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The Raptors Weren’t Supposed To Be This Good This Year

There was a thought, after a certain someone decided to head west, that the defending NBA champs would take a considerable step back — perhaps not to where they would miss the playoffs entirely, but likely to second-tier status at best, if not the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

That thought seems silly in hindsight. The Toronto Raptors, in the midst of a franchise-best 15-game winning streak, are about to head into the All-Star Break with roughly the same record (40-14) they had this time last year (43-16), when superstar Kawhi Leonard was on the team. And while the Milwaukee Bucks have largely run away from everyone for the East’s top seed, Toronto sits just two games back in the loss column of the Lakers for the NBA’s second-best mark.

It seems that even without Kawhi, Toronto still possesses the heart of a champion. And this is a team that no one in their right mind would want to match up with come the postseason.

At FiveThirtyEight, we use Elo ratings to gauge the strength and weakness of NBA teams each season, with those ratings based on our RAPTOR metric for each player on each team. An expansion team might begin with a 1300 rating. An average team would clock in at about 1500 or so. A title contender would net a rating of 1700 or better, while an all-time great club might touch the 1800 mark.

By the end of last season, the Raptors fell within the latter designation, finishing with an Elo of 1804, the projected equivalent of a 67-win team. After losing Leonard and guard Danny Green in free agency, though, that number unsurprisingly fell back to earth, down to a good-but-not-great 1571 by the end of preseason — likely a 47-win club or so. Toronto, according to our projection model, lost about 20 games over the summer between departing talent and regression from returning players. So it’s nothing short of remarkable that the Raptors have essentially managed to hold steady with last year’s pace.

The thing that hardly makes sense when looking under Toronto’s hood is how much the team has won despite virtually everyone being banged up for a considerable chunk of time this year. Of the team’s top seven rotation players, six — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell — have missed at least 10 games this season. (Only OG Anunoby, who missed last year’s playoffs, has largely avoided the injury bug.) The Raptors are among the league leaders in games missed due to injury yet somehow currently hold the No. 2 seed in the East.

So how have they done it? In a way, watching Toronto play short-handed this season calls to mind the Pacers of last season, because of how much grit that Indiana club had to show from one night to the next without Victor Oladipo. The Pacers defended as if every single possession might define their season, and these Raptors often embody the exact same sort of effort on D.

They fly around on that end of the floor, leading the NBA in deflections and blocking the most 3-point attempts in the league, per data from Second Spectrum. And while the latter might suggest that the Raptors play suffocating defense along the perimeter, that’s not exactly the case. Toronto has actually surrendered a higher share of attempts from three than any other team in the league. Yet opposing clubs have hit just 34 percent from deep against the Raps — second-worst in the NBA — an indication that Toronto has either gotten lucky or, more likely, has deciphered which shooters it can live with leaving open.1 When foes put the ball on the deck to go toward the rim, the Raptors are fantastic at rotating over to help, and they rank second in defensive efficiency in help scenarios. These plays often end with Lowry establishing position and taking a charge, especially in clutch moments.

The ultimate result of that effort: Toronto ranks second in overall defensive efficiency and manufactures a whopping 20 points per game off opponent turnovers — a massive number considering that offense might be hard to come by some nights with all the inconsistency in the lineup.

We saw last postseason that coach Nick Nurse isn’t afraid to mix things up defensively, even if it means playing backyard basketball occasionally on the biggest stage. So it’s not shocking that the Raptors have used a zone defense more frequently than most teams, and that Toronto has fared well — allowing just 87.6 points per 100 chances2 — when it goes that route.

But on some level, what sets this team apart is its balance. Similar to last season, when the Raptors went 17-5 in the regular-season games Leonard sat out, the Toronto offense has shown an ability to stay on track without certain players on the floor.

Siakam’s efficiency has understandably fallen some with the increased volume he’s had to carry as a No. 1 scoring option — especially as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and a pull-up jump shooter.3 But between his counting stats and his two-way ability, he’s a more-than-deserving starter in this weekend’s All-Star Game. When he hasn’t been able to play, guys like Lowry and Ibaka, who is in the midst of perhaps the best season of his career, have filled the void.

Anunoby, coming off a career-high 25 points earlier in the week, has bounced back from the time he missed last year to essentially replace Green’s production. And the Raptors, who develop young talent like sharks develop new teeth, seem to have found something good in a couple of players. Terence Davis is almost lapping all NBA rookies in our RAPTOR metric, and forward Chris Boucher already has one of the 10 best per-minute shot-block rates in the league.

At times, because of the circumstances — no consistently healthy bodies, no Kawhi and no one truly expecting them to repeat as NBA champions — it almost feels like the Raptors are playing with house money. Zone defenses aside, Nurse sometimes coaches that way, too. So far, he’s requested an NBA-high 30 coach’s challenges — six more than the next-closest coach, per ESPN Stats & Information Group. After losing each of his first six challenges of the season, Nurse has since won 14 of his last 24, a 58 percent mark that would rank near the top of the league.

If there’s a given with this team, it’s that the Raptors almost never lose games to teams they’re not supposed to. They own a ridiculous 31-2 mark against sub-.500 clubs this season. Only the league-best Bucks have a better record against weak competition.

But the flip side of that dynamic is that Toronto is one of just three current top-five seeds — the Jazz and the on-again, off-again Sixers being the others — that own a losing record against teams with .500 records or better. For what it’s worth, our model’s view of the Raptors hasn’t changed significantly over the course of the season. It had them with a 7 percent probability of reaching the Finals and a 2 percent chance to win it all during preseason, and it now gives Toronto 9 percent odds to make the Finals and a 2 percent chance to repeat as champions.

Oddly enough, Toronto might be where it was before last year in the eyes of fans: No matter how successful the club is during the regular season, some will feel they can’t trust the Raptors come playoff time. Obviously, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are making a good case for invincibility in the East. But given how dominant the defending champs have been recently, and how they’ve accomplished it despite never being fully healthy, it would seem foolish to assume what Toronto isn’t capable of anymore. After all, the Raptors have the heart of a champion.

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  1. The Bucks, who own the top-ranked defense in the league, use a similar strategy.

  2. Per Second Spectrum.

  3. Before the season, we pointed out that Siakam was far more comfortable from the corners than he was from above the break when shooting threes. But to his credit, he’s been respectable, if not solid, from above the break this season.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.