The Raptors have been handed a tough task to start this 2017-2018 season. A six-game road trip that saw the Dinos drop a pair of winnable games against the always excellent Spurs, and defending champion (and G.O.A.T. contender), Golden State Warriors, before bearing down and taking out the ‘Young and Gun’ Lakers, doesn’t get any easier with a scuffling but still dangerous Nuggets team in Denver’s thin air, a tough-minded Utah team (whose own thin-air home advantage is often overlooked), and one of the best backcourts in the game in Portland.
It’s a trip that has some calling it a make or break stretch of the season, and others calling it one of the toughest road swings in team history. The first seems like obvious hyperbole, but what about the second claim? Is this six-gamer, featuring two all-time teams and three other potential playoff squads, the Raps’ toughest ever?
To answer that I dug into the stats provided by the good folks at fivethirtyeight.com (shout out to Jay Boice) to figure out what the most difficult trips have been in Raps history. I used FiveThirtyEight’s ELO formula, which gives a team a total score — usually between 1,200 and 1,800 — that reflects how good they are. Based on that, 1,500 is considered around average, 1,600 teams are solid playoff squads or maybe more, while numbers in the 1,700 are definitely elite. Last year’s Warriors charted the highest ELO in history — at 1,865 after they beat the Cavs in Game 1 of the 2017 final.
(The highest a Raps team has reached is 1,661, after they beat the Blazers on Boxing Day in 2016 to move to 22-8. While the best the Huskies ever did was 1300 — which is a) not good, and b) came before they had ever played a game.)
Diving into the database, I went through every significant road-swing in Raps history to find out which ones were the toughest, and where this year’s journey ranks. To do that, I simply took the ELO of the Raps opponent before the game (so as not to allow the game result to affect the trip), and then averaged the total ELO of that trip to get all-in number.
A Few Rules:
- I only considered trips of four games or longer.
- Trips had to have at least two Western stops because, a) travel out West is more taxing and, b) West teams have been significantly better for the majority of the Raps history.
- While I did look at length of trip and the number of back-to-backs, I didn’t try to smooth out the rankings based on those factors.
- Similarly, while I was tempted to add an extra point or two for trips that featured elite (re: 1,700+ teams), I decided not to. In the end anything I considered wasn’t based nearly enough in any real rigorous math and would have just been me doing random stuff that would have made my high-school finite math teacher cry.
In total, 50 trips in Raps history qualified, from a low of just over 1,408 (back in March of ’98 when the Raps played Husky-level Grizzlies, Clips and Warriors teams), to a high of just over 1,608 (back in early 2014-2015 which we’ll talk about more soon).
To get a feel for what that means, that 1,408 trip is the rough equivalent of the Raps playing clones of the 32-50, ’96-’97 team (wither art thou, Shawn Respert?), while the 1,608 sojourn means playing a bunch of slightly worse versions of the 2015-16, 56-win Raptors team.
Got it? Good. Let’s look at those top 10.
#10: December 25th, 2001 – January 2nd, 2002
Teams Faced: Knicks, Lakers, Supersonics (BTB), Trailblazers
Average ELO: 1,547.865
Summary: A year after “Graduation Day,” the Vince Carter-led Raps were a big enough draw to get a marquee Christmas Day game against the team they had defeated in Round 1 the previous year, the New York Knicks. The Knicks rated as the weakest team of the four at a mediocre 1,457, but Allan Houston put up 34 to give the Knickerbockers some measure of revenge. Toronto redeemed itself by beating the best team on the trip — the 20-5 Kobe-led Lakers (ELO of 1,683), and an OK Blazers (1,482) team, but got murdered by thirty-points by the Gary Payton-Rashard Lewis-Vin Baker Sonics (1,569) on the second night of a back-to-back.
Interesting Stat: Alvin Williams came within two assists of a triple double (17-11-8), in the win over the Lakers.
Depressing Stat: Vince Carter sat out the back-to-back against Seattle — presaging the “Wince” Carter era that was lurking around the corner, waiting to ambush unsuspecting Raptor fans.
#9: February 17, 1996 – March 3, 1996
Average ELO: 1,548.189
Summary: A rare entry from the earlier portion of the Raps tenure, this monster seven game road-trip was arguably the weirdest in club history, starting and stopping in the East with... Texas in between. It also included a game on February 29th, and, somehow, only one back-to-back.
The trip was even arguably an eight-gamer, as the last “home” game for Toronto was actually in Hamilton (they lost that one too.)
Since it included three teams you could argue were championship-contender quality: the Stockton-Malone Jazz (ELO: 1,653), who lost the Western Conference Final in 7, a Rockets team (ELO 1,598) featuring a still-in-his-prime Hakeem, and the Spurs (ELO 1,631), as well as only one team clearly below average (the only “two J” Dallas Mavericks – ELO 1,378), the trip offered no let-up to the fledgling Raptors — who still acquitted themselves decently losing three by less than 10 and only being blown out by the Spurs (of course).
Interesting Stat: Damon Stoudamire dropped 19 assists on the Rockets in the 105-100 loss, establishing a team record he still shares with Jose Calderon today.
Depressing Stat: The Raps held those Jazz to just 55 points through three quarters, yet still trailed by three points. The Raps then exploded for 35 in the fourth, but still lost going away because the Jazz somehow scored forty-seven in the same frame. (Shockingly, Jimmy Butler was not involved in this game.)
#8: January 11th, 2010 – November 6th, 2010
Teams Faced: Kings, Jazz, Lakers, Blazers (BTB)
Average ELO: 1,552.809
Summary: The trip started with a winnable game against a typically non-descript Kings team (ELO 1,375), which saw the Raptors squander a 14-pt third quarter lead, and a classic Andrea Bargnani game (28-2-1), and then quickly descended into hell as Toronto was clubbed by the Millsap-Kirilenko-Deron Williams Jazz (1,589) — yielding another 40+ quarter. Toronto actually had a lead late in the third against the Pau and Kobe Lakers (1,676), before trailing for the entire fourth. Toronto then showed the effects of playing their third game in four nights by scoring just 34 points in the first half against the LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy Blazers (1,581), losing handily.
Interesting Stat: Reggie Evans started all four games for the Raptors averaging 12 boards a contest…
Depressing Stat: … but only 15 points total on 3-of-14 shooting (which is almost impossibly a lower number than his total offensive rebounds. Bunnies, Reggie! Bunnies!)
#7: December 19th, 2005 – December 27th, 2005
Teams Faced: Magic (BTB), Rockets, Spurs, Pistons
Average ELO: 1,578.472
Summary: This trip might not have been as tough as it seemed, as it was broken up by the Christmas break, saw one “pseudo” back-to-back — the Raps played at home the night before flying to Orlando — and let the Raps play in just two time-zones. Still, any time you dance with two sixty-win teams, the Spurs (1,658) and Pistons (1,709), you’re going to be in tough.
The Raps took care of business to start things off, as a Mo-Pete trey with six seconds left finally killed off the Magic (1,405) 92-90 in Game 1, followed by the Raps holding T-Mac to just seven points in a strong defensive effort in a 94-81 win over the Rockets (1,541). Against the Spurs, the Raps got within one early in the fourth, but could never get over the hump in a 95-90 loss. The Pistons had their way with the Raps, leading from wire-to-wire, and being up as many as 20 in the 4th, before garbage time made the score a respectable 113-106.
Interesting Stat: After starting 4-20, this decent road-trip was followed by a five-game winning streak which may have saved coach Sam Mitchell’s job. (You decide on the utility of that.)
Depressing Stat: Rafael Araujo started all four games, and had as many personal fouls as points (10).
#6: March 2nd, 2005 – March 7th, 2005
Teams Faced: Spurs, Grizzlies, Hornets, Mavericks (BTB)
Average ELO: 1,579.717
Summary: This trip was all about winning the one softie — New Orleans (1,350) — which the Raps did 95-84 behind Bosh’s 33 and Matt Bonner’s 4-of-4 from three. After that it was about not being embarrassed by the eventual champion Spurs (1,756!), and trying to take advantage of the Pau Gasol-less Grizz (1,598), and Dirk-less Mavs (1,615). The grade on that was mixed. The Spurs led by double digits for most of the game, winning 92-86 with their usual scoring by committee routine. The Raps actually led the Grizz by four going into the fourth, before Memphis’ always vicious defence held the Dinos to just eight points in the final frame in a 86-75 loss. The ‘three-in-four nights’ grind finally caught up to the Raps in the last game, in which they led for all of three-minutes and 18 seconds, and Marquis Daniels picked up Dirk’s scoring slack with 32 points (on 30 shots tho).
Interesting Stat: Shane Battier posted his career high, hanging 33 on the Raps in Gasol’s absence. I know this should probably be a Toronto stat, but who doesn’t love Shane Battier? I think even Tar Heel fans, right? (No?)
Depressing Stat: Remember when we used to bitch about Jose Calderon always being in a point guard battle? The immortal Milt Palacio averaged 23.5 minutes a game as Rafer Alston’s back-up on the trip. My kingdom for Jarrett Jack!
That does it for the first half of the list. Check back tomorrow for the top five toughest road trips in Toronto Raptors history.