The Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers are both in the top-five of the Eastern Conference, and both are on pace to win 53+ games. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say both teams have exceeded expectations!
Those expectations were low because both teams’ rosters were facing significant uphealval as the season began. The Raptors had lost two starters — Danny Green and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — in free agency. The Pacers were missing star Victor Oladipo, still recovering from a knee injury, and lost four other core pieces — Thaddeus Young, Cory Joseph, Bojan Bogdanović and Tyreke Evans (not to mention midseason rental/Oladipo replacement Wes Matthews) in free agency.
With that in mind, it’s not really a surprise expectations were low. Still, we must ask: How have these teams done it?
Culture and Player Development
The Raptors have received plenty of attention for their player development program, which has seen players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam got from undrafted/second round/late first round picks, to D/G-leaguers, to championship rotation pieces and more. They appear to have done it again this year with Terence Davis.
The Pacers don’t have that same infrastructure, but still, young players come to the team each year and find success, including T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday this season.
Smart Free Agent Signings
The Pacers may not have scored with any of the grand-slam free agents, but I’d say they hit a solid stand-up triple, no? First, they took advantage of a Bucks team unwilling to pay Malcolm Brogdon, and stole him away in a sign-and-trade for a protected first-round pick and a couple seconds. Then they signed Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday, all valuable, if not splashy, rotation players who can hit shots and who don’t turn the ball over.
The Raptors didn’t make as big a move as the Brogdon signing, but they did snag Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas, and undrafted rookie free agent Terence Davis last summer, along with Stanley Johnson. Hollis-Jefferson and Davis have both been impact players, while Thomas fills a valuable role in specific situations where he stretches the floor.
Nick Nurse and Nate McMillan both deserve to be under consideration for Coach of the Year for how they’ve molded their respective teams.
Nurse hasn’t allowed a championship hangover, or the loss of two key players, to change his team’s mindset. He’s continually tweaking defensive schemes and confusing opponents, and he’s coached through a plethora of injuries with various lineups, and kept the team competitive.
MacMillian has kept his team afloat while it awaited Oladipo’s return, integrated all his new pieces (including new starting SF T.J. Warren, acquired from Phoenix in the offseason) and managed to find a way for Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner to play together — something most of us didn’t think was possible.
While both teams might ultimately fall short of NBA championship contention, both are proving that you don’t need to be in Los Angeles or New York to build a competitive roster.
If you want to see these two teams go head-to-head in Toronto while they jockey for position, we’ve got a deal from Stubhub for you right here! Check out the game details below, and then hit the link to purchase your tickets.
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
When: Wednesday, February 5th at 7:30pm EST
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