"We’re not far off."
"We’re pretty close."
"If we had this team all year, we’d have home-court advantage in the playoffs."
"I’d put us up there with Chicago and Philadelphia…"
And on and on…
If you followed the last few weeks in Raptorland you heard all of the above comments and various other permutations of them.
And considering that Toronto finished the season on a respectable 9 and 4 run, it might be tempting to believe that this club, as presently composed and healthy, was indeed more worthy than its 33 and 49 record would indicate.
But is that the case?
I mean, was the 2008-09 version of the Toronto Raptors, especially that group which finished the final month of the season with a record over .500, actually a playoff caliber team, even in the beleaguered Eastern Conference? I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look.
To do this, I decided to examine things from a statistical standpoint, using a myriad of basketball stats from some of the game’s top math wizzes; the folks at 82games.com, John Hollinger, and David Berri, the man behind the "Wages of Wins."
Now, I work in analytics outside of RaptorsHQ so I realize that what follows is by no means a purely scientific assessment. What I really wanted was the ability to examine only data from the post-Jermaine O’Neal trade period for both teams in terms of sample size, but without having all of the raw data and a way to chop it up, that proved impossible at this point in time.
However that’s not to say we don’t get some interesting results in any event. So let’s dive in and start with a comparison between the Toronto Raptors, and the Philadelphia 76ers. Was the final version of the Raptors worthy of spot in the playoffs over the 76ers?
1) Starting Unit Efficiency:
82games.com has an interesting section that examines each team’s top 5-man units. It looks at various combinations so it’s therefore quite possible to compare Toronto’s starting five through the final few months, to that of Philadelphia’s. I felt this comparison was quite important because it’s been well documented that the Raptors’ starting unit holds up quite well and is one of the league’s top-scoring units.
Case in point – the Raptors won 60 per cent of their first quarters, sixth-best in the league. However after that, it was all downhill. The Dinos were one of the four worst teams in terms of winning percentage after the second quarter and didn’t fare much better in the third.
Interestingly, Philly’s results were essentially a carbon copy.
The 76er starters were a percentage point behind Toronto in terms of winning percentage after the first quarter and were actually WORSE in the second, finishing second last in the league to only Sacramento.
Therefore it’s not surprising that things were pretty close statistically between Toronto’s starting five of Calderon, Parker, Marion, Bosh and Bargs and Philly’s crew of Miller, Green, Iguodala, Young and Dalembert. The Raptors’ group had a winning percentage of only 27% but had similar numbers in terms of points per possession, and points allowed.
In addition, both clubs had similar "effective" field goal percentages (field goal percentage adjusted for the value of the 3-point shot) but Philly was the slightly superior defensive club, allowing an effective field goal percentage of 51% from their opponents as opposed to 55% from the Raps.
Finally, on the glass, the Raptors sported a 47% rebounding rate while the 76ers were superior in that capacity, nearly 51%.
Just based on those numbers alone one could reason that things would be pretty even between these two clubs after essentially the first quarter. It’s when the teams would be forced to go to their benches that things might get sketchy.
Advantage – Toronto slightly.
2) Bench Efficiency:
For starters, the 76ers don’t play a good portion of their bench many minutes. Take last night’s game against Orlando as an example; only Theo Ratliff and Louis Williams played over 10 minutes while the likes of Reggie Evans, Royal Ivey and gasp, Donyell Marshall got between four and eight minutes of burn. Contrast this to the Raptors who at times this past season played Jason Kapono, Joey Graham, Roko Ukic and even Jake Voskuhl for extended periods.
It’s hard therefore to do an accurate comparison, as rarely did Philadelphia not have at least two starters on the floor with the second group. As we know, the Raptors on the other hand sometimes had Roko, JK, Graham, and guys like Hump, Big Jake or Pops out there with either Bosh or Bargs.
Therefore instead of looking at the effectiveness of various combinations of bench units, I thought it might be more interesting to look at the PER, ESPN stat guru John Hollinger’s measure of a player’s efficiency, for each option for each team off the pine. I’ve always been a strong believer in this measure in terms of gauging players’ individual values and in fact, the use of this metric in this scenario is quite telling.
The average PER for the Raptors’ bench group that finished off the year, that is to say Jason Kapono (8.97), Roko Ukic (9.84), Joey Graham (11.99), Pops Mensah-Bonsu (14.73), Patrick O’Bryant (11.65) and Quincy Douby (10.26) was 11.24 – not exactly anything to write home about. (I didn’t include Marcus Banks or Kris Humphries obviously because of injury, and Nathan Jawai and Jake Voskuhl were eliminated as well due to insufficient playing time.)
Looking at Philadelphia’s back-up group, the numbers were very revealing. Their top six players off the bench, that is to say Reggie Evans (10.42), Royal Ivey (7.67), Theo Ratliff (12.01), Marreese Speights (18.01), Louis Williams (16.39) and Donyell Marshall (18.97) had an average PER of 13.91.
This difference in average PER (13.91 to 11.24) is a big one. Considering that the league average in terms of PER is 15.00, you see just how far away Toronto’s back-ups were from being able to effectively keep the Dinos in games with the starters sitting out.
Now as mentioned, you won’t see any five of these six on the court together at once for either team but the point here is that Philadelphia certainly had a lot more effective options to turn to then did the Raptors. As a result, while the starting units for both teams were close in various statistical areas, bench metrics were much further apart.
3) Team Statistics:
Earlier in this post I discussed the difficulty of looking at overall team statistics due to the fact that most that I could find, only examined both teams’ bodies of work over an entire season. I of course wanted to scrutinize only that period of time from Shawn Marion’s arrival on the scene because over an entire season, both teams have quite similar statistics.
Neither club ranked well in terms of John Hollinger’s offensive efficiency marks (20th and 22nd respectively for Philly and Toronto) and defensively things weren’t much better (14th and 22nd respectively.) The most revealing team stat on the year to probably no one’s surprise was rebounding rate, where the 76ers were a top 10 team (sixth overall with a rate of 51.2) while Toronto – they finished in the bottom 10 (22nd with a rate of 49.1).
Again, because a good chunk of these stats for both teams are misleading (Philly was missing Elton Brand for part of the season while Toronto had yet to scoop up The Matrix and Pops) I thought that a better way of looking at the team’s effectiveness would be with David Berri’s "wins produced" metric. While Berri doesn’t have a list of all player Wins Produced rankings posted on his site yet, he does have lists of the top and bottom 10% of NBA players regarding "wins produced."
Comparing the two teams, Toronto has a ghastly four players in the bottom 25 regarding "wins produced" (Andrea Bargnani, Jason Kapono, Roko Ukic and Jake Voskuhl) whereas Philly, has but one, Willie Green.
On the flip side, the Raptors Chris Bosh, Shawn Marion and Jose Calderon are all among the top 30 in the league in terms of wins produced, whereas the 76ers have only Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller in the vicinity.
In addition, Philadelphia simply has players that produce a higher amount of wins than does Toronto. On average, each 76 produced 1.65 wins. The Raptors? 1.43.
At first glance that doesn’t look like a huge difference, but if you take out the top 3 Raptors scores provided by Bosh, Calderon and Marion, and do the same for Philly by subtracting Iguodala, Miller and Dalembert, the discrepancy becomes quite large. This only reinforces something we’ve all suspected for quite some time. Yes, the Raptors’ starters are on par with most of the league, but the drop-off to the bench is akin to going from dating Samantha Diaz to dating Samantha Ronson.
One note however regarding the wins produced calculation. It may surprise some that Andrea Bargnani’s name was included on the list of players who produce the fewest (and in fact negative in this case) wins in the league, especially considering his play towards the end of the year. However considering that wins produced is calculated by heavily factoring in rebounding, obviously not a strength for Bargs, and discounts scoring to a great degree, Andrea’s true strength at this point in time, then things become more clear. A full mathematical description of how "wins produced" is calculated can be found here but this paragraph from rotosynthesis should suffice:
"At its simplest, "wins produced" is a measure that looks at offensive and defensive efficiency in one stat. Briefly, offensive efficiency is defined as points scored divided by possessions used, and defensive efficiency is defined as points surrendered divided by possessions used. These efficiencies, as well as several other factors, are combined to produce a player’s calculated production relative to their position average.
The coolest aspect of "wins produced" is the concept of assigning a fixed amount of a win to box score statistics, and as the "wins produced" stat theoretically measures player value independently of teammate caliber, it can be used as a predictor for how a player and team should be expected to produce after player movement (i.e. free agency or trade). The most famous success story for Berri in this capacity is the Allen Iverson/Andre’ Miller trade of 2006. That trade was supposed to benefit Denver, as Iverson is considered an All-time great with Miller just a solid player. Using "Wins Produced", Berri predicted the exact opposite, that Philadelphia would thrive after the trade because Miller was the better player. This was obviously a controversial stance, but Berri’s prediction proved accurate all the way down to the exact number of wins that Philadelphia would end up with that season."
Of course not, but again in this context, I think it’s safe to say that it goes a long way in illustrating not only the gap in talent between the clubs, but also in explaining just what went wrong with the Raps this season. As Mr. Berri put it:
"Toronto employs both Jose Calderon (20th most productive player) and Chris Bosh (26th most productive player). But the Raptors also have Andrea Bargnani (5th least productive), Jason Kapono (6th least productive), Roko Ukic (27th least productive), and Jake Voskuhl (28th least productive). When Toronto fans seek to understand why this season was so unsuccessful, this quartet - that played more than 25% of the team’s minutes - should certainly come to mind.proving just how much of a talent upgrade the Raptors need going into next season."
Advantage - Philly
Looping back to our original question then, was the final version of the Raptors worthy of spot in the playoffs over the 76ers?
I think from our overall analysis above, the answer is no.
That’s not to say it’s out of the question, but considering the defensive issues that plagued the club, and the team’s inability to field anything much greater than a D-League level bench, I wouldn’t rank Toronto in the same class as Philadelphia. (I think Philly’s surprising play against Orlando so far in the playoffs offers some empirical evidence to support this notion as well.)
The bottom line is that from day one, Raptors’ fans were left with a club short on talent after the top five options, and although the situation improved after the trade for Shawn Marion, BC needs to do some major upgrades this off-season.