I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready for the Toronto Raptors’ season to end on Monday night. It’s not just that I expected a long playoff run this year, it’s just, emotionally, it came so soon. With the Raptors and Cavaliers playing every other day, and the Cavs winning four straight for the sweep, this seven-game series was over in less than a week. The postseason run that I wanted to last into June lasted less than a month. It was a sudden, swift and certain end.
All of which is to say, I didn’t want to be writing a season recap so soon, but here we are. I’ll set the heartbreak aside for a moment to share my thoughts on the 2017-18 Raptors.
The Culture Reset Actually Happened
At the start of the year, many people—fans, pundits, experts—looked at the Raptors’ roster and predicted 45-50 wins and maybe a top-4 seed. Some had them much lower. It was hard to blame them; after all, the team lost several important players and their replacements were a gunner (C.J. Miles) and a rookie (OG Anunoby).
How much change could actually happen? Despite the promises of a “culture reset,” it was natural to doubt real change would materialize. But it did! Enough to deliver the best team in franchise history.
The Raptors did all of the things they set out to do: pass more; shoot more from 3-point range and less from the midrange; get DeMar DeRozan, and more importantly, Kyle Lowry more rest so they’d be fresh for the playoffs; protect the rim and the 3-point line by dropping back and fighting through more screens; empower the non-star players and build trust and confidence in one another.
It was all there! And it all worked! Sure, there was the occasional blip, including game 4 of the first-round series against the Wizards, and, well, pretty much the whole series against the Cavs, but for year one of a new system, it’s hard to argue with the results.
It Wasn’t Quite the Perfect Season the Record Might Suggest
59 wins is absolutely impressive, and definitely more than anyone would have expected from the Raptors this year. But despite the overall success and the culture change and the 1-seed, there were little cracks that needed filling, went untended, and grew as the season went on.
One was clutch play. The Raptors were a -3.4 net rating in clutch minutes in the regular season, good for 17th in the league, and although that number improved significantly post-all-star break, the Raptors were playing the easiest part of their schedule at that point.
The other was defense. While clutch performance got better against worse competition as the season went on, defense went the other way. The Raptors ended the season with a defensive rating of 103.4, good for fifth in the league. But that number was 102.6 before all-star, and 105.1 (11th in the league) after. The numbers slipped further against top-tier offenses, and you don’t want to know what it was against Cleveland in the playoffs.
Again, it’s hard to judge the team too harshly. They were still winning, even as the numbers were sliding, and winning masks everything... until you run into elite competition, like LeBron James, and the cracks expand into crevasses that swallow your season whole.
The Development of the Young Players was Inspiring
This is the obvious top positive from the season: The work that the Raptors organization, specifically Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster, and the now-departed Jeff Weltman, not to mention Dwane Casey, Jerry Stackhouse and the Raptors coaching staff, put into the Raptors 905 franchise and summer league and working with the Raptors’ young players over the past two years paid off this season.
The most obvious beneficiaries were Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. After last season, neither of them looked like they’d amount to much beyond their undrafted rookie free agent and low-first round draft pick beginnings. But they both blossomed this season, VanVleet as the steadying backup PG/knock-down shooter off the bench, Siakam as the energy-boosting, rim-to-rim running whirling dervish able to make plays at both ends of the floor.
Then there’s OG Anunoby, this year’s low-first-round rookie, who came into the season recovering from an ACL injury, quickly stole Norman Powell’s starting spot, and ended the season guarding LeBron James and draining the most clutch shot in the Raptors’ shortened postseason run.
Along with the solid play and quick hands of Jakob Poeltl and the length and shiftiness of Delon Wright, the Raptors have a solid young core of secondary players that should continue to get better. And I didn’t even mention Norman Powell’s lost season; Powell is a proven hard worker, if he can get his head right, there’s still plenty of time for him to develop into a contributor as well.
Jonas Valanciunas Transformed His Play (and His Contract Narrative)
It was just a summer ago that the narrative around Jonas Valanciunas was that the league had passed him by; as a traditional centre, he was too slow to guard smaller fives and didn’t have the range or skill to punish them on the other end. And he didn’t block many shots, either, so he wasn’t even useful for paint protection. Thus, his contract—seemingly reasonable when he signed it—was suddenly an albatross that couldn’t be moved.
Valanciunas managed to change almost all of those perceptions. He lost about 20 pounds, got quicker and expanded his range. Although his overall counting stats were down slightly, his minutes also went down in the Raptors’ new, more egalitarian system; looking at the per-36 numbers, Jonas’ season was by far the best of his career. He still doesn’t block a lot of shots, but he improved his defensive approach to take advantage of verticality to affect shots, and he’s the best rebounder on the team by far. He even finished with the second-best field goal percentage of his career, despite taking 74 3-pointers—which is 70 more than he’d taken in his entire career before this season.
And, coming in to the year, the frontcourt duo of Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka was a giant question mark. Could they co-exist? They seemed uncertain of each other last season, kind of circling each other and canceling out any net positives. This year, the question marks quickly faded as the Raptors starting lineup, with JV at the 5 and Serge at the 4, became one of the best in the league. And that’s with Ibaka’s season-long inconsistency factored in.
Valanciunas’ contract is still a difficult one to trade for equal value, because most teams don’t need a player of his skill and size combo. But it’s not the terrible contract it was a year ago, and I think the Raptors are just fine keeping him around. And Valanciunas deserves a ton of credit for that evolution.
Has the All-Star Backcourt Peaked?
DeMar DeRozan is a fantastic worker who has gotten better and better over the course of his career. But he might have reached the apex this season. Beyond shooting a higher percentage of 3-pointers, what else can he do? He’ll never be a money shooter, and he’ll never be even an average defender, not unless he defies history: these just aren’t things that change for players this late in their careers.
As for Kyle Lowry, he had a sensational shooting season after a rough start, and settled into his reduced minutes beautifully. After the Cavs series he said he was ready to go another month or two, which you sure couldn’t have said about him in past seasons. And, even though the final game was rough for him, he had a sensation postseason overall.
But Lowry is 32, and point guards typically slow down after 30. Lowry didn’t play a lot of minutes his first couple of years in the league, and the reduced workload this year will surely help his health, but he’s also a balls-to-the-wall kinda player, not afraid to throw his body around, take charges, absorb contact, and hit the deck. These things can catch up to players of his size.
And like DeRozan, how much else could you realistically expect from him? He’s unlikely to get better, at this point. At most you’re getting the same. And as good as that’s been, it’s not been enough to unseat LeBron James.
This is not an indictment of either player; I think they have completely maximized their potential, and they, and the coaching staff, deserve a ton of credit for it. How many players never live up to their potential? Far too many. These two are great players and great people, the very best this organization has seen; it’s not their fault that they are in the second tier of stars or that LeBron James has been in their path for three straight years.
That hardly encapsulates the season, but those are the five things that stood out to me the most from the 2017-18 Toronto Raptors. I really loved watching this team, and writing about them; it was a fantastic, memorable season, and the playoff flameout, as awful as it was, can’t take that away. Thanks for the memories guys!
Also, while I’m here: shout-out to all of the RaptorsHQ commenters who’ve taken the time to respond to my posts. You’ve all been respectful, which isn’t something you often see in the typical cesspool of Internet comments, but more importantly, you’ve given me a ton to think about in your thoughtful responses, and I’m certain it’s made my “thoughts” better as the season has gone on. Thanks all!