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Paul Flannery | December 11, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: The Raptors have never been better

Welcome to the Raptors' golden age

BOSTON -- Patrick Patterson took seven shots on Friday against the Celtics and missed five of them. He scored only 5 points in 30 minutes of action, but he grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out 4 assists while guarding everyone from small forwards to Al Horford. Most importantly, the Raptors were 13 points better than the Celtics while Patterson was on the court.

Individual plus/minus from game to game is a notoriously fluky statistic. Some nights it can mean a lot. Other nights, it’s just random noise. In Patterson’s case it reveals a great deal. Throughout the season, the Raps are 13 points better 100 possessions with Patterson in the game, and their alternative lineup with Patterson joining the four starters in place of rookie Pascal Siakam is a whopping 23 points better than the opposition per 100 possessions.

"He’s a glue guy," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "A lot of his measurements can’t be measured by numbers. His energy, his intellect helps us. He’s our spirit on the court. Rebounding, defending different positions. He’s a multi-faceted utility guy for us."

There isn’t a single player who dreamed of playing in the NBA who thought to himself, "One day I’m going to be a multi-faceted utility guy," but Patterson had plenty of practice along the way. He was the man in high school until he teamed up with O.J. Mayo and learned how to facilitate. He was the man for two seasons at Kentucky before John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe showed up and he had to learn how to fit in with all that star power.

"Throughout my life being able to cope, to change, and to adjust and being in the NBA it’s the same exact thing," Patterson told me before Friday’s game. "You have your superstars. You have your No. 1 and No. 2 and then the rest of the guys you have to figure out how to be effective and cause change in the game. That’s what I learned throughout the years."

Patterson learned how to impact the game with his versatility. He can guard big forwards and centers. His ability to shoot from distance and spread the floor is his main calling card, but he’s also an effective rebounder and willing passer. He’s become an essential component of what the Raptors do on a nightly basis.

Friday marked the third anniversary of a seven-player trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Kings. At the time the deal was thought to be a precursor to a massive roster purge under GM Masai Ujiri. But when a separate deal for Kyle Lowry fell apart, the new-look Raptors were born.

Patterson’s the only one left standing on the Toronto side, although the other players involved have continued to churn out dividends. John Salmons was traded for Lucas Nogueira, who has become a valuable reserve big man, and Lou Williams, who won a Sixth Man award in his only season in Toronto. Greivis Vasquez was flipped to the Bucks for the draft rights to Norm Powell and a future first rounder.

Patterson was worth the price in his own right. Before the trade, the Raps were a listless also-ran. Since that deal, the Raptors have compiled the best record in the Eastern Conference and the fourth best in the league overall behind only Golden State, San Antonio, and the Clippers. They made the playoffs three straight years and reached the conference finals after winning a franchise-best 56 games. Little did Patterson, or anyone else involved in the deal, realize that the balance of power in the East had just flipped.

"Not at all. I never saw this when I first got traded to Toronto," Patterson said. "But I’m happy. I’m ecstatic. I’m proud of everyone."

In order to discuss the Toronto Raptors properly, we should start by pretending that we’re not talking about the Raptors. Our collective subconscious on the matter is already kicking into overdrive telling us things like the Raps are good, but not great, or that they are admirably competitive, but fatally flawed.

Even as they are in the midst of the best era in franchise history and winners of eight of their last nine, that subconscious knowledge has the perverse effect of belittling their accomplishments and selling them short. It’s difficult to see improvement when the big picture hasn’t changed all that much. Difficult as it may be, we should try to examine the Raptors without bias or preconceived notion.

We should start on the offensive end where they score more points per 100 possessions than anyone besides the Warriors. They shoot it better than just about everyone else too, and they are also stingy with the ball and active on the offensive glass. They are, simply, an offensive juggernaut.

This is true even while DeMar DeRozan single-handedly tries to bring back the mid-range game against all the rules of science and evolution. In his antiquated quest, DeRozan has been a revelation. He began the year by scoring at an unsustainable rate and adjusted by becoming more of a playmaker as defenses began to hone in on his straight-ahead game.

"He’s growing up right before us," Casey said. "He’s not getting sped up by the defense. Double teams don’t bother him anymore. He makes good decisions out of double teams."

They also have one of the game’s great point guards in Lowry, who continues to get better even as his age suggests he should be starting to decline. In DeRozan and Lowry, they have two legit All-Stars performers and Olympians. Only a handful of teams can say the same. To complement them, the Raptors have loads of shooting scattered around the perimeter and an effective big man to clean things up in Jonas Valanciunas.

Their bench is also one of the best in the league. Per our Raptors HQ, the Raptors’ subs out-perform every other reserve group in the league by a substantial margin. The Lowry + Four Reserves alignment has been particularly stellar. That was true last season, as well, but those awesome backup lineups were often forced to compensate for a starting five that was a net negative. This season, the combination of a healthier DeMarre Carroll and the addition of Siakam has shaved almost four points off their margin.

"They can play big at the start of the game and then they transition into a real skilled, athletic smaller team," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "They’re scoring at an incredible rate."

By general consensus and backed with empirical data, the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league. They are a handful to defend and just as good on the road as they are at home. They have experience, continuity, and a taste for the big time action in the postseason. Were it anyone else, we’d call the Raptors a contender and see how things play out before passing judgment.

There are, however, two main concerns and they are big ones. First, the Raps are mediocre defensively. Second, the Cleveland Cavaliers exist.

On the first, Toronto’s defensive issues are the bane of Casey’s existence. He arrived in town with a mandate to fix the D and the team has ranged from solid to meh during his tenure. Currently, they are meh.

On the second, a little context is necessary. It’s simply not true that the Raps can’t beat the Cavs. They took two out of three during the regular season last year and two more in the conference finals. It’s just that their margin for error is incredibly small. Casey even acknowledged after their latest setback on Monday (a 116-112 Cavs win in Toronto) that this team needs to "play a perfect game against a team like that." They didn’t.

They are expecting injured free agent forward Jared Sullinger to return in the next month or so and he should provide an upgrade over Siakam, particularly on the defensive boards. Short of making a big move for someone like Paul Millsap, the Raptors are right back where we thought they’d be: a little bit better than last year, but still not good enough to reach the Finals.

And yet, that is a massive improvement from where they were three years ago. To consider that the Raptors are clearly the second-best team in their conference and one of the handful of truly good teams in the league says an awful lot about how far they’ve come and how close they are to where they want to be. In any other venture and maybe any other sport, this would be viewed as a remarkable turnaround. The final step, as always, is the toughest.

"We watched a lot of the Cleveland Cavaliers and how they were able to take care of business," Patterson said. "Although we went seven games each round, we learned what it takes to get to the next round, and how valuable homecourt advantage is and how valuable it is to protect homecourt."

Take it from the glue guy. The Raptors are learning their lessons and getting better. At the end of the day, that’s all they can do.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Among my unwritten NBA rules are that I won’t rush into a League Pass relationship before playing the field first. The first quarter of the season is for speed dating, but now it’s time to commit. My highly subjective criteria are as follows: I like competitive teams who rarely appear on national television that play a unique style and ideally have a highly combustible/entertaining superstar. They should be spread out geographically and time zones. Here are my five.

Charlotte: What the Hornets lack in star power, they make up for with a strong team concept based on bedrock defensive principles and smart offensive players. I know, sounds boring as hell. But the fun is in the details. Whether it’s a well-timed Cody Zeller screen or Michael Kidd Gilchrist’s defensive rotations, the Hornets are a delight if you’re into tactical strategy and execution. Throw in the potential for late-game Kemba Walker heroics and they have become my go-to early-evening choice.

Milwaukee: The Bucks have always been a curiosity, but now that Giannis Antetokounmpo has been fully empowered to run wild, they are a League Pass no-brainer. The Giannis phenomenon is reminiscent of the Anthony Davis Experience two years ago. Even if you’re not watching, Basketball Twitter will pull you back in because something crazy happened that you must see. With a core group all under the age of 26 that includes high-scoring forward Jabari Parker, this year’s Bucks are either the dawn of a new juggernaut or a wonderfully flawed experiment.

Houston: James Harden’s entire existence changed dramatically when Mike D’Antoni entered the picture and Harden’s the obvious draw here. The man does everything, much like former teammate Russell Westbrook, but Harden gets there at his own pace. Languid where Russ is manic, Harden is the Eddie Hazel to Russ’ blitzkrieg bop. With Harden surrounded by a collection of veteran castoffs enjoying their own mid-life renaissances -- including their star-crossed coach -- the Rockets have reversed their fate as also-rans. They are once again cast as spoilers to the elite hierarchy, which suits them perfectly.

Portland: The Blazers appeared to graduate from League Pass cult status after reaching the second round of the playoffs last season. Yet their rise to the upper echelon has stalled this season leaving them in a fascinating place as they plot their next move. They are still good, and Dame Lillard is a joy, but there’s also a sense that the pieces may not be exactly right. Who goes, who stays, and who will emerge as core members underpins everything and turns their games into nightly referendums. Plus, they have the best road uniforms in the league.

Sacramento: The Kings are only mildly competitive and aren’t blessed with a collection of young talent, or even much upside. But they do have DeMarcus Cousins and the potential for anarchy is high. On any given night, Boogie could completely dominate the game, or destroy its flow with an ill-timed tantrum. He might even do both in the same game. For those of us on the East Coast, the Kings are the perfect late-night junk food before the inevitable crash.

Others: Toronto, Detroit, Minnesota, Denver.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Win the championship? I don’t know, but it’s not a priority in my life. I’d be much happier if I knew that my players were going to make society better, who had good families and who took care of the people around them. I’d get more satisfaction out of that than a title. I would love to win another championship and we’ll work our butts off to try and do that. But we have to want more than success in our jobs. That’s why we’re here. We’re here so you’ll understand that you can overcome obstacles by being prepared and if you educate the hell out of yourself. If you become respectful, disciplined people in this world, you can fight anything. If you join with each other and you believe in yourself and each other, that’s what matters. That’s what we want to relay to you all: that we believe that about you or we wouldn’t be here." -- Gregg Popovich.

Reaction: We should cut this quote out, frame it, and give it to every youth league coach in America.

"First we need to start really just (leaving) the refs alone. Guys just got to sacrifice, do some other things than scoring, do some other things than your personal goals. Just try something new. They’ve been doing it here for four or five years and it hasn’t been working so it’s time to try something new." -- Clipper forward Mo Speights after a blowout loss to the Warriors.

Reaction: When Mo Speights is the voice of reason ...

"The good thing about when I took the job was that James wanted to play in the way that I wanted to coach, and that’s taking a lot of threes, getting to the rim, in the paint and foul shots. And so (it’s) the same philosophy, from the owner to the general manager to the star player." -- Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni.

Reaction: People don’t realize how important it is for all the key factions to line up philosophically. No one knows that better than D’Antoni who ran into resistance in both New York and Los Angeles from star players and management. You can have the greatest system in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything unless everyone buys into what you’re preaching.

"What cancellation? The GM (Dell Demps) was not authorized to make that trade. And acting on behalf of owners, we decided not to make it. I was an owner rep. There was nothing to ‘void.’ It just never got made." -- Former commissioner David Stern reflecting on the non trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers.

Reaction: You say tomato, I say semantics. The Hornets were going to trade Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol was going to the Rockets and Lamar Odom and others were heading to New Orleans. That was going to happen, and then it didn’t because Stern and the NBA said no. You can spin it any way you want, the league never should have been in that mess.

"As bad as we need air." -- Hawks forward Paul Millsap after snapping a seven-game losing streak.

Reaction: A few weeks ago, the Hawks were an early-season surprise but things have gone south quickly. Seven straight losses will do that a team, but it hasn’t just been the setbacks, it’s been the blowouts. Good teams go through bad stretches, but they don’t get dominated like this. Unless this turns quickly, it’s time to completely reassess Atlanta’s future.

Video Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.