BY THOMAS DRANCE
Only a few weeks ago Toronto’s basketball team was sporting a 4-19 record and looked poised for a bottom-5 finish. In a situation familiar to Toronto’s sports fans, there seemed to be no hope, no future, and the team didn’t even necessarily own its own first round pick.
Since the Raptors beat the Dallas Mavericks on December 14th, however, the team has rolled off 8 wins in its past 9 games and now sits only 2.5 games outside of eighth in the Eastern Conference. According to John Hollinger’s playoff odds, the Raptors have a 63% chance of making the postseason, which would make them the first major professional Toronto team to do so in a half decade.
It’s not only that the Raptors have begun to win, but it’s how convincing some of those victories have been. In their first 23 games of the season, the Raptors carried a point differential of -9.96 per game to go along with their atrocious 4-19 record. While the Raptors probably weren’t as bad as their 4-19 record indicated (some of their losses were heartbreaking like when Al Jefferson made a last second three pointer to force OT, or that a weird review in the season opener against Indiana, or some unjustifiably awful refereeing in Charlotte), they were still pretty bad. Of late, however, they’ve been unstoppable going 8-1 in their past nine games while posting a 8.33 differential per game, and winning by an average of 11.88 points.
How has this happened, and why?
The first answer can be found by looking at the schedule. The Raptors played 15 of their first 23 games on the road this season, and posted a 1-14 record in those games. For a young team with a bunch of new faces (including starters Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry), the schedule was presumably a big factor and as the losses piled up and confidence dwindled, the team struggled to find any sort of groove away from the friendly confines of the ACC.
The second answer can be found, and I don’t mean to pile on here, by looking at Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani went down with an injury on 10 December against Portland, and since then the Raptors have reeled off eight wins and only two losses. I tend to think Bargnani is a better player than most, and certainly it’s not just his absence that has galvanized the Raptors into playing some entertaining, dominant basketball; but this has been a major factor in the team’s turnaround.
It’s not so much that Bargnani is a chemistry killer, or an irredeemably bad player or anything of that sort (which you might hear on a call-in radio show). It’s more than that, at this point, Amir Johnson is better and the Raptors are a better team when he’s playing big minutes.
Through 12 December (right before the Raptors went on their win streak), Amir Johnson was averaging 20.5 minutes per game, a figure that has jumped to 28.33 minutes per game on the Raptors current win streak. Per 48 minutes, Amir Johnson is out-producing his opponents by 3.5 PER when he lines up as a powerforward, which looks even better when contrasted with Bargnani who has only out produced his opponents by 0.1 PER per 48 when he lines up at the 4 spot this season. In addition to Amir Johnson’s effectiveness at the 4, he’s also way, way less over-matched when playing pivot (-1.6 PER per 48) than Bargnani has been (a woeful -13.8 PER).
Amir Johnson’s ability to hold opposing power-forward to a PER below league average, and hold his own against centers is key to the Raptors defensive game. With Bargnani on the floor this season, the Raptors are allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions (4.2 points per 100 possession more than the worst defensive team in the NBA). They’re over four points better per hundred with Amir on the floor. Somehow the Raptors are also significantly more efficient offensively with Amir Johnson on the floor than Bargnani as well this season, partly due to his superior offensive rebounding rate and the team’s higher assisted field goal percentage when Johnson plays.
Another key lynchpin has been the play of small forward Alan Anderson who, not so coincidentally, returned from injury on December 14th (right when the Raptors hot streak began). He’s simply a more efficient player than the likes of Michael Pietrus and Linas Kleiza, and are an astounding 12 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor so far this season.
Meanwhile, Jose Calderon is having his best season since 2008-09, and Kyle Lowry has been very good since returning from injury and coming off the bench as a “super-sub.” Thanks largely to the contributions of these two players, the Raptors are zeroing in on the top-10 in team offensive efficiency, and might be a top-5 team in assist rate by the end of the season (based on the way the club is trending).
Hope is a dangerous thing for most sports fans, but if you look at the Toronto Raptors at the moment and squint a bit, you might find a reason for some.