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Trend or Blip on the Radar; Examining the Toronto Raptors' Start to the Season

Surprised by the Raptors' early season success? The HQ argues that perhaps you shouldn't be, and that this start to the season is a best case scenario for fans...

About a month ago, I took a look at how I thought the Toronto Raptors' 2011-12 schedule might play out.

Essentially, I had the team win 21 games based loosely on strength of schedule and expectations weren't so high.

However with last night's 92 to 77 win, the Raps may have raised fan expectations.

The club now sits at .500 with three wins and three losses, and all three losses were of the "we could have won that game" variety. Couple that with a stretch of upcoming games against the Nets, 76ers, Timberwolves, Wizards and Kings, teams that right now have a combined record of 8 and 23, and this club could easily be in the top tier of the Eastern Conference, mid-way through the month.

It's a fascinating situation, and one that I'd like to discuss a bit today instead of the usual post-game analysis.

After all, this is essentially the same team that won 22 of 82 games last season.

As one of our readers noted in the comments from our "Rapid Recap," there are a myriad of factors which likely help make sense of things, so I thought we'd take a look at them, starting with the club's improved D, and attempt to determine if this early season success is indeed a trend that will continue, or a flash in the pan.

1) Improved Defense.

This is the obvious one. Toronto last year was by far the league's worst defensive club, and it really didn't matter how you looked at it. This year, albeit through six games, the club looks a lot better in this respect, and currently is allowing only 91.5 opponent points per game, good for 7th in the league. While their offense isn't great, 92.2 PPG means a positive differential, something the team hasn't had in ages. In the last few seasons the team may have been scoring at a high rate, but they were allowing opponents to rack up just as many buckets, if not more.

However as The National Post's Eric Koreen noted yesterday, the defensive statistics are misleading. The team is playing at a snail's pace, 26th slowest in the league in fact, and therefore this simply isn't allowing for much scoring on either side of the court. The D has improved, the club is indeed 14th in the league in defensive rating and holding opponents to a league-low field-goal percentage of .398, but there are definitely other factors at play too, and it's hard to say that the D is the one and only reason the club looks like it is on the verge of being a plus .500 club.

2) The Play of Andrea Bargnani:

If you're going down the list of obvious reasons, this would be next I'd expect. His averages of 24 points and 6 rebounds a game don't scream out at you, after all, he averaged 21.4 and 5.2 last season. But it's the way the former number one overall pick is getting those numbers, especially the "24 points per game" piece. Last season he shot 45 per cent from the field and averaged nearly 18 field goal attempts per game. This year Andrea's been much more efficient hitting on a blistering 55 per cent of his shots, while attempting nearly two less a game.

It's not just his scoring that's better either. His defensive rating is a respectable 104 and while he's still not a rebounding force, he's looked much more aggressive in that capacity.

To me though there's something else going on with Andrea that's not being discussed enough. He's simply not being a black hole on offense. His assist percentage jumped from 8.8 last year to 14.5 so far this season, and Dwane Casey has found a way to get him involved in the offence without sacrificing teammate offensive production.

Last night against the Cavs, Andrea had one of the club's higher assist rates, an unheard of comment last season. And the assists aren't just coming on perimeter swings that sharpshooters like Calderon are nailing. He's getting it done at the rim as was the case last night, when all three of his assists gave teammates easy looks inside the paint.

Put this together and you've got a PER of 24.2, far and away the highest mark of his career to date, and his highest wins produced per 48 minute mark. Admittedly after five seasons of waiting for this player, I'm a bit leery to jump on the "Andrea is an All-Star" bandwagon yet, but there's no question he's one of the team's two MVP's this young season along with Jose Calderon.

My question is where did this all come from?

It's nearly unheard for players at Andrea's position and age to suddenly morph into top tier players but through six games, that's what's going on here.

Maybe Andrea is finally "getting it" after five years in the league. Maybe his off-season finally gave him the necessary preparation he needed to be the team's go-to guy.

Or maybe there's something else here at work which we'll call...

3) The Dwane Casey Effect:

As longtime readers know, I'm not a big believer in coaching impact at the NBA level. Sure there are your Phil Jackson's and Larry Brown's, but otherwise, I tend to think that it's the players on the court that truly decide a team's fate, not the person in charge of telling them what plays to run. Is Doug Collins a huge upgrade over Lawrence Frank? Or Frank over Mark Jackson? One may be better on D, another on O, another in terms of player development etc, but overall I tend to think that these even out, and if you get to be an NBA coach, you're pretty much on par with the bulk of your confederates.

But this Casey situation is putting these beliefs of mine to the test.

You can see and feel the difference with Casey, whether it's on TV, or in the locker room amongst the players. There's just a different attitude, and the team simply looks more prepared to go out and fight each night. As well, the club for the most part looks like it gained 5 years of NBA experience over the summer and I think that's thanks to Casey as well. Both Sam Mitchell and Jay Triano were quite "green" by NBA standards, and Casey's experience and know-how seems to be rubbing off during various in-game situations. Last night against the Cavs the team got stuck a few times in late shot-clock situations, yet desperation heaves were few and far between. Casey's steadying hands seems to have had a major impact at both ends of the court, and individually, he's been able to get a lot more out of players like Bargnani and James Johnson than many would have believed possible.

4) A Healthy Jose Calderon:

Was Jose ever really healthy the past two seasons?

He's insisted, especially last year, that health wasn't an issue but it's hard not to think that the 2011-12 version is the freshest Jose we've seen in quite some time.

Jose is averaging 12.2 points and 10 assists per game, essentially career highs, all the while running the team's offence to perfection. Without him on the court the Dinos have really struggled, and his chemistry with the likes of Bargnani and Amir Johnson, especially on pick-and-rolls, has been problem for opposing defenses. He's looked quicker on D too, and while Casey is riding him pretty hard in terms of minutes, there's not much choice considering the current back-up PG situation.

Most importantly in my books, Jose's shooting percentages have bounced back from their gradual decline the past few years. He's shooting 53 per cent from the field, 46 per cent from 3, and hasn't missed a free-throw. With the attention Andrea is going to be getting this season, it's paramount that he makes his open looks and so far this season, he's doing just that, in addition to providing his usual control of the team's offence.

5) Additional Factors:

The team's D, Andrea and Jose's level of play and Dwane Casey's addition are all biggies in terms of explaining a .500 record, but there's more here too. On the plus side, DeMar's new-found ability to knock down the 3, James Johnson's intangibles, Amir Johnson manning the 5 and the veteran presence of guys like Jamaal Magloire are all important pieces.

But there's something else here that unfortunately looms large in explaining Toronto's success to this point.

The club's schedule.

Two of Toronto's wins have come against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was expected to be one of the three worst teams in the league this year.

The other win came against a New York Knicks team missing Amar'e Stoudemire, and that even with him, can't beat clubs like the lowly Charlotte Bobcats.

That's not to say they were "bad" wins.

The club is doing essentially what it should be doing; beating bad teams and losing close games to the better clubs.

A 3 and 3 start then, considering the opposition, shouldn't be that big of a stretch and even if the team wins three or four of its next five, I'm not sure it should be that shocking. To me it will be wins against some of the league's top quality opponents that will truly signify that the club is taking the next step.

But to flip things again, I don't think a favourable schedule should diminish what the team has done already, either. As noted above, we're seeing very real improvements from both team and individual play, and had this not been the case, the club could easily have started 0 and 6, regardless of opponent.

So is the .500 start a trend, or more of a product of their schedule?

I'm going with both here as while I think the actual wins mark is more thanks to scheduling, I do think the other factors I mentioned, such as the improvement on D, will continue throughout the season.

This will likely result in more wins than many had expected, and that's perhaps a best case scenario is it not?

The early wins that we're seeing should result in a more confident group, something that will be good to pocket for the season's darker days.

Those darker days should definitely arrive though as the schedule toughens up, and that bodes well for someone in favour of ensuring a top draft pick.

Yet even in future losses, we should continue to see a team that fights tooth and nail, and just falls short thanks to an absence of talent.

I'd argue that in a year like this, you want a team that wins enough games to see their own improvement, and thus stays motivated, yet still falls short of playoffs, ensuring a shot at more premium talent for the future.

So far I think you can check off both of those boxes, and to me, that's all you can ask for.