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Checking in on 3 main storylines of the Raptors’ 2017-18 season

We’re 20 games into the 2017-18 season, so let’s review how the Raptors have been doing so far. What’s good and what’s not so good?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

We’re 20 games into the Raptors season now, and since we can’t do a 20 game plus one half review to be at the exact quarter-season mark, this will have to do. Coming into the 2017-18 season, there were a lot of question marks surrounding Toronto. The team welcomed back its core group of players, which secured a competent and competitive floor. But the Raps also saw significant roster turnover, and a push for the younger members of the squad to take on more meaningful roles.

So yes, after 20 games, things have been happening. How has it all played out? Well, let’s take a look at three of the dominant stories.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan Are Still Very Good

The phrase that comes to mind is, as always: as [so and so] goes, so go the Raptors. For the past few years, that [so and so] was Lowry, and his status within the team’s hierarchy was pretty much beyond dispute. But after the season’s first 20 games, Lowry’s been slowly rounding himself into form. The Raptors’ offense has changed and it’s been an obvious adjustment for him.

Through the first quarter of the season, Lowry’s scoring average is down six points (to 16.7), but his assists numbers have held firm at 7.0 — with a jump in rebounding to 6.3 per game (good for second — yes, second! — on the team behind Jonas Valanciunas). Most importantly for the Raptors however, is Lowry’s three-point shooting. On that front, Lowry’s attempts have almost crept back up to his yearly average (7.2 per game) and his shooting percentage from deep is settling to the baseline 40 percent mark after a slightly off start. All of this is to say, Lowry remains very productive (especially in the past five or so games), but hasn’t had to completely carry the Raptors — the fact that he’s average five fewer minutes a game should be proof enough of that.

That’s where DeRozan comes in. Now, DeMar’s scoring is down too, from its career-high last year of 27.9 to about 23 points per game. But his assist game, once thought to be the primary offensive weakness of his game (along with his three-point shooting, of course), has improved immeasurably. DeRozan’s averaging a career-best 4.7 assists per game and has clearly bought into the Raps’ new game plan. And, just for fun let’s mention this too: DeRozan is up to almost three 3-point attempts per game. He’s hitting around 30 percent of them, but that’s not nothing.

For yet another year, the phrase (with some modest modification) still fits: as DeRozan and Lowry go, so go the Raptors.

The Frontcourt Rotation Needs Work

The Raptors frontcourt rotation is still all over the place. The team has three functional centres (e.g. guys who can only play centre) in Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, and Jakob Poeltl. And then they also have Serge Ibaka who often times operates best at centre. Somehow, coach Dwane Casey is finding minutes for all of them (27 for Serge, 20 for JV, 15 for Jak, and 12 for Bebe). The team keeps trying different pairings to discover what works.

What’s been clear so far (and really, for awhile now) is that the Valanciunas-Serge combination is not optimal. The Raptors’ two most used lineups include this pairing (with Lowry, DeRozan, and either OG Anunoby or Norman Powell) and its net rating varies from 0.3 to, gulp, -6.1. It’s not great. The problem of course is one of necessity. As we’ve said, the Raptors only have one other true power forward (Pascal Siakam) and need to find a way to play all three guys (JV, Serge, Pascal, plus Poeltl, at least). It’s worth noting that Toronto’s fourth most used lineup features a frontcourt of Siakam and Serge and posts a net rating of 16.1. Pretty dang good.

There’s still a lot of small sample noise here, and doing something drastic like starting Siakam at PF and Ibaka at centre, hasn’t been a foolproof plan either (last Friday’s game in Indiana is one example of its failure). It feels inevitable that one of two things will happen: the Raptors will ride the Ibaka/Serge pairing for the regular season, let them absorb as many minutes as they can, and then abandon it in the playoffs. Or, the Raptors will actually pull the trigger on starting Siakam (or Poeltl?) in JV’s place. It’s a situation worth monitoring.

The Young Guys Are...

Fantastic? Exciting? Adorable? This list could go on for some time, really. The Raptors have an absolute embarrassment of riches in terms of talent and personality with their young roster. In any give contest, one, two, or more of Delon Wright (once he’s back), Powell, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Poeltl, Anunoby, or Nogueira have their moments, or quarters, or whole games. It is just so much fun to watch them grow up together. The entire group plays selflessly, works hard, and is developing together as a real wrecker of a squad (when played all together or with bench dad C.J. Miles.)

As Zach Lowe pointed out this week, none of these players are likely to be stars. But having a bunch of talented support players is very cool. It makes it potentially easier to attract a top-line star, or even to acquire one via trade. (Not that I’m an advocate for trading any of them!) Contrasting the Raptors with, say, the Clippers — a team to whom they’re sometimes compared — the difference is clear. The Clips have had the more explosively talented players, but they’ve never quite been able to fill the rest of the roster with complementary guys. Now things are falling apart there, and the cupboard is bare of any hope or optimism for the future.

Meanwhile, the Raptors long-term investment has paid off handsomely. Here’s to the next 20 games.