The Toronto Raptors’ championship last summer was unique in NBA title history. First-time NBA champs are rare anyway — Toronto became only the fourth of the 2000s, joining the Cavs in 2016, the Mavericks in 2011 and the Heat in 2006 — but it’s even more rare for a team to acquire a new best player (in Toronto’s case, Kawhi Leonard) and instantly ride him to the title. Toss in the many Golden State Warrior injuries that kept the two-time defending champs from ever closing the gap with Toronto in the finals, and the Raptors were in the right place to win at the right time. It was a perfect example of what can sometimes happen in sports when talent and preparation meet opportunity.
But even as the Raptors were celebrating at the victory parade in downtown Toronto, there was a sense that the party would be short-lived. Though Leonard gave the Raptors a courtesy free-agency meeting a few weeks later, the team reportedly never felt like he was serious about returning. (In truth, Leonard had already begun hatching a plan to recruit Paul George as his running mate, provided the L.A. Clippers could go get him in a trade.) And when Leonard did indeed exit, the Raptors became yesterday’s news overnight — still solid, perhaps, but once again relegated down the list of contenders by several tiers. So much for defending that title.
A funny thing has happened early this season, though: The Raptors are actually thriving without Leonard. With a record of 10-4, they’re only a game-and-a-half back of the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks, and they have the fourth-best net efficiency of any team in the league. (This is despite missing Kyle Lowry with a thumb injury since early November.) Were we all too quick to dismiss Toronto’s championship as a mere one-off, a historical anomaly not to be repeated?
Certainly, the Raptors have lost some of their offensive firepower without Leonard. The team averaged 115.6 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor last regular season; this year, the Raptors have averaged no better than 113.4 points per possession with any Toronto regular on the floor.1 One of Leonard’s greatest offensive talents — like Michael Jordan before him — is the ability to create a bunch of shots (for himself and others) without turning the ball over too much. That doesn’t sound like it’s very hard to do, but in 2018-19, Leonard had one of just 31 qualified seasons since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger in which a player posted a usage rate over 30 percent, an assist rate over 15 percent and a turnover rate under 10 percent.2 Without Leonard there to help manage those possessions and generate good scoring chances, the Raptors’ turnover rate has gone from 12.4 percent to 14.1 percent, to go with a lower rate of drawing fouls and a few other missing Kawhi specialties.3
Also without Leonard, coach Nick Nurse has had to shuffle around responsibilities among a mostly existing core of players — no team aside from Denver has more roster continuity between 2018-19 and 2019-20 than the Raptors, despite losing their biggest star. Kawhi had led the 2018-19 Raptors in usage rate with a play share of 30.3 percent, while no other Raptor was above 23 percent after Jonas Valančiūnas was dealt to the Grizzlies in February. This year, by contrast, no Raptor is above 30 percent usage, and the scoring burden has been redistributed such that three players (Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka) each now carry a usage above 23 percent.
As a whole, Toronto has dipped from its fifth-ranked perch on offense a year ago. But it still ranks eighth in efficiency this season, despite having to adjust to Leonard’s absence. One of the factors offsetting Kawhi’s irreplaceable shot-creating skills has been a change in shot selection. Leonard is one of the league’s foremost midrange artists, taking roughly half of his shots from there over the past two seasons (according to data from CleaningTheGlass.com), and he’s so good at making them that it works for him as a sustainable strategy. But dealing with more mortal talents, the post-Kawhi Raptors have gone back to being one of the league’s most midrange-averse offenses, just like they were before Leonard arrived. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality metric, only three teams (the Bucks, Suns and Rockets) have had a higher expected value on their average shot this season than Toronto, up from 17th place last season. If you’re wondering how a team can lose a future Hall of Famer like Kawhi and somehow improve from an effective field-goal percentage of 54.3 last year to 54.6 this season, getting better shots is a big part.
The emergence of Siakam as a legitimate star is another. The versatile 25-year-old forward already had an intriguing set of potential career paths laid out in front of him, but his development as a major scorer has been a pleasant surprise for Toronto this year. Siakam’s 24.7 points per 36 minutes ranks 20th in the league among qualified players, with a usage rate (29.7 percent) approaching what Leonard had last year. That expanded role extends to other areas of the game as well: Siakam has a higher assist rate (with a lower turnover rate) and rebound rate, and an overall RAPTOR wins above replacement mark (1.6) that also ranks 19th in the NBA this year. Along with OG Anunoby and rookie Terence Davis, both of whom have low usage rates but are among the most efficient offensive players in the NBA, Siakam’s improvement has helped Toronto survive offensively without Leonard.
Perhaps even more remarkably, the Raptors have also weathered the loss of Kawhi without really missing a beat on defense. Leonard is known as one of the premier wing defenders in basketball, capable of shutting down any assignment when needed, so it’s surprising that Toronto has improved its shot defense (from an opposing effective field-goal percentage of 50.9 to 47.4) while blocking more shots and fouling less — and forcing basically as many turnovers — without Leonard. It’s been a total team effort, with six of the seven common regulars4 between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Raptors seeing their RAPTOR defensive rating either stay the same or substantially improve. (The only exception is 34-year-old center Marc Gasol, who is in the midst of a very down year.)
|Change in RAPTOR, ’18-19 to ’19-20|
Add in new rotation members such as Davis, Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Matt Thomas, who each have a positive RAPTOR rating (significantly so in the first three cases), and we can better see how the Raptors have been able to cover for the loss of maybe the best player in the league and emerge relatively unscathed, at least right now.
But will it work in the playoffs? Or are these Raptors destined to disappoint like the pre-Kawhi version was known for? Well, unlike that version, this edition is less reliant on its bench to win games — a factor known to dry up as rotations shorten in the playoffs. But Toronto is certainly a team that relies on a depth of contributions: Of the 11 Raptors who have played at least 15 percent of available minutes, eight carry an above-average RAPTOR rating. Yet, according to our long-term updating playoff talent ratings, Toronto’s best player (Lowry) ranks 12th overall — generally the caliber of player who ranks second-best on a championship team — and its second-best player (Siakam) ranks 58th — well outside the bounds of even the typical third-best player on a title team.
So in terms of star power, the Raptors aren’t what they were last year, and they definitely don’t fit the mold of a true championship contender. In fact, virtually all of the other top 10 teams in efficiency margin this season — except for perhaps the Mavericks and Suns — have more star power than Toronto does. Maybe that changes if Siakam and several others sustain their improvements deeper into the season, but for now, the Raptors are back to looking more like a very good regular-season team than a legitimate threat to repeat as champions.
But just the same, the members of the 2018-19 Raptors not named “Kawhi” — most of whom are back with Toronto this season — probably didn’t get enough credit for last year’s title. Leonard had one of the all-time great statistical postseasons, leading the Raps on an unforgettable championship run. But it wouldn’t have been possible without a supporting cast that is now proving it can sustain itself in the regular season even after Kawhi left town. We’ll have to see how far that group can take the franchise from here.
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