In Taylor Swift’s seminal music video, “You Belong With Me,” she sings from the perspective of a high schooler bemoaning the fact that her neighbor-slash-crush doesn’t see her for who she is, a hidden treasure that he has been overlooking for various reasons.
Though the Toronto Raptors probably share little in common with Swift, perhaps we’re the ones overlooking them now as they’ve blossomed into something worth celebrating.
For example, the Raptors have finished with 48-plus wins in four straight seasons now and have yet to be selected for a Christmas Day game, something that their two biggest stars lobbied for last week. It’s not that anyone wants to lose a holiday, but for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, this was about respect. Haven’t they done enough? Haven’t they proven themselves?
But the answer, before this season, was no. The Raptors have won many regular season games, but they’ve never been seen as a threat to the Cavaliers, and they’ve failed to give them trouble the past two seasons, even as Toronto advanced to the conference finals. That’s why teams like Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston have been given more attention — all three playing on Christmas — due to bigger stars and brighter futures.
That was Toronto’s deserved reputation, plagued with problems like their non-modern offense and uninteresting play.
But these 2017 Raptors are doing their best to shake it off with style, filling a blank space in the Eastern Conference and taking off their glasses to reveal a team that’s, well, quite attractive.
How else would you describe a squad that had the best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference until Tuesday’s surprising loss to the Mavericks and sits only three games behind the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league?
More importantly, perhaps, is how the Raptors are doing it. This season, Toronto is outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions, third-best in the league, and by far their best ever as a franchise. Why?
The Raptors have earnestly embraced modern basketball
The NBA doesn’t require homogeneity, but things like shooting and spacing are becoming increasingly necessary. CBS Sports’ James Herbert unearthed this nugget about the team’s offseason scrimmages earlier in the season:
Corner 3-pointers -- where the distance shortens and the shot becomes ultra-efficient -- counted for four points. Other 3s were treated normally, as were layups. Anything outside of the paint and inside the 3-point line was either worth zero or minus-one. This new "shot spectrum," as they call it, was designed to change their habits.
The Raptors are attempting the sixth-most three-pointers in the league, an average of 31.5 per game, while hitting 35.2 percent of them. They’ve picked up their pace, averaging more than 100 possessions per game after years in the mid-90s.
Their leading scorer, DeRozan, historically known for his love of inefficient two-point jumpers, is pushing his comfort zone. He’s still not a great three-point marksman, but his 34 percent and 2.8 attempts per game are both career highs.
This is one of the league’s best benches
The Raptors’ third-most used lineup — Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, and Jakob Poeltl — is a mostly bench concoction that ramrods opponents, outscoring them by 12.6 points over 100 possessions in the 59 minutes they’ve played together. Then there’s Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam, and sometimes Lucas Nogueira, all players that allow Dwane Casey to play 10 or 11 players deep.
Siakam is a little more creative off the bounce. Wright is better finishing at the rim (and has attempted literally zero long two-pointers, somehow!). Miles has always brought valued shooting to any team he plays for, and that has continued.
Toronto’s secret weapon is a rookie
OG Anunoby is a 6’8 do-everything wing who has the same wingspan as Rudy Gobert — 8’0. The 20-year-old has spent most of the season in the starting lineup, and it has given Toronto a terrifying new weapon on the defensive end. If that wasn’t enough, Anunoby is shooting 44 percent behind the arc this season, too.
Toronto’s at its best when Anunoby’s on the court — outscoring opponents by 17.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s out there. That’s partly because the Raptors don’t overextend their young rookie: He is never asked to “anchor” bench lineups, and he has mostly played in the starting five, which has smoked opponents.
But look, when you have a 6’8 wing who can smother a perimeter player with arms that reach out longer than most starting centers, it’s going to make an impact. When that same player can record a 62.6 percent True Shooting Percentage, you’ve discovered someone that’s pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a 3-and-D player, even if all Anunoby does is stay in that role.
So they’re good. But what are the Raptors this season, anyway?
There are reasons to think the Raptors might be a great regular season team whose strengths will be mitigated in the playoffs. Deep benches are usually replaced by shorter rotations, and old, ingrained habits are hard to kill, even when replacing them with a new style. DeRozan and Lowry both still need to overcome historic playoff slumps that have plagued them the past few seasons.
Still, this team increasingly seems like the leading challenger to the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially as Boston begins to fade after a fast start. In my head, and probably yours as well, it’s ridiculous to imagine the Raptors beating LeBron James in a playoff series. It seems more ridiculous than, say, the 76ers, due to their sheer talent, or even the Celtics.
That might be the old Taylor Swift effect, the one with nerdy glasses and oversized T-shirts, really being something different underneath. These Raptors are radically different, for sure.
We’ll have a better idea once the Raptors and Cavaliers actually play each other — they haven’t yet, with their first meeting taking place on Jan. 11, before two more matchups happen in late March and early April. Maybe James will laugh off Anunoby’s 8’0 wingspan, and the Cavaliers will turn DeRozan back into an ugly duckling.
If they don’t, though, and if the Raptors look more competitive than those two painful Eastern Conference postseason clashes, then it’s time to start taking this transformation that they’ve undergone seriously, if we haven’t already.