TORONTO — If the Raptors are looking for a new motto to replace We The North, here is a suggestion that has the benefit of also being grammatically challenged: Yes It Is Early But.
As in, yes it is early but the Raptors have the best record in the National Basketball Association. With mighty Golden State losing at home on Thursday night, Toronto is the last of the one-loss teams.
As in, yes it is early but Kyle Lowry is leading the NBA in assists. Remember when he arrived to training camp and everyone wondered if his obvious displeasure over the DeMar DeRozan trade would translate into poor play? Instead, he is channelling his anger in a way that would make Emperor Palpatine proud.
As in, yes it is early but the Raptors are giving Kawhi Leonard every bit of a sales pitch with the things they can control: They are 8-0 with him in the lineup and 3-1 without him, all of those games coming on the road. OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet have also missed multiple games, but the wins have kept piling up.
Just like the new motto says, it is early. So early. The Raptors have played less than 15 per cent of their schedule, and the NBA has become a league where the best teams spend much of the early part of the season working out the kinks before getting serious about winning sometime after Christmas. More relevant to fans of the Toronto franchise is its own recent history, when the team has looked great in every month that is not May, when it counts the most. Last year’s edition looked like an entirely different team as late as March, but the defence dropped off down the stretch, which turned out to be a very accurate ominous portent, as ominous portents go. One could forgive Raptors fans if they were a tad hesitant to read too much significance into the first 12 games of a season. One minute you are reading all these stories about how the Raptors have reinvented themselves and then LeBron James comes along in the playoffs and casually rips out the team’s heart again. At least that particular scenario seems very unlikely to repeat itself again.
But with all of those caveats noted and filed, my word what a start to the season the Raptors have had. For several seasons prior to this one, the team had prized continuity as one of its greatest strengths. After team president Masai Ujiri blew all that up with the firing of coach Dwane Casey and the DeRozan trade, it was fair to wonder how much that continuity would be missed.
And the answer is, apparently not much at all. Leonard and Danny Green have wasted no time getting comfortable in Raptors red, and Nick Nurse, the former assistant and first-time NBA head coach, seems the farthest thing from overwhelmed by the job.
The early returns are a team that has been comically good. The Raptors are again in the top ten in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating, which was a hallmark of the late Casey years. A significant difference this season is that it is Toronto’s starting five that has been particularly effective, where in past years a good chunk of their statistical excellence came from a deep bench that beat up on other bench units. This year, as measured by net rating per 100 possessions, the Raptors’ have five of the eight most effective players in the NBA. Four of them, Lowry, Green, Leonard, and Pascal Siakam, are regular starters, while the fifth, Serge Ibaka, has shared starting duties with Jonas Valanciunas. The members of Toronto’s most common starting five-man unit — Lowry, Leonard, Green, Ibaka and Siakam — are also each, individually, among the top-ten players in the NBA as measured by plus-minus: points for and against when the player is on the floor. One more nerdy stat: The Raptors have three of the top 20 players in the league as measured by PER, or player efficiency rating: Lowry, Valanciunas and Leonard. Only two teams, Golden State and Portland, have as many as two players with a top-20 PER. If Ibaka’s PER inches up a tick or two, the Raptors would have four.
It was assumed that the additions of Leonard and Green would transform the Raptors significantly, so there is nothing too surprising there, except for the fact that it has happened so quickly. There was every reason to believe that Toronto would have been one of those teams that wouldn’t round into form until the second half of the season.
But what has been utterly unexpected is the degree to which Nurse has gotten more out of the guys who were here before he took over. Siakam has made a leap or two, literally and figuratively, and the coach’s decision to move Ibaka to the centre position, where he now splits duties with Valanciuanas, has turned that spot on the floor into a huge advantage for the Raptors. The two are combining for 31 points and 15 rebounds a game; the team’s centres were averaging 19 and 13 per game last season. And because they don’t share the floor, the team has more room for its endless supply of versatile wing players.
The rough patch will come, and how this team reacts to adversity is one of the few things it hasn’t had to show yet. Starting 11-1 will do that.
Yes it is early but it has all gone alarmingly well.
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