clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Rap-Up: Trying to make sense of an odd start to the season.

The Nets do not look like title contenders. The Wizards and Knicks do. Nothing makes sense. Is any of this sustainable?

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Up is down and down is up. Is there any other way of explaining the NBA season as we approach the 10% mark (already?!?)?

I’ve been quoted multiple times as being skeptical of the moves made by the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, specifically mocking where their defense would come from. Billy Donovan’s club currently ranks 5th in defensive rating, while Wes Unseld Jr.’s crew sits in 8th. Both teams are tied atop the NBA with a 5-1 record.

The four Conference finalists from last season — Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers — are a combined 9-14, with none of them above .500.

For rookies averaging at least 10 minutes per game, the top-three in terms of Win Shares per 48 minutes are Evan Mobley (no surprise), Scottie Barnes (oh hello), and Dalano Banton (** extreme Jack Armstrong voice ** HELLLOOOO).

After the first week of the season, I was 0-3 on Toronto Raptors predictions, but bounced back last week with a 4-0 record!

Up is down. Down is up. Now on to this week’s picks!

November 1 @ New York Knicks

Another prime example of the topsy-turvyness of this season has come from the Knicks. Their 5-1 record may not be a huge surprise considering the success of last season, but how’re they’re winning is what’s turning heads.

Tom Thibodeau has always been known as one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the league. Last season was no different as New York ranked first in points allowed per game, opponents field goal percentage, and opponents three-point field goal percentage.

This season, however, it’s the offense that has impressed. Over the previous three seasons, the Knicks have ranked 30th, 29th, and 24th in points per possession and effective FG%. So far, they rank 1st and 2nd in those categories. What exactly happened?

They’ve shifted their shot profile to something more modern. Last season, the two-point / three-point shot split was 65.3/34.7. This season, it’s 54.9/45.1.

A large reason for the shift is the personnel. New York’s biggest off-season acquisitions were Boston Celtics retreads: Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. They’ve combined to score 7.5 threes per game on 50.6% three-point percentage. For context, the entire Knicks roster only scored 11.8 threes per game last year.

Fun fact that may only interest me

New York’s current offensive rating of 114.1 would be the highest in franchise history. Assuming that regresses a bit, the Knicks are aiming at the 111.1 rating posted by the 1988-89 team. Only two current Knicks — Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose — were alive at the time.

Prediction

The Knicks have only faced one top-10 defense, a narrow one-point victory that doubled as Chicago’s only loss thus far. The Bulls game, as well as the home game vs. Orlando, were the only instances where New York was held under 112 points. Toronto has yet to allow an opponent to score 112 points. Toronto’s also won nine straight home games against New York. The Raptors remain perfect on the road, defeating the Knicks, 105-94. (I realize Scottie Barnes may miss the game, but karma has to catch up to the... ummm... overly excited Knicks fans).

November 3 @ Washington Wizards

That opening night loss doesn’t look so bad anymore, huh.

Bradley Beal’s shooting has fallen off a cliff. His FG% dropped from a career-high 48.5% last season to 36.3% this season. That’s also led to a drop in scoring from 31.3 to 24.4 (another reason for the sudden decline can be seen in the Nets preview further down this post).

Thankfully for Beal (and Wizards fans) his commitment to the organization and Washington has been rewarded. For the first time in his 10-year career, he has more than one teammate who averages more than 15 points. Spencer Dinwiddie (19.8), Montrezl Harrell (19.3), and Kyle Kuzma (15.5) have contributed immediately and lightened the offensive load for Beal.

Harrell specifically has been excellent to start his Wizards career with stats that are better than his Sixth Man of the Year campaign from 2019-20. He’s one of 10 players this season to average at least 19 points and 10 rebounds — but is the only non-starter of the group. The Raptors saw what he could do in the season opener as he harassed Toronto’s frontcourt with 22 points and nine rebounds in only 21 minutes.

Fun fact that may only interest me

If you have a chance to finish off the Wizards in regulation, you might want to go for it. Over the last two seasons, Washington’s won six of their last seven games that have gone to overtime, including two already this year. Their run also includes a 131-129 victory over the probably-not-as-invested Raptors last season.

Prediction

The Wizards have the number one transition defense, both in points per transition possession and points per transition play allowed. Getting easy points in transition is a huge component of Toronto’s offensive identity, especially with the half-court offense currently ranked... ** checks notes **... 27th. With Barnes possibly missing this game, or at least hampered by a thumb injury, all signs point to another loss. Washington defeats the visiting Raptors, 108-100.

November 5 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

This isn’t your older brother’s Cavaliers anymore.

What was once a system that centered around one man (LeBron James), is now a system that’s centered around... a number of centers (Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley, Lauri Markkanen, Tacko Fall, Ed Davis, and Kevin Love).

It is, then, quite comical that with all that length, the Cavaliers rank 28th(!) in opponents' offensive rebounding percentage. The Raptors rank first in offensive rebounding percentage and offensive rebounds per game.

Another area that works in Toronto’s favour is Cleveland’s propensity to turn the ball over. Darius Garland (12th), Collin Sexton (15th), and Ricky Rubio (15th) all rank in the top (bottom?) 20 in total turnovers.

Fun fact that may only interest me

There are four players in this matchup that have started the season strong on the defensive end and rank in the top-20 in defensive field goal percentage.

Jarrett Allen (46.2%) ranks eighth, one spot behind... Precious Achiuwa (45.5%).

Evan Mobley (54.3%) ranks 18th overall and second among rookies. In each list, he ranks one spot behind... Scottie Barnes (53.3%).

Prediction

In one of his final games with Toronto, Norm Powell got into a scuffle with Sexton.

Sexton would end up with 36 points and the Cavs would send Toronto to their eighth straight loss (and yet another indication that the Raptors had eyes on a prime lottery position after a lost season). That game was just over seven months ago, but retribution could arrive swiftly. Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. rank one and two respectively in deflections, with GTJ ranking fifth in steals. They will terrorize and frustrate Sexton (and Garland) and Raptors Twitter receipt holders will come out in full force. Toronto beats Cleveland 110-95.

November 7 vs. Brooklyn Nets

There’s a changing of the guard happening before our eyes.

What was once Kevin Durant vs. OG Anunoby and James Harden vs. Fred VanVleet, could very well now be Kevin Durant vs. Scottie Barnes and James Harden vs. Gary Trent Jr.

Actually, those are the matchups that interest Raptors fans. For the perennial All-Stars, their interests lie elsewhere.

Durant vs. history. KD has achieved everything an NBA player would have ever dreamed of. At 33 years old and the tail-end of his prime, Durant is now chasing the record books — and a chance to mock his coach. He’s currently 19 three-point field goals shy of catching head coach, Steve Nash, for 26th on the all-time list.

Harden vs. the referees. The new rule changes that deter foul-baiting have, unsurprisingly, affected Harden’s offensive game. His scoring average has dropped to 18.6 points per game, which hasn’t been that low since 2011-12 when he won the 6th Man of the Year award.

Fun fact that may only interest me

Remember how the NBA announced a $300 million donation plan over the next decade to help boost economic growth in the Black community? Broken down further, that’s $1 million per year from each of the 30 NBA teams.

Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai, Co-Owners of the Brooklyn Nets, didn’t think that was enough. They donated $50 million to social justice and economic equality initiatives that support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The couple developed a five-point action plan and stated that they planned to focus on organizations in Brooklyn.

Prediction

If you weren’t given the name of the opponent and just given these facts — #22 offensive rating, #16 net rating, 3rd leading scorer averages 12.7 and is 36 years old — how scared would you be of the opposing team? Yes, the Nets have the talent to overcome their slow start and find their way to a championship this season, but so far, it’s been a bumpy road. Kyrie Irving may never play this year. Blake Griffin is a starter who averages fewer than five (!) points per game. Another starter, Joe Harris, is off to a really slow start (11.0 points, 36.5 FG%). Can you even name Brooklyn’s fifth starter? Toronto ends the week on a high note defeating the Nets 109-108.

********

Last Week: 4-0

Season Record for Predictions: 4-3