The Raptors are surprisingly the best team in the East, boasting a 5-0 record that only the defending champion Warriors can match. They're coming off back-to-back road wins over difficult West teams, including a tight victory at Oklahoma City. It's early, but it looks like Toronto might be better than anyone expected coming into the season.
So how, exactly, are the Raptors getting those wins?
Their revamped defensive scheme is working
The Raptors have improved significantly on defense, allowing just 95 points per 100 possessions, one of the best marks in the league and nearly 10 points better than the mark they posted last season.
In an effort to improve on that area, they signed DeMarre Carroll to shore up their wing rotation and also acquired defensive-oriented backups in Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. The new additions have undeniably given the team a boost.
But the biggest reason for the improvement has less to do with personnel changes than with the implementation of a new defensive scheme that hides center Jonas Valanciunas' weaknesses and highlights his strengths.
The Raptors used to have their perimeter defenders stay in front of ball handlers on side pick-and-rolls and let them get to the middle of the floor, where the big man was tasked with trapping them. That was a recipe for disaster. Valanciunas simply couldn't contain ball handlers and get back to his assignment on time.
Now, the Raptors have the perimeter defender push the ball handler away from the screen and to the baseline. This is known as "icing" the pick-and-roll, though it has other names.
The new scheme allows Valanciunas to stay close to the basket at all times while also forcing more mid-range shots. Toronto's opponents are taking 15 shots per game in the 15-19-foot range, tied for fifth-most in the league. Last season, they were tied for 26th in the league in that area. Not coincidentally, they are allowing just 26.6 shots within five feet of the basket, almost four fewer attempts from that area than last season.
Better defensive players and a smarter scheme have allowed the Raptors to turn a glaring weakness into a strength
The Raptors control the defensive glass now
Not only are the Raptors forcing misses, but they are also securing rebounds, something they struggled to do last year. Toronto was one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, as two of their three most-used big men -- Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough -- were below average on that area.
Now that Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo are taking those minutes, the Raptors have improved greatly when it comes to cleaning the defensive glass.
|Player||Amir Johnson 2014/15||Tyler Hansbrough 2014/15||Luis Scola 2015/16||Bismack Biyombo 2015/16|
|Defensive rebound percentage||16.4%||18.8%||28.7%||22.5%|
Scola had a great year as a rebounder with the Pacers last season and has been able to sustain that level in Toronto, pulling in a whopping 29 percent of all available defensive rebounds. That's nearly 13 percent more than Johnson did last season. When Valanciunas rests, Biyombo takes his place and prevents defensive rebounding from becoming a huge problem.
In just one season, the Raptors went from allowing the third-most second chance points to now allowing the fourth-fewest. In terms of defensive rebound percentage, they rank seventh after coming in at 25 last season. Toronto is controlling the defensive glass.
Their version of a "Big Three" is delivering
Toronto had one of the best offenses in the league last season despite not having a superstar orchestrating the attack or a system that emphasized getting assisted field goals. They relied heavily on isolation scoring, which is why the loss of sixth man Lou Williams and the addition of defensively-inclined role players suggested their approach might not be sustainable.
Surprisingly, that hasn't happened. The ball is still not moving and the Raptors are not scoring as much as they did last season, but they still rank sixth in the league in offensive rating. It's all thanks to their Big Three.
Kyle Lowry lost weight in the offseason and is having a career year so far, averaging 19 points, over six assists and almost three steals per game. His three-point shot has been deadly and he's getting to the line more often than ever. Off-guard DeMar DeRozan has also been a foul magnet, trailing only James Harden in free throw attempts per game. He's shooting 82 percent from the line to boot, which has resulted in him posting the best True Shooting percentage of his career.
Valanciunas, meanwhile, has made the biggest leap out of the three, by far. He's averaging 16 points per game while shooting 60 percent from the floor. For the second year in a row, he's among the most efficient post scorers in the game. The difference is he's getting more chances to show that off.
The three offensive stars are combining for an efficient 57 points a game. One of the biggest knocks on the Raptors is that they don't have elite talent. At least so far this season, their three best players are performing like it.
Is it sustainable?
Opponents have shot an unsustainable low percentage from certain areas -- namely mid-range and above-the-break three-pointers -- but the process behind the Raptors' defensive improvement is sound. They are forcing opponents into inefficient shots and hiding Valanciunas' deficiencies well. If they can prevent a couple more corner three-point shots per game, they could finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
Relying on whistles is not the best way to build an offense, but their featured scorers are earning those trips to the line. Unlike other teams that rely on one elite offensive player doing it all -- like the Rockets (James Harden) or the Kings (DeMarcus Cousins) -- the Raptors have three guys who can lead the team in scoring any given night, as well as complementary players in Scola, Joseph, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross who know their role and won't try to do too much. If Carroll finds his shot (he's shooting 36 percent from the field), he will help greatly as well.
The Raptors had a hot start last season before collapsing after the All-Star break. It's understandable to be wary of their 5-0 record. This season, however, the foundation seems stronger. Toronto won't likely challenge the Cavaliers, but should be among the best teams in the East.