James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James. Their respective teams have garnered the majority of the media attention for the NBA this season and for good reason. Harden and Curry’s teams are the top two seeds in the West while Irving’s Celtics and James’ Cavs are the second and fourth respectively. These players are among the ten best basketball players in the world today. But the team that has been lurking in the background, quietly earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference, has been the Toronto Raptors. With DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry playing some of the best basketball of their careers, the team from “The 6” has climbed past the Celtics and Cavs and inserted themselves as serious title contenders.
This isn’t the first time in the playoff rodeo for the Raptors, having earned a bid in the tournament in each of the last five years. In the 2016 season, they even went to the Eastern Conference Finals, before being defeated in six games to the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers. But their success has been uneven, getting swept in 2015 and 2017 while appearing to be a squad that will consistently get to the precipice of contention but never fully enter the conversation of a true NBA Finals competitor.
The consistent success the Raptors have seen this season starts with the evolution of their two superstars, DeRozan and Lowry. While not household names like James or Curry, the Raptors’ backcourt tandem have taken their talents to another level. DeRozan is having the best true shooting percentage season of his career while also boasting a reduced usage rate and by far the best assist percentage in his career. The four-time All-Star looks as comfortable as ever as a playmaker.
Lowry, although not having the career-defining year that DeRozan is, has similar stats with just about all of his numbers near career-highs. The duo has looked more focused and defense-oriented, on their way to leading their team to 6th in the league in points allowed per game. There offense hasn’t suffered for it either, 6th in the league in assists and 3rd in scoring. They’re also first in the East in scoring, only behind the Western Conference’s Warriors and Rockets.
The Raptors’’ success is not limited to their two best players, as their second-tier talent in the starting lineup has also played a large part in their dominance this season. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka round out a solid, scoring-oriented frontcourt for Toronto, perfectly complimenting their superstar backcourt. Valanciunas gives the Raptors quality scoring down low and as a pick and roll outlet, while also providing solid rebounding and interior defensive ability. Ibaka’s growth from his days in Oklahoma City to now may have plateaued but his complimentary presence fits well in a Toronto team with a lot of mouths to feed. His efficient scoring and three point threat adds balance between the outside shooting of the backcourt and inside scoring of Valanciunas. He’s also no slouch on defense, second on the team in rebounding and best in terms of blocking shots.
The final part of the Toronto starting five has been the biggest surprise, the 20-year-old rookie OG Anunoby from Indiana. Just the 23rd player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft, Anunoby has played a vital role on a team that has historically lacked a Small Forward with defensive presence and complimentary scoring ability. The Indiana product averages just under six points a night but has seen his production go up as the weeks have progressed in the NBA season, scoring 21 to help lead Toronto over the Orlando Magic on March 8. While his numbers don’t stand out, Anunoby doesn’t need a lot of touches to impact the game, using his defensive ability and athleticism to act as a stopper at the three spot while also developing a more consistent role on offense.
Beyond their starting five, the bench and rotational players have important roles to play in keeping Toronto in games when DeRozan, Lowry and the rest come off the court. In the back court, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet offer playmaking ability that might make them starters on other teams. While VanVleet is adept at knocking down three pointers, Wright does a good job of getting to the basket and creating his own shot.
On the wing, Norman Powell and C.J. Miles offer two-way ability that allows the Raptors’ bench to keep offensive opportunities for their opponent scarce while being able to knock down spot-up threes. The pair have combined to average just under 16 points a game and have stepped in to start a total of 21 games, exemplifying their ability to perform in the starting lineup when needed.
Rounding out the rotation, the Raptors use a heavy dose of Center Jakob Poeltl and Power Forward Pascal Siakam to maintain a strong defensive presence on the interior. Siakam is another late-first round selection who has blossomed into a contributor for the Raptors, the 27th pick in the 2016 draft, hailing from New Mexico State. While his rookie year was solid if unspectacular, Siakam has seen a bigger role on the team this year, playing 20 minutes a night while averaging seven points, 4.5 rebounds and two assists. His similar defensive skillset to Ibaka has allowed the Raptors’ bench to let Siakam lead their frontcourt defense while allowing other players larger roles on offense.
One of those other players has been Jakob Poeltl, a tenacious rebounder and rim protector who’s been effective on the around-the-rim opportunities he’s had. Poeltl is tops on the team, shooting 65.5% from the field. He’s also averaged almost five rebounds and more than one block in the 18 minutes per game he plays.
Toronto’s success all season has relied upon selfless playmaking, efficient scoring and lockdown defense on the wings and down low. The Raptors combination of starting five flair and depth tenacity has made them a worthy one seed in the East and a potentially tough out for the talented Celtics and top-heavy Cavaliers. If the Raptors can remain the most healthy team in the East throughout the tournament, they have a legit chance to be in the Finals come June.