The Raptors will finish the 2017-18 regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
No, this is not a claim that the Raptors are better than the Celtics or the Cavaliers. No, this is not a prediction that the Raptors will represent the East in the NBA Finals. No, this is not a biased opinion of a Torontonian who has loved and followed the team from day one.
This is a proclamation that the Toronto Raptors, as currently constructed, with what lies ahead until mid-April, are in the best position to finish #1 in the East.
For the purpose of this article, we’re only considering Boston, Cleveland, and Toronto as possibilities for the East’s best record. Washington lost ground when John Wall went down. Milwaukee has not been able to make the leap. With due respect to the rest of the East risers, they’re already 10 games out of the running as we hit the halfway point of the season.
The Celtics, Cavaliers, and the Raptors have easily been the best three teams and that’s not changing over the next three months.
Strength of Schedule
Toronto was saddled with a road-heavy schedule in the first half, including a 6-game West Coast trip that started in San Antonio and the Bay Area — and that was just October! The benefit of getting those out of the way is the Raptors now have exactly one road game remaining vs. the West, on January 20 in Minnesota.
Have you seen Cleveland’s remaining schedule? Eight games left against the Western Conference, including trips to San Antonio and Oklahoma City. They also have a brutal 10-day stretch in mid-March where they play five West teams during a 6-game road trip. With Cleveland currently sporting a 7-6 record vs. West, and more importantly, 1-4 on the road, it’s fairly safe to assume a few more L’s are in their future out West.
This is the part where Celtic fans chime in, “8 games? Hold my beer.” Boston still has 11(!) road games remaining vs. the West. January has already included a trip to London, England. The month doesn’t end there as the Celtics will soon embark on a 4-game western road trip that ends with visits to the highest heights — in terms of record (Golden State), and actual elevation (Denver). Post-All-Star break doesn’t get any easier for Boston. March is bookended with a 3-game road swing that includes Houston and Minnesota, and a 4-games-in-6-nights western road trip.
Amount of Travel
The Raptors not only have the least amount of West road games left, they also have the least amount of road games left, in general (compared to Boston and Cleveland). In other words, the team with the best home record (14-2) and best conference record (17-5), has a second-half schedule filled with games in both.
Care to venture a guess as to how many games require the Raptors to leave their current time zone (Eastern)?
January 20 @ Minnesota
February 14 @ Chicago
That’s it. Also, those two games are in the Central time zone — only one hour behind. All remaining games, home and away, are in the same time zone.
Overall Team Makeup
The Raps have a favourable rest-of-season schedule. So what? They still have to play the games, right? Masai Ujiri has constructed a team that’s built for the regular season grind, while Dwane Casey has tweaked his system to help create the East’s most balanced team.
The roster is younger (average age 25.8) than league average (26.6), but that hasn’t stopped Casey from redistributing his minutes away from his starters to his young guys. Kyle Lowry (12%), Serge Ibaka (9%), and Jonas Valanciunas (19%) have each seen a significant decrease in their playing time. This should keep them all fresh for another deep playoff run. On the flip side, OG Anunoby (#2 in Net Rating) Delon Wright (#1 in FT Frequency & And-1 Frequency as PnR Ball Handler), Pascal Siakam (#1 in Loose Balls Recovered per 36), Fred VanVleet (#5 in DRtg), and Jakob Poeltl (#2 in eFG%) have each benefited from those extra minutes.
Toronto is one of only two teams (Golden State) to rank in the top-5 in Offensive and Defensive Rating. If only looking at benches, the outlook is even better — Toronto has the only bench that ranks in the top-5 in Offensive and Defensive Rating. The significance of this stat is hard to ignore when considering Toronto’s regular season outlook.
As playoff positioning begins to take shape and focus starts turning towards the post-season, Casey should have no problems turning to his bench to afford his starters the extra rest. Having a youthful team that runs 11-deep, owns the league’s best bench, and has a favourable schedule will be the cherry on top of the Raptors’ greatest regular season in franchise history.