For the past few years — even pre-Kawhi Leonard — the Toronto Raptors continually blew past pre-season expectations. Year after year the prognosticators under-shot Toronto’s win total, often by significant amounts. And year after year, despite Toronto piling up wins, those same pundits refused, in-season, to take the Raptors seriously as Eastern Conference contenders.
However, the hard truth is, except for arguably the 2015-16 season, those prognosticators were ultimately right. The DeMar DeRozan-led Raptors of yesteryear did have a ceiling they couldn’t burst through. (Call it the LeBron ceiling if you want.) Year after year Toronto fans wailed, gnashed their teeth, and rended their jerseys into purple and black ribbons to try to soothe their wounds.
“DeRozan is a bum!” we’d yell. “Kyle is too small!” “Casey is an idiot — the team wins in spite of him!”, the chorus would come. “Play more Valanciunas!” would rumble up from the crowd, “but not in the fourth quarter”, would come the reply. “You just can’t rely on Patrick Patterson”, we’d finally moan, defeated.
Looking back, the reality was that the Raptors were a scrappy unit that consistently showed they didn’t have the talent, or possibly the scheme, to beat the greats. That was proven correct after Kawhi came to town and for the first time Toronto had a gladiator who could dictate terms.
Now with Leonard gone, Toronto fans are left with an intriguing question: is this title core, without Leonard, but with players like Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet soaking up possessions successfully — an actual contender? With the injuries to Lowry and Serge Ibaka, those same fans have lost an interesting opportunity to see if that’s true, or if this Raptors team ultimately resembles those old squads more than they’d wish.
Looking back, there was a simple metric that showed the Raptors weren’t as good as Toronto fans wanted to believe they were: their record against .500 or better teams. In the DeRozan-led years Toronto consistently took care of business against weaker squads and were good, but not great against stiffer competition. Overall, Toronto played .512 basketball against .500 or better teams, with the one exception being a 32-17 record in that run to the Eastern Finals.
Last year Toronto played .524 basketball against +.500, and won just four of nine games without Kawhi against tougher teams. Now obviously the latter sample is both small, and noisy given the number of back-to-backs Kawhi sat, but it’s still instructive.
Teams that barely beat other .500 teams more than half the time are still good! They’re beating good teams more often than losing to them, but they’re also the sort of teams that tend to have clear holes of which other good teams can take advantage with problematic matchups or good schemes. Meanwhile, really good teams (paging any team led by LeBron, paging any team led by LeBron...) should just beat them — period. We’ve seen what that’s like in the past.
After the Pelicans game, the Raptors are scheduled to face four teams that all rank between incredible (Lakers and Clippers, barring ridiculous injuries) or good (Mavericks, health allowing; Blazers, defense allowing). They’ll all likely finish above .500 — or indeed, well above .500.
As an added bonus, the trip also features one back-to-back and a dreaded sequence of three games in four nights. So if, say, Toronto lays an egg against the Clippers on Monday, it would at least be understandable — even at full strength. It’s what some would consider a schedule loss anyway, and otherwise wouldn’t been the worst outcome for this west coast trip.
That said though, whatever the various outcomes of these upcoming games will be, a full-strength Raptors squad would have provided some interesting early data points for fans trying to figure out if this team is good enough to be more than another paper tiger. After all, so far this year Toronto is 6-0 against sub .500 teams and 0-2 against those with winning records. Again, super-small sample sizes, but with an opportunity to triple that size, Toronto is going to provide fans with some messy data.
Does it matter? Ultimately not, I suppose, other than having a good gauge of the Raptors’ real ceiling. It might help manage expectations, perhaps even heartbreak. And it would definitely help keep the shouting down to a dull roar.