Ultimate success in sports is often determined by when you peak, and unfortunately the Raptors fell apart as the season progressed and they were embarrassed in the playoffs, failing to reach the mythical 50 wins milestone or making the second round. With team MVP Kyle Lowry in the best shape of his life in an eastern conference that still lacks elite competitors, the time is now for the Raptors to make progress and ascend in the rankings.
2015 in review:
Toronto started the season well, reaching a record of 24-8 before the New Year’s Eve. They had a net rating of +7.8 at that point, third in the league according to NBA.com along with the second best offense overall. But then the team declined almost immediately with a net rating of only +0.3 the rest of the season – barely above league average. Their offense completely cratered, and the season ended in ignominy as they were swept by Washington, a lower seeded team, in the first round.
Rotation players in: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo, Anthony Bennett.
Rotation players out: Amir Johnson, Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez, Tyler Hansbrough.
Toronto’s major change is a swap of Amir Johnson for DeMarre Carroll, essentially. Both guys are defensive role players plus/minus stats love, but Toronto probably chose wisely, as Johnson might be starting to break down, as he has suffered from ankle problems for much of the last two years and Carroll is coming off a great season. The team lost its super sub scorer in Lou Williams, and instead brought in a near opposite player type in Cory Joseph, a lower volume scoring, “plus” defender from San Antonio. Likewise, Toronto added Bismack Biyombo, a large, nimble defensive player who can’t do much on offense besides dunk as a counterpoint to Jonas Valanciunas. Luis Scola will have backup big man duties. And finally, Anthony Bennett will look to revive his career in his home country.
The Raptors go as Kyle Lowry does – he’s the leading train. Thus, his weight loss and dominance in preseason could be a huge factor. Lowry fell apart during the latter half of the season after rightfully earning a starting spot on the all-star team, plagued by back problems and other small ailments. He deserved the all-star selection in 2014 as well, which was a slot given to DeMar DeRozan. But the team definitely depends on Lowry for their offense and his defense is excellent too when focused.
For proof, consider the extended time DeRozan missed last season. He missed 21 games in the row from the end of November to the middle of January. The keen observers will note this also overlaps with their most successful part of the season: November and December. During this time period, their offensive rating was 114.7 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Clippers lead the league with a 112.4 rating. DeRozan was their leading scoring at 20.1 points per game, commanding a large portion of their field goals, yet the team actually improved on offense without him. The only issue the Raptors had with his absence was their defense, oddly enough, but even the most vocal DeRozan fan will admit he is not a key defensive player and that stat was probably a fluke[10.Plus, it’s more likely DeRozan is having an effect on a team’s offense than defense given his role.].
Using some finer grained analysis with the NBAWOWY.com tool, you can look at how the team performs with Lowry on the court versus DeRozan. To control for bench units and other factors, Amir Johnson’s presence is held constant. The results are in the table below. With both players on the court, the results are predictably pretty good; the team outscores its opponents and scores pretty efficient. However, the Raptors perform significantly better with just Kyle Lowry on the court, and they had a horrific offensive rating when DeRozan is on the court without Lowry[11.The results were similar if you didn’t hold Amir Johnson constant, for those wondering.]. The numbers are so extreme it’s tough to argue it’s all meaningless noise.
Table: with/without ratings, 2014 and 2015 (source: NBAWOWY.com)
|With Amir Johnson
DeRozan will resume his duties in the starting lineup, but DeMarre Carroll’s addition is substantial. He fills the niche of 3/D role player, guarding the tough matchups for Toronto’s scorers. In fact, many of Toronto’s new additions are defense-first players, so the team could improve substantially. But the issue is that the starting frontcourt, Patrick Patterson and Valanciunas, most likely, is one of the weakest in the league at that end of the court. Patterson is the typical stretch four who shoots like a guard and defends like he’s trapped in one’s body too. He struggles on the glass and in blocking shots. Jonas, conversely, is an interior player through and through, and had some decent rim protection stats but defends poorly when away from the basket. Overall, he’s a disappointment on defense.
If the Raptors want to inject some “instant defense,” there’s always Biyombo, but a more interesting option is how they use James Johnson now. He can function as the backup small forward, but he’s also useful as a power forward and should be a better option than Luis Scola in most cases. Concurrently, Toronto’s backup point guard option will change from Lou Williams/Vasquez to Cory Joseph – they could be a lot better.
DeRozan’s high-scoring game relies on midrange jumpers, of course, but it’s worth noting how low his accuracy is there. The analytics-midrange silent war is overstated, but there’s no reason a healthy offense should rely on these shots when the results are so poor. It’s rare that a great offense has a midrange shooter chucking at such a high volume. Excuses can’t be made for the shot clock either because he’s not always bailing out Toronto taking a shot no one else can create. He had the highest proportion of contested pull-up midrange shots with at least five seconds on the shot clock, which is ridiculous decision making for someone on such a good offense. At least DeRozan is great at getting to the line, which saves his overall efficiency numbers from being atrocious.
Table: lowest midrange FG%, min. 500 FGA (source: stats.NBA.com)
|Team off. rank
Kyle Lowry has historically gotten injured regularly, but if he’s in better shape Toronto will reap the benefits and possibly eclipse 50 wins for the first time in franchise history. The team lives and dies with Lowry, not DeRozan – that shouldn’t be a surprise because DeRozan does little else but shoot often and he’s not even a great shooter. He’s athletic, and he can hit some tough shots, but you don’t get extra points for difficulty. With a truckload of defensive role players coming to Toronto, the team will be a little different but all they care about is how they do in the playoffs. Perhaps this season is the one they reach the second round.
PBP-Metric[6. This is the initial version of my own metric, which uses a full range of stats from 15 seasons collected from play-by-play logs and tested extensively to avoid overfitting.]: 47.6
Nick‘s[7. For a short description, the predictions use regression models and neural networks to apply various stats like BPM, RAPM, and Win Shares to 10,000 simulations of the season game-by-game to select the “best” result.]: 52
Nathan Walker: 48