For the first time in a long time, it's hard to quibble with anything the Raptors did in the last seven days.
Sure, the team played brilliantly against the obviously superior Bulls for 36 minutes, only to squander away a win by giving up 39 fourth quarter points. And yes - they played poorly for the first half against the lowly Lakers.
But let's put those hiccups in perspective. At this time last week, Toronto was fresh off of what was probably the season's most infuriating play, staring down a back-to-back against a Bulls team that appeared unflappable and an upcoming game against the very team that started the Raptors' month-long run of devastation.
Given all of those factors, a 2-1 week that featured a glimmer of hope against Chicago and the team's first win against a team over .500 since February 20th, it's difficult to have any gripes.
Here are your despair-free rankings for this week:
#1 - DeMar DeRozan (Last Week: #1)
Weekly Stats: 22.7 PTS / 7.7 REB / 4.3 AST / 9.7 FTA
I am officially taking credit for the turnaround in DeRozan's play this season. Since the inaugural version of the Player Power Rankings was unleashed on the masses (they covered February 25th to March 4th), DeRozan has been the one weekly constant. Never placing lower than fourth, and having grabbed the top spot three out of five weeks, it's pretty obvious that the desire to top these rankings has lit a fire inside the Raptors' two guard that simply did not exist before. Here's the proof:
|Before RPPR's Existence||36||18.1||4.3||3.1||39.4||6.9||48.5||+4.8|
|After RPPR's Existence||17||22.6||5.6||3.7||41.6||8.0||52.8||-2.8|
DeRozan's style of play is inherently faulty. But he's clearly scoring more efficiently in the Power Rankings era - capped by his ridiculous 17 free-throw attempt night against the Rockets. Despite the poor NET Rating (the rest of the team isn't exactly Steph Curry lately either), it's hard to argue that DeRozan hasn't been Toronto's best player since the Power Rankings came into existence. If you want to credit DeRozan's resurgence to his recovered body and mind following his groin injury, I can't stop you. But you're wrong.
#2 - James Johnson (Last Week: Not Ranked)
Weekly Stats: 8.0 PTS / 3.8 REB / 1.4 AST / +13.9 NET Rtg
Johnson is such a weird case. Logic seems to suggest that Johnson, the Raptors' best perimeter defender and one of the team's best post scorers should be a key cog in the Raptors success. However, an abundance of Johnson on the court this season has often translated to an abundance of losses. To this point in the year, the Raptors are 1-6 when Johnson plays 30 minutes or more - and 13-5 when the swing man plays less than 10 minutes (or doesn't play at all). That stat is made even more bizarre when you consider that Johnson has been a plus-minus monster, toting the second-best NET Rating among the squad's regulars at +7.4.
Dwane Casey must have found his minutes sweet-spot this week though, as Johnson posted a team-best +13.9 NET Rating to go along with a 60.0 True Shooting Percentage in 19.9 minutes per contest. Everything in moderation, I guess.
#3 - Jonas Valanciunas (Last Week: #2)
Weekly Stats: 14.0 PTS / 9.3 REB / 2.0 BLK / +12.0 NET Rtg
Valanciunas continued to build Raptors fans' confidence in him this week. He and Greivis Vasquez were the only non-minus players against Chicago (both were even on the night). And while his NET Rating has fallen from +1.2 at the end of 2014 to -0.8 as of March 31st, Valanciunas has slowly been climbing back towards being a plus player on the back of an obvious defensive improvement.
|DEF Rtg||Opposing FG% < 6 Feet|
|To Dec 31||108.0||56.9%|
|Jan 1 - Mar 31||104.2||54.1 %|
Those may be modest improvements, but they indicate that Valanciunas is starting to progress on the defensive end. His rim protection numbers are better than you might expect as well. Nylon Calculus' Rim Protection stats have Valanciunas ranked 15th in the NBA in points saved per 36 minutes, ahead of the likes of Omer Asik, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan. Those numbers were as of March 26th as well, so his massive five block game against Houston wasn't even accounted for.
#4 - Greivis Vasquez (Last Week: Not Ranked)
Weekly Stats: 10.0 PTS / 2.0 REB / 5.0 AST / 40.0 3FG%
Vasquez finally makes his debut in the rankings, becoming the final Raptors regular to make an appearance in the Top-5. He earned a ranking for his performance against Chicago alone, where he dropped 22 points on 6-of-11 shooting from downtown. And even though he was one of the biggest culprits in the fourth quarter with his turnstile defense on Aaron Brooks, he still ended the game as the team's best plus/minus player (tied with Valanciunas). His play may be up and down, but he helped ease the blow of not having Kyle Lowry in the lineup this week.
#5 - The NBA Schedule Creators
It's been a horrendous couple of months for the Raptors schedule-wise. A pile of road games against excellent competition has played at least some part in Toronto's decline in recent weeks. But the Raps are finally getting a break. After testing their mettle against two of the league's best this week, the team's final eight contests will come against teams sitting below .500; the Raptors are 30-9 against such opponents this year. Sitting at 44-30, there is a realistic chance that Dwane Casey's guys will reach the magical 50-win total.
At the same time, the 5th-seed Washington Wizards have dropped five of seven games during an extremely difficult stretch of the schedule. After a four-games-in-six-nights west coast trip yielded just one win and three blowout losses (as well as a spirit crushing at the hands of Mareese Speights), the Wiz returned home and lost two of their next three.
Speights on Wizards: "We knew if we hit them, got a couple stops they would start arguing with each other & quit." http://t.co/js3T1yitxw— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) March 24, 2015
With a three game lead, and a vastly easier schedule, it seems like a virtual lock that the Raptors will hold onto home court advantage for the first round.
On the Cusp
Lou Williams: No, seriously! Lou Williams! After he shot away last Tuesday's game against the Pistons, he rebounded to score 16.3 points per game on a killer 66.6 True Shooting Percentage. His -4.0 NET Rating kept him off of the official rankings, but the memories of last week's debacle will fade quickly with shooting numbers like that.
(Stats via Basketball Reference and NBA.com/stats)