Tuesday, January 14, 2014

NBA Team of the Week: The Post-Rudy Gay Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are much improved since trading Rudy Gay and now their future is wide open—a potentially scary prospect.
Last night, the Toronto Raptors defeated the pathetic Milwaukee Bucks (hey, at leastthey have the Greek Freak, right?) 116-94. The win gave the Raptors their second three game winning streak in the past month and improved their record to 12-5 since trading small forward Rudy Gay on December 9. The Raptors are now 19-17 overall and are currently the number three seed in the embarrassing (I know, you've heard it before) Eastern Conference.

Much has already been made of the Raptors "adding by subtraction" once they got rid of Gay, his large contract, and his inefficient game. The numbers don't completely bear out the improvement the team has shown since Gay was traded. The Raps are shooting roughly the same percentage (right around 44.3%, slightly below league average) that they were with Gay and his bevy of long twos; their three point shooting is higher over the past 15 games at 38.5% (above league average) and they are trending toward a more "analytics friendly" increase in three point attempts per game. Their overall defense is right in the middle of the pack, but they are fourth in points allowed.

All of this points to a fairly mediocre team that is overachieving in a weak conference. But the absence of Gay has had a galvanizing effect on the team. Since Rudy's departure, The Raptors have scored wins over the Mavericks (at Dallas), the Thunder (in Oklahoma City) and the Pacers—all of whom are playoff teams. Their assist ratio, while still in the bottom half of the league, is showing a steady improvement, which means that more players are feeling involved; and that has only helped team chemistry.

In the past fifteen games, slightly overpaid shooting guard, DeMar DeRozan has averaged 20.7 points per game on 41.1% shooting (44.4% over the past five games), 5.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 78.2% from the free throw line. DeRozan is currently eighth in the league in free throw attempts per game, which is an encouraging sign for a developing shooting guard. His defense still has a ways to go, though, as the Raptors are noticeably better on defense when he is off the court. The team is allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions with DeRozan on the court and 103.7 with him off the court. He still doesn't space the floor and his defense needs work, but the improvements he has shown over the past month are promising. And, at only twenty-four years old, he is still increasing his value as a potential trade-bait for a team looking to add a young perimeter scorer

Meanwhile, Amir Johnson (still only 26 despite being an eight year NBA veteran!) is having his best season to date. He's averaging 11 points per game on 61% shooting, 7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. And on defense, he is limiting opponents to an elite 42.2% field goal percentage per game. His performance so far this year has cemented Johnson as a foundational piece moving forward; a hard-working big man who, with some further polishing, has the potential to fill the role that David West currently does for the Indiana Pacers.

Young, promising center Jonas Valanciunas, is not making the full leap forward that many were expecting this season. Most of Jonas' numbers are down across the board, but his rebounding is up and he is only allowing opponents to shoot 46.5% at the rim. That is not in the same category as top-flight defensive centers like Andrew Bogut (allowing 43.5% opponent FG) and Roy Hibbert (an insane 40.5%), but it is an encouraging place to be for a second year big man and a point that can be emphasized in the off-season.

Then, there is Kyle Lowry. Lowry's attitude issues have been much-maligned, but he seems to be firmly removed from his spot on the trading block. As Raptors Republic has already reported, since Gay's departure, Lowry's usage and assist percentages have both improved (18.7% of possession to 20.8% and 30% to 36.5%) and he currently has the best true shooting percentage of his career at 59.6TS%. He's only averaging 5.4 drives per game, per NBA Player Tracking, but as his usage increases that number should hopefully improve as well.

The second half of the Raptors season will certainly be interesting. As of right now, they have abandoned all hopes of scoring one of the prospects in the "loaded" 2014 Draft. However, this year's draft is slowly losing the overwhelming luster it had back in November, as scouts and pundits are starting to poke holes in prospects like Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart and Julius Randle; and rumors about Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon returning to school for a sophomore season are starting to swirl.

Toronto currently has the inside track on the three seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs. That means they'll get home court advantage for at least one series and a very good chance to make it to the second round. That kind of experience can only help a team with young players and assets; a team that is starting to gel and enjoy playing with each other. Lowry will be a free agent after the season. Depending on his performance in the second half of the season and potentially the playoffs do they try to re-sign him to an affordable deal? Do they try to pair DeRozan with future draft picks for a more efficient wing scorer or a higher draft pick this year? Do they roll the dice on promising "3 and D" rookie Terrence Ross' improvement next year?

These are all interesting questions for the people of Toronto to ponder over the next few months. The various roads the franchise can take from here might drive some fans mad. But the bottom line is that Raptors fans haven't had anything approaching this level of promise since 2001. That alone is something to be thankful for.

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