At 21-7, the Raptors are still firmly in first place in the Eastern Conference, still holding the best overall record in the NBA. New guy Kawhi Leonard has put aside last year’s San Antonio debacle and returned to form, and could well be the frontrunner for this year’s MVP award. New coach Nick Nurse, who made his name as a D-League coach, has handled his first NBA head-coaching gig job admirably.
But the Raptors started 12-1, and have gone 9-6 since — including three losses in their last four games. They’re heading out on a four-game Western Conference swing, playing teams with a combined record of 69-38.
This could be an early-season lull, typical among even the best NBA teams. Or it could be a sign that the Raptors are not as championship-ready as they looked to be in the season’s first month.
There are a few aspects of this team that have taken a bad turn and will be worth monitoring in the coming weeks as the Raptors try to regain their footing as a true Finals contender.
Slowing it down
During the Raptors’ 12-1 start, two important factors were the speed at which the team was playing, and how that speed helped the bench produce — a faster pace, naturally, helps the team with more depth, and few teams have more depth than Toronto.
But that has changed over the past 15 games:
|2018-19 Raptors||Pace||Rank||Bench PPG||Rank||Bench +/-||Rank|
|First 13 games||102.19||12th||40.2||8th||-0.5||17th|
|Last 15 games||99.92||24th||35.1||18th||-2.3||23rd|
The Raptors have gone from the top 12 in pace to start the season to the bottom seven over the past 15 games. At the same time, the bench’s play has dropped off considerably.
When the Raptors can play with speed, they look like a championship contender. But that’s not been the case in the last month.
Keep moving the ball
In 2016-17, the Raptors offense was dominated by the pick-and-roll and most often produced unassisted shot attempts by guards Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan. The team ranked 30th in the league in assist percentage that year, at 47.2, and found that when the postseason rolled around, the offense was pretty easy to defend over a seven-game series — take out either Lowry, DeRozan or both, and Toronto struggled to find points.
As part of last year’s offensive overhaul, the Raptors aimed to boost ball movement and shift away from letting the guards dominate in pick-and-rolls. It worked. Toronto boosted its assist percentage to 59.0, which was 11th in the league, a remarkable increase.
In the end, the Raptors did not carry that over into the playoffs. They were swept in the second round, but might have had more postseason success if they had stuck to the script.
This year, the Raptors have had some ball-movement backsliding. Their assist percentage is 58.0, which ranks 16th in the league. Ball movement won’t necessarily win championships, but it has been critical to this team’s success over the past year.
The age factor
There has long been debate about Serge Ibaka’s real age, and whatever the facts may be, he has looked worn down at the end of recent seasons.
He was nearly useless in last year’s playoffs, and after averaging 14.0 points on 50.0 percent shooting in the team’s first 37 games, he averaged 11.6 points on 46.9 percent shooting the rest of the way. He’s had a solid start, but there’s little reason to think that will carry through the season.
Lowry leads the league in assists at 10.0 per game, but there are red flags around his start. He is 32 and will turn 33 in March. He’s made great strides as a 3-point shooter in the last three years (39.9 percent last season), but he has flagged this year, making only 32.4 percent from the arc — he is an excellent corner-3 shooter, but the Raptors offense does not find those shots for him much.
Five games ago, Lowry sat out a game in Cleveland after his back flared up, and that’s worth monitoring this year. He has only been back four games, but he has not looked the same since returning — he scored 15 total points in those games and shot 4-for-28.
The injury may prove minor, and something he can play through. But the early returns are concerning.
It’s still about May
The addition of Leonard has given this team new life. Where there was apprehension about the playoffs in Toronto, there is now excitement about this team’s possibilities.
But, even with Leonard’s impressive playoff resume (and Danny Green’s), it’s not certain that the entire team’s postseason DNA was swapped out when he was acquired. Most of these guys are still haunted by ghosts of postseasons past. That’s a big hurdle to get over.