If I told you at the start of the season that DeMar DeRozan would be 21 games in the first half of the year, and the Raptors would be 27-14 after 41 games, I'm assuming everyone would be okay with that. Of course, following a team through an 82-game schedule requires more nuance than playing the "if I told you..." card. Even with last night's victory in Milwaukee, the Raptors are 3-7 in their last ten games.
Per NBA.com, Toronto is near the bottom-10 in defensive efficiency, allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions. When you narrow the sample down to the most recent 15 games, that number jumps to 107.9 points per 100 possessions, the fourth worst number in the league during that stretch. To be honest, if you've watched this team on a nightly basis, you know that defense remains an area where there's room for significant improvement. The problem is whether the personnel and coaching staff on this team have much of a ceiling in terms of getting better. This was an issue even when the Raptors started 13-2 and eventually ran their record to 24-7 before losing at Portland, Golden State and Phoenix to end their West Coast road trip.
The Raptors have gone from a team that simply took care of business against weaker teams, to one that can't step up against the better teams in this league. The regular season is full of measuring stick games, and the Raptors have repeatedly come up short in those. The two victories over the Atlanta Hawks early in the season seems less of an indicator than losing to them by double digits at the Air Canada Centre last Friday. You can say the same about their victory in Cleveland earlier this year (the Raptors subsequently lost the next two against the Cavs).
There are definitely concerns about this team. But they're first in the Atlantic Division, are on pace to set a franchise record in wins, and truthfully, these remaining 41 games will be about finding out exactly what kind of team Toronto has, and whether they're capable of making a run in the post-season. When you balance it all out, they're just about where most people expected them to be.
With a hat tip to Tim Bontemps of the New York Post for the mid-season review format, here's a look back at the first half of the season.
Sunday's 95-93 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans ended a 2-4 home stand for the Raptors. Even during the slump, I managed to come up with excuses and stay level headed about the team. Road losses to the Blazers and Warriors are understandable. The team looked like they were ready to go home in a blowout loss to Phoenix (excuse counter: 1), and looked lethargic in their first home game back against Charlotte (double excuse!). The Pistons and Hawks beat us on this home stand as well, but they're two pretty good teams right now.
But Sunday, going down double digits in the first half to a Pelicans team without Anthony Davis (and mind you, a team that lost to the Sixers just a few nights before, and to the Knicks the day after beating Toronto!), and then wasting a 35-14 third quarter with a poor fourth quarter? The inconsistent defensive play? Watching Alex Ajinca drop 22 points on us? Greivis Vasquez guarding Tyreke Evans on the deciding play? It was a microcosm of the poor play that's come to define this team for several weeks now. That loss was an eye opener for me.
Runner up(s): the overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers (shouts to Jonas for his verticality at the end of regulation though), DeRozan's injury, Justin Bieber forgetting to hashtag NBA Ballot in his Kyle Lowry tweet, the stench of desperation in the whole campaign to get Lowry voted in as a starter for the All-Star game, Matt Devlin saying "hashtag NBA Ballot" in-game, Bruno and Bebe being split up for the holidays.
November 26. We went into Atlanta and beat the Hawks 126-115. It was our sixth straight victory, bringing out record to 13-2. On that night, seven guys scored in double figures, led by DeRozan's 27 points. Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams both scored 20+ points, combining to go 14-for-23 from the floor, 7-for-12 from three, 8-for-8 from the line, for 43 points. We were flying high.
Of course, the next game, we lose to Dallas at home and lose DeRozan to an injury.
Runner up(s): James Johnson's dunk in Detroit, Drake Night 2, back-to-back road wins over the Clippers and Nuggets, anytime Bruno got to play, honoring Muggsy Bogues even though he played just 83 games for us.
Most Disappointing Player:
After being benched for the entire second half against the Pelicans, and replaced in the starting lineup by Greivis Vasquez, Terrence Ross responded last night with 16 points off the bench in 23 minutes. It's a step in the right direction and hopefully we can see more of those.
But Ross has been inconsistent and at times even invisible when he's been on the floor. He's still a strong three-pointer shooter (37.3 percent on the season), but his lack of size makes him a deficiency on the defensive end a lot more than you'd like for someone who's projected to be a 3-and-D guy.
Other stats to think about: with Ross on the floor, the Raptors are allowing 107.9 points per 100 possessions. When he's not on the floor, that number falls to 100.5. Also: with Ross and Valanciunas on the floor, the Raptors are allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions.
Both of those player are eligible for contract extensions this summer. Valanciunas has shown enough on the offensive end (and because there's always a premium for big men) that he's likely to get an extension if the two sides can come to terms. For Ross, I'm starting to wonder if the Raptors will go ahead and have him hit restricted free agency before they make a decision. Unless he shows a lot in the second half, it's unclear whether the Raptors know enough to commit long-term dollars to him this off-season.
The Raptors go 23-18 the rest of the way, finish with 50 wins, the Atlantic Division title and a top-four seed. After that, who knows? A lot of it will depend on the playoff matchup, and the health of the team. This team has been frustrating to watch lately, but they're on pace to finish where we expected them to be at the start of the year. They need to play better, there are lots of areas that need fixing, but perhaps the panic comes from elevated expectations based on the team's fast start.
It was nice when we were first place in the East, and everyone wondered about us. Now, no one's really talking about us again, which is fair. But this current roster was never constructed to win a championship this year. We'll get some more definitive answers on the progress of Ross and Valanciunas as key contributors to this team in the long run over the course of the next 41 games, and surely, we'll be able to better evaluate Dwane Casey as a coach and what this roster needs to move ahead and become a legitimate contender for the title.
So, still on course. Even with the struggles of late, I'm still pretty excited to see where this all ends up.