At 7-1, the Toronto Raptors are atop the Eastern Conference and getting comfortable in a penthouse that was supposed to be reserved for preseason favorites Chicago and Cleveland. It's early, but the Raptors are showing no signs of fading away after last year's storybook season.
Thursday's TNT showdown against the Bulls could be Toronto's biggest early-season contest since the Vince Carter days. While we should be careful to make sweeping conclusions based on a game in November, the Raptors have both a rare national showcase and an opportunity to show that they should be taken seriously.
It's November, which means that the questions mean more than the answers at the moment. But the Raptors are, if nothing else, raising some interesting questions. Are they ready to assume the Pacers' throne as the balanced, physical, defensive-oriented team from a non-traditional market that challenges for Eastern Conference supremacy? Or is this hot start a mirage that'll soon fade as the schedule gets tougher?
THE GOOD NEWS
The Raptors never stop putting pressure on the defense. It isn't always artful, but it's generally effective. As of Wednesday, the Raptors were second in the league in total drives, seventh in drives per game, first in player points per game on drives and fourth in team points per game on drives. They're also second in the league in free throw rate behind only the Sacramento Kings, who are turning foul-drawing into an art form.
Few backcourt tandems are better at attacking than Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Both rank in the top 15 in total drives and points per game on drives. Both are sturdy, and tough to knock off their spots. Both have become experts at "creating contact," a broadcaster cliche that nevertheless is, while subject to reputation and other subjectivities, a real and valuable skill.
But the two get to the rim in different ways. Lowry is tricky, using a variety of hesitations and fakes to work his way into position. He has a low center of gravity, and gets even lower as a means to power through bigger players, squeeze through small spots and draw fouls where he shouldn't.
It's also how he's able to negate the size of helping big men. Lowry's default method of finishing is to get low enough to build up strength, jump into or through the big man's body to beat their angle, and use deft touch to finish.
Marcin Gortat and Nikola Vucevic are trying to use their size to angle him away from the hoop, but Lowry doesn't allow that to happen. He's so low to the ground, and moving so quickly, that trying to stop him is like trying to field a bowling ball. His momentum makes it easier to get his shoulders past their body and accelerate into the reverse layup. Should there be any contact, the big man will almost always called for the foul because he isn't squared up to take the charge.
DeRozan's method is different, if only because he's generally starting from further in. He's largely abandoned his push to develop a three-point shot in favor of dominating from the mid-range area -- this isn't going that well so far, as he's shooting just 35 percent 16-23 feet -- and getting to the basket.
While this turn away from the triple may bother analytics purists, it puts DeRozan in a position to use his greatest assets: size, strength and first step. When DeRozan turns and faces, his swing-through move is deadly and he can get to the rim quickly.
This is also the height of DeRozan's ever-developing post game. Toronto has many sets that give DeRozan the ball with his back to the basket against a smaller player with plenty of space in which to operate. DeRozan, who has developed head fakes and step-through moves to get to the hoop, takes it from there. His technique is as impeccable as Lowry's, just in a different way.
This is all more difficult to do if DeRozan is spotting up beyond the three-point line. His three-point attempts are down from 2.7 per 36 minutes last year to 1.1 per 36 this season, but his free-throw attempts per 36 minutes are up from 7.5 to 10. That's why his shooting efficiency is at the same level despite that dreadful start from mid-range and similar struggles on pull-up jumpers. He's trading one efficient play for another that conforms more to Toronto's style.
As long as both players attack, Toronto will dominate the basket area and pile up fouls on its opponents.
They remain disciplined
Despite all that aggression, the Raptors don't turn the ball over and run coherent offensive sets. Only the Pelicans have coughed it up on a lower percentage of their possessions than the Raptors this season. (There's a caveat to this stat that we'll discuss below.)
As much as they attack, this isn't a team that forces attacks willy nilly. There's a solid structure in place, one that relies on some of the most precise screening in the league. The Raptors often set up in an offensive set known as HORNS, which puts two big men at the elbows and two wings in the corner. They have myriad options out of this formation, including this one we spotlighted last season, which initially looks like a pick and roll, but is actually a staggered double screen for Terrence Ross.
They've dropped off a tad in their execution this year, but they still do a solid job of putting players in the right spots with screens that actually hold up defenders and put players in advantageous positions. The reason DeRozan gets such a clean catch here is because of Jonas Valanciunas laying wood on Tobias Harris.
And the reason Ross gets a clean look from three is that Johnson is holding up Kyle Korver.
A team without elite passers needs to get players open to make passes easier. Toronto's bigs do this well.
They force turnovers
Toronto is building its defense in the Grizzlies' mode: suffocating and aggressive, all while attempting to control the paint and the glass. The Raptors are forcing teams into turnovers on over 19 percent of their possessions, second in the NBA and a big jump on last season. They're off to a poor start on the glass, but that is likely to pick up as the season continues. Creating turnovers was Memphis' first step toward becoming a defensive juggernaut. It's a good model to pick, as this sort of strategic inspiration goes.
It helps, too, that Toronto's bigs are far more aggressive than Memphis'. The Grizzlies generate miscues on the wings with Tony Allen and Mike Conley. The Raptors force them by swarming to ball-handlers and quickly rotating to help the helper. It may seem chaotic, but the Raptors seldom miss secondary rotations.
This fourth-quarter possession against Orlando Tuesday shows how the Raptors can wear out a team on a given possession. First, Tyler Hansbrough comes up to show on a Ben Gordon side pick and roll at the same time Greivis Vasquez slides off his man to plug the lane.
The Magic then swung the ball to Maurice Harkless. Again, the big man shows, while another player leaves his assignment to provide additional support.
Mo Harkless eventually gets a step on Patrick Patterson, forcing James Johnson to meet the ball. This results in an easy shot against most defenses because there's someone open. The Raptors, though, never stop moving on a string. Watch how Lou Williams is already leaving his assignment to cut off the easy pass to Luke Ridnour.
That's how you execute an aggressive scheme. The Magic could have beaten Toronto's rotations with quicker passes, but the cumulative pressure wore them down. That's how Toronto exhausts, infuriates, and otherwise forces its will on opponents. It works.
THE BAD NEWS
There are defensive warning signs
Toronto had a top-10 defense last year and are up there again early this season, but there's reason to worry that might not last. The team's shot profile in particular is concerning.
That's a lot of threes and shots at the rim. Toronto's league-high turnover rate and solid rebounding are keeping its defense afloat, but they were much better at sealing off the danger areas last year.
Teams that can spread Toronto out have thrived. The Raptors' worst defensive performance of the year came against the Heat, a club that starts Chris Bosh at center. They also let Channing Frye go off during a narrow win over Orlando at home, which only served to later enhance Evan Fournier. This is an excellent late example of how the presence of a shooter like Frye creates chaos for the Raptors' aggressive style.
The threat of Frye causes a botched rotation after James Johnson leaves him, which ultimately leads to an open Fournier three on a critical possessions. Pressure can scramble an offense, but it can scramble a defense, too.
The Raptors don't have a great matchup for perimeter-shooting big men. Amir Johnson is normally a fantastic defender, but he's better off staying in the paint and his tender ankle remains a problem. Patrick Patterson provides an offensive boost, but the Raptors are nearly nine points worse defensively per 100 possessions when he plays. Coach Dwane Casey has starting using James Johnson as a power forward down the stretch, which is an interesting wrinkle, but may not hold up once teams realize they can ignore him on the offensive end. Worse, Toronto doesn't have a power player that can punish teams for going small on the other end, which is a big reason why the Nets wanted to play them in last year's playoffs.
If Casey could combine Patterson and Johnson into one player, it would help a lot. But there would be medical ethics concerns to consider there, for starters.
Smart defenses make the offense look ugly
The problem with Toronto's drive-at-all-costs offensive approach is that it doesn't lend itself to great fluidity. Toronto doesn't have many players adept at setting others up for shots. Lowry, as brilliant as he is, leans toward the shoot-first spectrum among point guards. DeRozan has improved his reads, but he, like Williams, is a scorer. Vasquez fits the profile, but has become more shot-happy since coming to Toronto. Terrence Ross is a spot-up player without much vision.
All this explains why Toronto is in the bottom half of the league in passes per game for the second straight year and trending downward. Toronto was 17th in total passes and 22nd in assist opportunities last year; they're down to 21st and 29th in those categories, respectively, this season. This is the flip side to being a low-turnover team: fewer passes means fewer chances to throw errant passes, but it also means fewer passes.
This isn't a fatal flaw in the regular season, but it could hurt them come playoff time when teams lock in on top offensive options. The Nets provided a blueprint for opponents in last year's playoffs, shutting off DeRozan's easy passing reads on post ups and forcing Lowry to create offense for himself.
Even at 7-1, the Raptors have shown little indication they're better equipped to handle similar coverages this season.
Amir Johnson must stay healthy
Amir Johnson is the Raptors' longest-tenured player, and the team's emotional core. He's a fine player, too: capable of doing all the necessary dirty work and sprinkling whatever spice is needed to enhance the rest of the mix. We've discussed his screen-setting, but he's also a mobile defender, excellent rebounder, underrated passer and fantastic rim protector, at least for his size.
The problem is he hasn't been himself since the end of last regular season because of chronic ankle issues. He was playing at half speed in the team's loss to the Nets and has already missed three games this season while failing to finish two others. As Zach Lowe notes, he's setting far fewer screens when he's on the floor, which is a bad sign considering that's his bread and butter.
The Raptors have plenty of depth up front, but it's in the form of specialists like Patterson, James Johnson and Hansbrough, all of whom give away something on one end. Johnson is the team's best two-way big and the only player capable of performing as a power forward alongside Jonas Valanciunas or as a center with a smaller player. If he can't play big minutes consistently, it enhances all of Toronto's weaknesses.
Thursday's battle is a good measuring stick for the Raptors. They've racked up an impressive record by blowing through an easy schedule that has seen them face only two teams with the personnel to exploit their defensive weaknesses. The Bulls have a formidable roster, even if Derrick Rose doesn't play.
Regardless of Thursday's result, the Raptors will not, and should not, be satisfied. They can play better than they have, and have found a style that works for them. They've gotten to 7-1 without firing on all cylinders; that they could be even better has to be frightening for the teams that were supposed to be the Eastern Conference's scariest.