And so we continue on.
With a 97 to 91 victory over the Detroit Pistons last night, the Toronto Raptors suddenly find themselves with one of the league's hottest win streaks, four straight, equaling that of the Orlando Magic for tops in the East.
Sure, the competition hasn't exactly been OKC tough, but it's a pretty solid mark nonetheless, and a marked difference to the type of streak this club was on just over a week ago.
The difference has been notable at both ends, with Toronto allowing just under 91 points per game on D over the last five, while scoring a shade under 100 a match on O. That's a positive differential of +9 and considering their year-to-date mark is -4.5, things are definitely trending in the right direction.
In fact that +9 mark would be second in the league right now to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who sport a +9.5 mark currently.
Obviously again, the schedule plays into this, Toronto's win streak has come against teams that currently clock in with a combined record of 37 and 68, but more importantly, you're seeing a major difference in the way this team is playing over that same time period. There's a lot less isolation on O (last night's fourth quarter against Detroit aside), and rotations on D have been vastly more on point.
And let's not forget the obvious here.
The team has simply played better minus Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry.
And this is where it gets a bit tricky.
Is the absence of one, or both of these players the real reason for Toronto's recent success?
Looking at Andrea first, as of December 18, 82games.com has Bargs as a negative contributor so far this season per 100 possessions. Yes, the team's offense is slightly superior when he's in the game, 104.7 points vs. 102.5, the defensive story is the complete inverse. With Andrea on the court, opponents were scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions and with him off, 107.4.
That gives him a net mark of -2.5, so it's hardly shocking that the team has been better in his absence, simply by scouring these stats.
The funny thing is, Lowry has been even worse!
He's only a +1.9 on offense per 100 possessions, while on defence, opponents are scoring 114.1 points with him on the court and only 107.3 with him off.
Now Raptors' analytics guru Alex Rucker would likely note that these stats don't tell the whole story, but you work with what you've got and at face value, these metrics would seem to indicate that Toronto's better off with both Bargs and Lowry sitting.
It's a bit vexing as while you'd perhaps expect these results regarding Andrea, especially with his offense being particularly inefficient this season, Lowry was supposed to be a big net plus every time he stepped on the court. After all, point guards who average a shade under 16 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds a game don't grow on trees.
However those latter stats are likely reinforcement once again of the inadequacies of the standard box score and to get the real picture, yes, we must dig deeper!
And deeper we shall go as Toronto's recent success, is obviously not just explained by the absence of Bargs and Lowry, but by who plays in their stead.
Jose Calderon has been putting up incredible numbers as a starter, and the injury to Andrea has paved the way for increased minutes for Toronto's advanced stats banger brothers, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis.
Johnson has been a +11.9 per 100 possessions using the same analysis as above, and while Ed Davis is essentially flat in this regard (-0.9), I'd wager that we steadily see this mark improve over the next few weeks. You can peruse the entire list of metrics and see a few negative points (more turnovers and fouls for the Raptors when Amir is in the game,) but the overall story comes back to this:
When these two are in the game, good things happen and last night provided a litany of examples. From a gimpy Amir Johnson diving to intercept a pass late in the game with Detroit making a charge, and then winning the jump ball immediately after, to Ed Davis providing a tremendous help-side block on a Jason Maxiell dunk attempt, these are plays you simply can't imagine Andrea making. These plays return possession to the Raptors, an extremely valuable commodity in basketball, and while the point of this piece isn't to pick on Andrea, we must note that "securing possessions" is not exactly his forte.
And we'd be remiss to complete this "what's different now" view of the team without mentioning Alan Anderson, a staggering +14.7 per 100 possessions, tops on the Raptors, and that's not including last night's result. Anderson has been a pleasant surprise considering the expectations prior to this season. Perhaps you expected him to be a net plus on D, but his offence has been pretty solid too. He's averaging 16.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes so far this season.
To put that in perspective, DeMar DeRozan is averaging 17.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steals.
It's not an apples-to-apples compare as yes, DeRozan actually plays those 36 minutes a night, but the point is that Anderson has been a very valuable contributor this season, and we saw this first-hand last night as he made some huge plays at both ends down the stretch.
Add this all up, as well as the extremely low number of turnovers the team has notched of late (Toronto turned the ball over only SIX times last night against Detroit), and you can see why there's been more happy faces in Raptor-land of late.
Of course the schedule is about to get tougher again, starting Friday against the aforementioned red-hot Magic, so we'll be able to put some of these metrics and assumptions to the test. It's always easier to post great stats against inferior competition, so these next matches against Orlando and San Antonio will go a long ways in determining just how "new and improved" this Raptors' squad is.