Friday, 27 December 2013

Assessing Toronto's discomforting division lead

Image courtesy of Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press.
"We have far more focus on the road than we do at home, and that is a concern," said Dwane Casey, immediately after the Raptors' recent overtime collapse at home to Charlotte.

That buzzer-beating defeat dropped Toronto to 9-14, with a subpar .333 winning percentage at the Air Canada Centre. Although not welcomed by the team's head coach, this steady mediocrity appeared to have fit neatly with GM Masai Ujiri's desire to overhaul the roster and start afresh.

The slip in the standings, however, preceded a pair of plucky victories on a three-game Southwestern swing. An overtime triumph in Dallas combined with blotting Oklahoma City's 13-0 home record copy book allowed the team to "ascend" to the apex of the historically awful Atlantic Division. These performances formed part of a 5-3 stretch since December 8, following the decision to ship costly wingman Rudy Gay to Sacramento for an assortment of expiring contracts and basketball debris (Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, and Chuck Hayes).

At first glance, Ujiri's two-pronged reset -- by removing the cap-clogging deals and offensive inefficiencies of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay -- signalled a clear intent to reshape the rotation and prioritise ping-pong balls. Yet the exodus of Gay's 18.6 FGA per game has re-allocated a high volume of used-possessions, with early signs of success. Amir Johnson, for example, has relished Rudy's absence by converting 67.1% of his post-trade field goal attempts and generating a +12.1 per 100 possessions. Meanwhile second-year guard Terrence Ross, the immediate candidate to claim the departed Gay's minutes, has drilled 44.2% of his long range attempts en route to 13.2 points per outing.

Despite a losing record and being beneath the expected Pythagorean win-loss ratio of 13-13, Toronto's overall point differential sits at just -4. This has been padded handsomely by a +21 stretch over the eight games since the seven-player transaction, per stats. Symbolic of the mismatched collection of roster-fillers -- and the team's not-so-subtle intention to continue to trade its veteran players -- DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have logged an average of 38 and 37 minutes per game, respectively, in this window.

The Raptors' willingness to move the remaining vestiges of the Bryan Colangelo era has been in the public forum since (at least) November 1, when's Marc Stein detailed that "Anyone but [Jonas] Valanciunas," is available in trade conversations. The "anyone but" list likely now includes the aforementioned Amir Johnson, whose continued stellar play has seen his value in league circles rise incrementally. Nevertheless, the front office's predetermined philosophical outlook and the team's unexpected status as division leaders has created an intriguing juxtaposition. If the postseason were to begin tomorrow, Toronto would be destined for a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the first-round, something the city has not been treated to since 2007.

Thus, the organisation is left in somewhat of a precarious position. The Atlantic Division, with an aggregate record of 49-70 and a point differential of -577 on the season, may just be atrocious enough that the Raptors could reshuffle their pieces and still earn a playoff berth. Moving Gay has done nothing but make the team better as a whole, and while shipping DeRozan and/or Lowry for future assets may move the needle in the lottery direction, there are no guarantees that it wholly eliminates the team from postseason contention. With Rajon Rondo yet to register a minute of playing time for the Celtics in 2013-14, the Nets' Brook Lopez recently ruled out for the entire season with a broken foot, Philadelphia having failed to win a game in regulation after November 8, and the Knicks playing persistently repugnant basketball, Toronto is situated atop the division standings by near-default. There doesn't appear to be another non-Raptors transaction or organisational shake-up capable of altering the landscape of the Atlantic on the horizon, either.

The Raptors place 15th in the league for +/- per 100 possessions through 26 games at -0.2, and are on the fringes of the NBA's top ten for their defense. Dwane Casey's squad have a Defensive Rating of 101.9, tied with Houston for 10th spot in the rankings. The primary problems for this team, though, emanate from the other side of the ball. So long as DeMar DeRozan continues to source 32.2% of his scoring from the midrange area with a usage rate of 26.6%, the team will carry a limited offensive ceiling. DeRozan is also firing an average of 3.5 trebles per contest, while only connecting on 31.9% of his deep attempts. To further the Raptors' identity quandary, the 6"7 slasher has played well enough to help sustain the team's level of competitiveness, but is perhaps not performing to the extent that his value is skyrocketing in the minds of opposing scouts.

Toronto have thus far confronted the sixth-toughest basketball calendar, with a Strength of Schedule (SOS) mark of .520, according to ESPN's Hollinger statistics. In the context of their winning aspirations, the Raptors begin a home-and-home matchup with New York tonight, while preparing for road tussles with Chicago, Miami, and Indiana in the next ten days.

As the trade deadline approaches and the Raptors push through a raft of Eastern Conference bouts, one can only hope that the black clouds will be removed from above the listless play of the Atlantic Division outfits.

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