media?) his name tossed around as the guy the Raptors should move for an upgrade.
However, just maybe, the Raptors problems (such as they are) stem from somewhere else.
The NBA reports there are 45 five-man units playing at least 100 minutes so far this season and Toronto has the top two offensive rated units and the first and third best net rated units in the entire league.
Top five-man unit: Cory Joseph, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Lucas Nogueira – 143 minutes
#2 OFF RTG 127.9
#5 DEF RTG 97.1
#1 NET RTG +30.8
Third Best five-man unit: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas – 122 minutes
#1 OFF RTG 129.7
#20 DEF RTG 102.9
#3 NET RTG +26.8
These Raptors five-man units pass the eye-test. When these five-man units are on the court, the Raptors are a dominant team and who the opponent is doesn’t seem to matter all that much. The frequent slagging of Joseph’s impact this year notwithstanding. Maybe some people are watching a different team play by mistake?
Toronto also has the top five-man unit in the NBA playing less than 100 minutes together of Lowry, DeRozan, Norman Powell, Patterson and Nogueira. In 33 minutes over 8 games, this unit has an offensive rating of 145.7 and a defensive rating of 80.1 for net rating of +65.6 points per 100 possessions. Thus answering any queries as to why head coach Dwane Casey keeps making up excuses to get Powell into the rotation despite a strong season from Ross.
The problem, it seems, is once again Toronto has found itself on the player development bandwagon, although this time it wasn’t totally by choice. Rather president Masai Ujiri chose to hold onto his young talent rather than adding veteran depth, so when Jared Sullinger was injured, the next man up was rookie Pascal Siakam.
Siakam doesn’t deserve to be thrown under the bus. He didn’t expect to be starting and playing in the Raptors highest use five-man unit this season. He was supposed to be learning in Mississauga with the Raptors 905 and in that context, he’s having a great season averaging 5.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.5 steals and 0.8 blocks in 17.7 minutes.
Overall Siakam is a neutral +0.2 points per 100 possessions and as should be expected from a rookie, he’s a +2.6 while shooting 59.3 percent at home and a -2.4 shooting 43.4 percent on the road. In wins he’s a +2.4, but in losses that drops to -5.1 and with the majority of those losses coming against the Dubs and Cavs, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Veteran teams look upon rookies as fresh meat to be tested and then abused.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Siakam’s development comes at a cost to the starting unit. The unit of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Siakam and Valanciunas has played a team high 296 minutes and it’s losing ground at -2.9 points per 100 possessions or 36th ranked in the NBA.
The -12.4 point swing per 100 possessions from the team average comes almost entirely on defense where the Raptors starting unit ranks 40th among five-man groups that have played at least 100 minutes together
Replacing Siakam with Patterson bumps them to an NBA net rating that’s third best.
In this context, it isn’t hard to see why the Warriors can get off to much better starts. Their five-man unit of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia has the seventh best offensive rating (122.2), ninth best defensive rating (98.3) and an NBA fourth best net rating of +19.1 points per 100 possessions. This unit has played 321 minutes together.
The Raptors starting unit got hammered in Golden State in the first quarter on December 28 and the numbers back up what happened. The push back from Toronto after Patterson entered the game shouldn’t have surprised anyone either.
When the Dubs go “small” substituting Pachulia with Andre Iguodala which they have for 143 minutes this year, they have the NBA’s second best defensive rating (93.8) and second best net rating of +28.5 points per 100 possessions. It must be nice when your first substitution can move your team from great to outstanding.
However, maybe the numbers justify some of the angst surrounding the Raptors?
It’s obvious when Toronto’s best units are on the court, this team isn’t playing up to the full potential of its roster. The Raptors can and do completely dominate their opponents for stretches, often seemingly on demand and then they don’t, although even the Cavs and Warriors aren’t winning every game by 20 points either. The NBA just doesn’t work that way.
The Raptors will be a better team when (if?) Sullinger gets back to assume a spot in the starting line-up and the “investment” in starting the rookie Siakam should pay off down the road with accelerated development (even if he isn’t expected to start playing like a veteran this year.)
This team is winning because of continuity and players filling a role they know and are comfortable with. Joseph might not be blowing your doors off every night, but he helps anchor the best five-man unit in the NBA by letting Lowry play off the ball and become a scorer no team has really figured out how to stop this year. Valanciunas and Carroll are only two of the guys on the NBA’s top offensive unit, so they must be doing something right as well.
And don’t trample on Siakam. If the Raptors were a middle of the road team or headed to the Lottery, the kid would be getting accolades as a massive steal at the end of the first round in the draft and if Casey had veteran power forward available, the rookie would be tearing up the NBA D-League.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.