CHICAGO – The Toronto Raptors through the 2016-17 season had been one of the best teams in the NBA the previous four years, averaging 51 wins, top 10 in the NBA in offensive efficiency every year, All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, a visit to the conference finals.
True, they had disappointed in the playoffs with two first-round ousters, but not the last two years. After all, it was LeBron they couldn’t get by. You remained patient and continued to take your shot.
Not Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, who after the Raptors were quickly eliminated by the Cavaliers last spring said it was time for major changes.
Lowry and Serge Ibaka were free agents, coach Dwane Casey was on the hot seat again, his offense considered too slow and predictable for the postseason, a coach Ujiri inherited. Those things never last. The demolition was coming. Until it became a rehabilitation with a new look that makes it seem new with all the old furniture.
The Raptors have undergone perhaps the most radical renovation without any major personnel changes, a major alteration in the way they play that has them heading perhaps for a franchise record 60-win season and a likely top seed in the Eastern Conference as a favorite over the stumbling Cleveland Cavaliers.
It is a remarkable alteration in many respects, though not unusual in this era as suddenly only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have more efficient and explosive offenses than the Raptors. While the Raptors without their deliberate pace and isolation play remain one of the best defensive teams, ranking top five in fewest points allowed per possession.
Their point differential, one of the best measures of team strength, is essentially tied for first with the Rockets.
Ujiri said there would be a “culture reset” with the Raptors. But no one saw anything like this coming as the isolation heavy Raptors behind DeRozan and Lowry have become the closest thing to the space and move play of the Warriors and the rim/3-point shooting philosophy of the Rockets.
The Raptors have gone from 13th to 26th in midrange shots while going from 21st in threes taken to third. Toronto counts this season 18 more passes per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com and specialized statistics.
Toronto was last in assists leading to scores last year and is now among the best at about 60 percent compared with 48 percent last season.
No longer does the ball stick with DeRozan and Lowry. No longer is Jonas Valanciunas ignored, and no one has a bench like the Raptors that is flying around the court in relief, pressuring, scoring and presenting perhaps another challenging playoff innovation. It’s generally NBA gospel that benches are limited in the playoffs with the game slowing, your best players on the court longer.
Pat Riley famously said about the playoffs, you use eight, rotate seven, play six and trust five.
“Where is that written down?” asks Casey.
The playoff version of the Toronto Raptors should be one of the most compelling stories of a fabulous NBA postseason.
We’ve rarely seen anything like this.
The Raptors had established stars in DeRozan and Lowry, and they basically were told to change their games, to shoot more 3s at a time DeRozan was regarded as the game’s best midrange player and give up the ball more. It wasn’t easy to start, and DeRozan had his concerns. But he’s embraced the philosophy change. He averages fewer points, but produces five more points per 100 possessions.
DeRozan doubled his 3-point attempts from last season, and though he’s still not a great 3-point shooter, he is well above his career average.
Valanciunas, often ignored on offense as DeRozan and Lowry dribbled for shots, is recording considerably more touches and in pick-and-roll movement instead of just isolation to create mismatches.
It’s something of the formula the Warriors turned into two of the last three championships. They had great scorers in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but lacked the movement and fluidity even as they were a 50-win team. Steve Kerr brought that replacing Mark Jackson. It’s one thing to enhance the skills of players, but the Raptors also did it with a veteran coach.
And then to reduce the reliance on the best players with a group that includes undrafted players and second-round picks like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. It’s a guessing game around the NBA to take the last names of the Raptors reserves and match them with the first. Yet, that is the premier bench group in the NBA, outscoring teams by 25 points per 100 possessions and often closing games for the Raptors.
With the injuries to crucial Boston Celtics players like Marcus Smart now after Gordon Hayward, the Cavaliers still in some disarray and a sub.-500 team since All-Star break awaiting the return of Kevin Love, John Wall still out for the Wizards and the 76ers so young, the Raptors will come into the playoffs playing the best in the Eastern Conference. Of course, the conventional wisdom is you have to knock out the champ, who is LeBron.
Indiana’s Nate McMillan probably is the leading Coach of the Year contender for the unlikely rise of the Pacers after losing Paul George. Portland’s Terry Stotts and Utah’s Quin Snyder will be strong contenders for the play of their teams in the tougher Western Conference. But Casey will be deep in the conversation for this almost unprecedented transformation of style with the same personnel.
Can the Raptors continue to play those ready reserves regularly in the playoffs?
Will DeRozan and Lowry revert under playoff pressure to their former games?
Will Casey return to the more controlling coach with plenty of play calls?
Will the NBA champion for the first time be from outside the United States?
The Raptors look like a big postseason story this season instead of a pleasing curiosity. This time everyone will be watching.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”