Let’s take a moment to bask in the greatness of the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors, a group of guys on centre stage this past weekend. Let’s also enjoy the fact that the team had arguably the most coverage from American sports media as they’ve had in years. Now, that’s not to say it was always quality coverage — so perhaps we should be careful what we wish for.
So what did we hear? The most common refrain used by the talking heads when trying to justify the decision to not take Toronto seriously is “their playoff resume.” This comment is usually followed up commentators taking turns pointing to DeMar DeRozan’s endless blunders, Kyle Lowry’s freezing cold shooting, and the entire team’s ability to pull a disappearing act.
It’s the laziest argument in the book and it’s shameful that the various basketball analysts on television haven’t put in the time to research what they’re arguing. Today, we’ll be discussing the reality of Toronto’s situation — as a franchise — compared to the rest of the league, along with debunking the vacuous idea that DeRozan is somehow the worst star in playoff history.
DeMar DeRozan is Historically Bad in the Playoffs?
This one is a thorn in many fans’ side. Have we seen less than optimal performances from DeRozan in his 41-game playoff career? Yes. I don’t think anyone argues that. Has this stretch of games been historically bad like major networks like to claim?
Short answer: no.
Let’s take a look at Paul Pierce, who was recently celebrated for his career in Boston. Those early years in Boston are often forgotten, and people seem to cherry pick the championship years with two other superstars when arguing his greatness in the playoffs. But, early in his career, Pierce’s scoring numbers look strikingly similar to DeRozan’s, whose averages are supposedly historically bad.
DeMar DeRozan first 41 playoff games (Four postseasons)
Paul Pierce’s first 37 playoff games (Four postseasons)
The largest chunk of games in DeRozan’s 41-game playoff career came in 2015-16, the Eastern Conference Finals postseason. He played 20 games against the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers. He redeemed himself in the Semi- and Conference Finals, but in that first-round Indiana series, he was awful. Nobody will question that. Shooting 32 percent from the floor is tough to swallow, but there are a few things we need to consider before putting this all on DeRozan.
So, who was Indiana in 2015-16? They were the third best defensive team in the league, for starters. They were also a nightmare match up for DeRozan — which is something a lot of star players encounter, including Paul Pierce. Pierce saw something, again, strikingly similar in 2003-04 against none other than the (Metta World Peace) Ron Artest-led Indiana Pacers. In four games, Pierce averaged 21 points on 34 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep, plus 6.3 turnovers per game. Ouch.
But back to DeRozan. Outside of that Indiana series, he averaged 23 points on 43.5 percent from the field for the remainder of the 2015-16 postseason. In those final 13 games, he carried the team to a Game 5 win against Miami, where he scored 34 points on 50 percent from the field, and, even more impressively, a Game 4 win versus Cleveland in the Conference Finals, one in which he shot 61 percent (14-of-23) for 32 points.
The “experts” simply need to do some more homework, and this is my plea to them. Take away the abysmal series against a top-three defense in the league in Indiana, and DeRozan isn’t any less of an offensive threat in the postseason than a guy like Paul Pierce was. The fact is, at one point, Pierce just “got it” in the playoffs. The same will happen to DeRozan, be sure of that.
What Have the Raptors Ever Done in the Playoffs?
The answer: nothing more than what Toronto has accomplished over the last four years, yet here we are with the excuses for not considering Toronto a contender.
It’s weak. It’s lazy. It’s an insult to NBA fans around the world to go on television, look into the camera and act like Toronto hasn’t been the model of a growing franchise over the last four seasons, including all of their playoff runs.
Isiah Thomas (the Hall-of-Famer) recently sat down with Dwane Casey at All-Star Weekend and compared the Raptors to an old-school franchise — like the teams from the 80’s and 90’s — the type that grew their talent from within through the draft. How many coaches around the league would love to be in coach Casey’s position?
Thomas made a point — and within that point was the answer to the question: “What have the Raptors done in the playoffs?” They’ve grown the way a winning organization usually grows — but also in a way the entire league has forgotten about. The Raptors’ core have played together in 41 playoff games, and within those games were horrible losses and unbelievable wins. They’ve been accruing the most sought after commodity in pro-sports: experience.
Teams used to have five-year — even ten-year — windows where they’d commit to a group and make minimal adjustments over the years.
They wouldn’t trade a guy five months into the season, or completely rework a rotation of ten players in order to land a superstar who might not even be the right fit on the team. These knee-jerk reactions are akin to playing the lottery every night instead of saving the couple dollars you spend on those Mega Millions tickets.
The days of structured team building are gone, and in their stead, the 2K-team building extravaganza has arrived: acquire the most stars, disregard team chemistry, and then... hope for the best!
The Raptors are different because of this. They’ve developed in an organic, more old school way. And as a result, they enjoy something few other teams do these days: consistent progress. When and where that next step will happen for the Raptors is still something of a mystery, but keep this in mind as the post-season approaches: it is coming.