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Numbers Game: Tracking some positive Raptors trends

At roughly the quarter mark of the season, the Raptors are showing signs of some significant improvements to earlier areas of concern.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors have been playing very well of late (with the possible exception of a poor outing last night against the Cavaliers) and that great play has helped turn around some early season narratives. Last week we covered just how much the team’s three point shooting has turned around. Let’s take a look at some other early concerns that have been turning around lately.

That Starting Lineup

This has been a constant theme over the past couple of seasons. Patrick Patterson coming off the bench behind an inferior PF (and inferior fit) in the starting lineup.

And early in the year, we saw the same pattern as last year — the starters were getting outscored, and the bench (boosted by one of the all-stars and Patterson) was bailing the team out. That pattern has started to improve of late. Patterson is still outstripping Siakam in effectiveness with the starters, but the existing starting lineup is not getting outscored anymore - not by a long shot. Over the past 7 games:

Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Siakam-Valanciunas: +4.8 RTG (89 minutes played)

*RTG (net rating) is the lineup’s point differential per 100 possessions

That’s pretty solid. There have been some soft teams in that stretch, but it is great nonetheless that the starters have managed to generally outplay their opponents. If that success can hold up, the team might avoid the long term result of the Luis Scola situation last season, where a change was eventually required in the playoffs.

DeRozan’s Offense

Early in the year, DeMar DeRozan was doing amazing things on the offensive end. But that individual success was coming on the back of an incredible, and ultimately unsustainable, usage. DeRozan’s usage rate (number of possessions that end with DeRozan shooting, drawing a foul or turning the ball over) through the first 10 games was an incredible 38 percent.

He was scoring at a great rate as well — his TS% (true shooting percentage - like simple field goal percentage but adjusted for the value of three pointers and free throws) was over 60 percent for several games, dipping to about 58 percent (more in line with last season’s performance) once the first ten games were done. Either of which are very impressive for that high a usage.

The one aspect of his offensive game that was seemingly taking a back seat to his scoring was his playmaking — his AST Ratio (how many assists he generates per 100 of his own used possessions) was significantly down from last season (9.5 versus 14.6).

But over the past seven games, DeRozan has scaled his game more to a playmaking style. His individual usage rate is down to 30 percent over those games, while his TS% remains high (56 percent). And his passing game has taken a real leap, up to an AST Ratio of 20.1 in those games, more than double what he had earlier in the year.

And this isn’t simply teammates hitting shots at a better rate — in the past seven games he has averaged 10.6 potential assists per 36 minutes (passes to teammates that would be an assist if the teammate’s field goal attempt is successful), while in the first ten games of the year, he averaged only 7.8 potential assists per 36.

That continued efficiency and improved passing from the key cog to the team’s offense has led (along with the role players’ improved shooting) to the incredible offensive performances from the team over the past seven games. The team’s ORTG (points scored per 100 possessions) of 122.5 in that time has ranked first in the league by far (Golden State’s 116.6 being well short).

And the Defense, Too

We covered the early struggles of the defense in a recent piece, in which several conclusions were reached — mostly that Cory Joseph’s early individual struggles were confusing, and that DeRozan’s heavy offensive load might be a problem for the team on the other end, as DeRozan would understandably be exhausted from his work on offense, and the rest of the team might be a little less engaged not getting the ball very often. Now that we’ve shown that the usage has dropped for DeMar, let’s check back in and see if he’s holding up better of late, and if the team is doing any better in general.

First off, we identified last time that the bench lineup featuring DeRozan was having a terrible time defensively. DeRozan was carrying a ridiculous load offensively and the lineup couldn’t defend at all. It is normal for the all-stars to carry heavy loads in those bench lineups (they did so last year as well; DeRozan for example carried a 36 percent usage without Lowry on the floor). But in the first ten games of this season, DeRozan carried a 48 percent usage rate with the bench. That means he was finishing half of the plays the team ran with that bench unit. That’s undeniably too much for any player to handle.

Of late, he’s returned to his typical bench play from last season — his usage with the bench in the past seven games is down to 35 percent, similar to last season’s. And in the meantime, that bench unit has turned things around in incredible fashion.

First 10 games: 75 ORTG, 125 DRTG, -50 RTG
Last 7 games: 137 ORTG, 85 DRTG, +52 RTG

*DRTG (defensive rating) is points allowed per 100 possessions

Now, not all of this is from DeRozan’s decreased usage. Joseph has broken out of his funk, and Patterson’s shot has been falling, and more time together as a unit ought to help any lineup. And some of it is probably just small sample luck. But these things certainly seem intertwined. DeRozan’s increased passing can only have helped his teammates find their shots, for example.

In the meantime, we’ve seen Joseph return to form defensively, once again being near the top of the team in DRTG over the past seven games (100.2 DRTG, third best on the team among regulars). And Jonas Valanciunas, who has struggled a bit offensively of late, has seen the team perform solidly enough with him on the court, with a DRTG of 103.6. Siakam, his improvement in the starting lineup noted above, has the best DRTG at 96.7, though minutes with garbage time units at the end of games has skewed his and Powell’s numbers (78.1 DRTG in only five games played in this stretch) a bit.

In any case, with DeRozan’s bench unit being so effective defensively, and Lowry’s unit always being good, and the starters playing so well of late, the team is looking much better overall, and it really shows over the past seven games. In that time, the team has posted a DRTG of 100.4, fourth best in the league in that time. Overall on the season the team defense now sits at 104.2, tied for 15th with the Mavericks.

Things are very much looking up on both ends, in spite of the hiccup against Cleveland. Let’s hope it continues.

All stats per