Finding the real Raptors

The equivalent of a 60-win season followed by the equivalent of a 31-win season. What now?

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

October, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1878

As readers know, I am not a betting man. But something I look at heading into every season is the team win total futures. What I’m looking for is where sportsbooks and bettors think teams will end up this season compared to last season. Which teams do they think will improve? Which teams do they think will fall off? What’s the rationale, what’s the likelihood?

One really interesting team along these lines for next season is the Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors famously played in Tampa last season and had a miserable time. Injuries were a huge problem. COVID-19 was an enormous problem. Beyond that, Kyle Lowry spent the first half of the season on the trade block only to stick around all year and Pascal Siakam, the team’s heir apparent, clashed with coach Nick Nurse to the point of getting suspended. Once the trade deadline passed and Lowry was still around, the team still didn’t make a concerted effort to get into the playoffs, instead content to finish the season with a whimper and wash Tampa from their lives forever.

Toronto finished the season 27-45. In an 82-game season, the equivalent would be a 31-win season.

Lowry did leave in the offseason; Toronto received Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic in the sign-and-trade deal. Dragic is still on the roster, though most seem to assume it won’t be for long. Achiuwa will compete with Chris Boucher for minutes. The Raptors were bad enough to get a plum draft pick, taking Scottie Barnes, a ferocious wing defender who has some fans speaking in tongues based off of Summer League and clips from pick-up games involving legitimate NBA players.

Everyone else is back: Fred VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. (swapped for Norman Powell at the deadline), Boucher, Malachi Flynn.

The equivalent of 31 wins last season, and now minus Lowry. But back at home, and (we assume) not dealing with COVID-19. What’s the worth in gauging how good this team will be?

What about the year prior, the honeymoon year after the stunning championship? The Raptors had Lowry, had Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, had a full season of Norm Powell. They had, for the most part, health. They had the afterglow of ultimate glory. This was the interrupted season, the bubble season. The Raptors won 53 games, the equivalent of a 60-win season. A 60-win season, two years ago. They were one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals. What’s that worth in gauging how good this team will be?

How do you rate a disappointing 2020-21 under deeply weird circumstances in comparison with a wildly successful 2019-20?

Here’s what Vegas thinks: according to Action Network, Toronto’s 2021-22 over/under win total is 37. This would be the equivalent of a 6-game improvement, but still not enough to get to .500. It’s simultaneously a vote of confidence that 2020-21 was an aberration and the low point for this core and a vote of non-confidence in this core’s ability to compete at the top of the East. It is a determination that no, Toronto is not as bad as they looked last season but no, Toronto is not exactly *good* either.

It’s also a vote for regression to the mean. Bad teams tend to have higher over/unders than previous season win totals and good teams tend to have lower over/unders than previous season win totals. This is not always the case, but it’s a good rule of thumb. To wit, the two teams with the biggest positive differential between 2021-22 win total over/under line and 2020-21 wins (adjusted for season length) are Minnesota and Houston, two of last season’s worst teams.

Here’s what I think about Toronto going into this season: the Raptors are clearly no longer a 60-win team. But that performance is closer to the truth for this group than last season’s disaster. Lowry is amazing, a true winning player. But when considering the impact of his absence you can’t ignore that he was around last season, too. “Without Lowry this whole thing falls apart.” No, it fell apart with Lowry there. To me, that speaks to a broader problem with last season specifically.

The center position suffered enormous downgrades from 2019-20 to 2020-21, as well: Ibaka and Gasol both left, and Aron Baynes stepped in. He was one of the most disappointing free agent acquisitions of last season, period. Boucher, Achiuwa and Khem Birch are not Gasol and Ibaka, but there’s no way Nick Nurse will give them a long enough thread to play as poorly as Baynes did last season. If Masai Ujiri thinks this is a playoff team and the center position is as much a disaster as it was a year ago, chances are he’ll do something, despite his famous patience.

One thing NBA analysts and fans have trouble doing is properly rating defenses. Toronto should have or could have a spectacular defense. Siakam, if engaged, is superlative on that end. VanVleet is tough. Anunoby is an All-Defense competitor. Barnes has shown real promise. Nurse knows how to coach an elite defense. If you’re a top-5 defense — a believable goal, to me, they were No. 2 two years back, albeit with Lowry, Gasol and Ibaka — then even an average offense will get you above .500. The Raptors had an average offense last season, despite everything. VanVleet, good scorer. Siakam, good scorer. Anunoby, great shooter who should get more looks. Trent was a clear offensive downgrade from Powell last season — far less efficient — but nevertheless, he’s a good scorer. Flynn is a potential surprise rising star here. VanVleet and Siakam will be required to move the ball more to get better looks for their teammates — to me, that’s where Toronto will miss Lowry the most, in setting up scoring opportunities for others — but it’s doable. VanVleet and Siakam are good and willing playmakers.

If that’s what Toronto gets out of the team this season — elite or near-elite defense, average offense — that’s a team closer to the 60-win equivalent squad of 2019-20 than the 31-win equivalent squad of last year. And that feels like a lot more than 37 wins in an 82-game season. Perhaps I’m underrating the negative impacts to the defense from the loss of Lowry and prior to that Gasol and Ibaka. Perhaps I’m overrating the ability of VanVleet, Siakam and Anunoby to charge up the offense. Perhaps the Siakam-Nurse situation is worse than we know and could implode the team. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. I won’t call this team a sleeping giant, exactly. But a sleeping better-than-expected team? That’s absolutely in the cards here.

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Scores

Monday

Wings 75, Aces 85

Tuesday

Fever 78, Dream 85

Schedule

Liberty at Sun, 7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network — New York really needs a win, too bad they are playing against the best team in the W. The Sun don’t have anything to play for but their winning streak, though.

Links

Big contract extension for Aaron Gordon: four years, $92 million. The Nuggets will miss Jamal Murray this season, but it seems they believe in their ability to win long-term with Nikola Jokic as the centerpiece and Murray, Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. around him.

The Athletic’s Shams Charania reports that John Wall won’t play for the Rockets this year as the team seeks to trade him. ($) Wall is 31 years old.

No COVID-19 vaccine mandate for players, though unvaccinated players will submit to a lot of testing.

Dan Devine on the magic of Marc Gasol.

WNBA playoff scenarios for each team in the mix.

David Thorpe tries to trade Ben Simmons and Bradley Beal.

The G League’s new Mexico City Capitanes will play their home games in Fort Worth this season due to COVID-19.

Speaking of the G League, their new season format seems like a pretty good idea!

Sam Amick at The Athletic talks to Donovan Mitchell about the feeling around the Jazz and more. ($)

Substack writer Marc Stein talks to Substack writer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Nekias Duncan on the new NBA 2K.

Rest in peace, Norm Macdonald.

Be excellent to each other.