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Numbers Game: The Raptors are Rising at the Right Time

We tried nitpicking the Raptors last week. But now: back to profuse praise.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

All in all, it’s pretty good to be a Raptors fan right about now. Even with Kyle Lowry sidelined (although on the verge of an impending return), the team is rolling and gaining steam heading into the playoffs.

After trying our best to keep a level head and focus on some worrying trends last week, let’s just dive into the goodness.

Why Were We Worried?

We highlighted Jonas Valanciunas as a potential weak spot last week, as he has been one of the players who has struggled the most since the All-Star break. The addition of Serge Ibaka next to him seems like an ideal fit, but for the first few weeks after the break, the team was getting beat consistently with Valanciunas on the floor.

Of course, this past week has been a little different. Over the past four games, Valanciunas has posted averages of 15 points and 12 rebounds, on 73 percent shooting. He’s managed a +56 on-court point differential over those four games, third best in the league in that time. And he’s posted the team’s best on-court DRTG (points allowed per 100 possessions) in those 4 games, at 97.6.

This is small sample size theatre, but it’s definitely a good sign heading into the playoffs soon, especially compared to his struggles earlier.

The other player we highlighted was DeMarre Carroll. So of course he shot 39 percent from three on six attempts a game, and posted the next best on-court DRTG over the past four games (he only played in three of them, though).

Long story short, with both players suddenly clicking, the starting unit has really turned it around since their early struggles, posting a huge +26 net rating (on the back of a particularly impressive 88 DRTG) in 52 minutes over the past week. On the season, the starting lineup of Cory Joseph, DeMar DeRozan, Carroll, Ibaka and Valanciunas is now a net positive (+1.5 net rating), has played the second most minutes of any lineup, and is officially a huge step up from the early season starting lineups that had Kyle Lowry but were dragged down by playing rookie Pascal Siakam big minutes. (The starting lineup with Siakam had a -9 net rating, and is still the team’s most played lineup on the season).

So, no worries.

The Other All-Star

For years now, the Raptors have been known as a team with one of the best back courts in the NBA. Many advanced stats, and much media sentiment, suggested that Kyle Lowry was the true star on this team, and that DeRozan’s value as a scorer notwithstanding, it was Lowry who powered this team to a winning record.

Now, Lowry is still a fantastic player, but DeRozan has been incredible since the break, stepping up however the team has needed him to in the absence of his back court mate.

DeRozan has seen his minutes actually decrease slightly since the break, but has managed an almost identical stat line. His points scored are down from 27.3 PPG to 27.2 PPG. His rebounds per game are exactly the same (5.3 RPG). His turnovers are still about as low as they’ve always been. So why is he getting this praise for improving his game?

First off, while DeRozan’s scoring average has stayed the same, he’s managed to do it on fewer shots. He’s gone from attempting 21.2 FGA’s to 20.1 FGA’s per game without losing any points. His true shooting percentage (FG% adjusted for threes and free throws) has risen from 55% to 57%. So, a little more efficient.

Most importantly, his playmaking has improved significantly. His assist rate has gone up from 19% before the break (would be the second best year in his career behind last year’s 21%), to 23% after it. With his turnover rate staying the same (how often can a player increase playmaking without making more risky plays that lead to turnovers?), that increases his assist to turnover ratio to 1.8, from 1.6 before the break. Lowry typically runs a 2.4 ratio, and he’s a lead guard.

DeRozan being able to increase his efficiency and turn one of his FGA’s into an extra assist to a teammate since the break, without losing any point production of his own, is an impressive feat. And he’s doing it all with teams able to load up on him with no Lowry to take some of the attention. Add in his improved if still sporadic defensive effort, and he’s really been impressing of late, proving that the Raptors do indeed have two bonafide star guards on their team. And lending even further credence to the thought that when Lowry returns, the team could be something special.

Next week, with any luck, we’ll have a couple of games of Kyle Lowry to look over, and we’ll try to figure out a rotation for the playoffs — one that will have to be cobbled together pretty quickly.

All stats per NBA.com.