The Toronto Raptors face an important question this season: Can the evolution of DeMar DeRozan and “Skinny Kyle Lowry” launch the team to a deep postseason run?
The lone NBA team located outside of the United States has made the playoffs out East in consecutive years behind 48 and 49-win seasons, led by their backcourt duo of DeRozan and Lowry. However, Toronto has been kicked out of the postseason in the first round both years.
In 2014, as the third seed, the Raptors lost in a closely-contested series with the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, who were led by a mishmash of veterans such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Ultimately, the Raptors lost Game 7 by a single point. Then, in 2015, Toronto got swept as the fourth-seed by the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards (who were also led by Paul Pierce), including a series-sealing 125-94 blowout. While that is better than being the Philadelphia 76ers or the Los Angeles Lakers at the moment, being stuck as a good team that can’t advance deep in the playoffs creates somewhat of a predicament and isn’t an ideal position to be in.
The Raptors are currently in what is known as “NBA purgatory,” which is a situation where a team isn’t good enough to truly contend for a championship and isn’t bad enough to rebuild in the draft with top lottery picks. A contender is generally considered to be a team that has enough talent to potentially beat any team in a seven-game playoff series and only needs a few things to tip in their favor to do so. There are only a handful of these teams every year.
The Phoenix Suns are a good example of a team that has been in NBA purgatory. The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since Steve Nash was on the team and Alvin Gentry was the head coach. Since 2010, the Suns have teetered between rebuilding and being competitive for a playoff berth, but were never bad enough to nab a high draft pick. The Raptors are in a slightly different, but equally dangerous position. As a playoff team they won’t receive a top draft pick and, while their your core of players is getting playoff experience, they arguably have hit their peak as currently constructed.
Can that change with the evolution of their backcourt duo that we’ve seen thus far this season? Currently, the Raptors are 23-15, clumped with all the other East teams competing for a playoff spot (as of this writing, nine teams are within seven games of first place).
The first thing you notice about Lowry this season is how much weight he lost. In fact, he’s almost unrecognizable. He wasn’t extremely heavy before, but at his listed height of only 6’0, he seemed relatively large. That is not the case anymore. Lowry said during the offseason that he played less pick-up and lifted weights less and focused more on cardio and conditioning in the hope of being prepared “for 82 games and a long playoff run.”
With the new and improved Lowry, the Raptors might be able to get there. He’s cooled off a bit as the season has gone on, but the stats still show his improved production. The 29-year-old upped his points per game from 17.8 to 20.6 with about one more minute played per game on average. His overall efficiency didn’t take a hit with his increase in shots as his field goal percentage went from 41.2 percent to 41.4 percent. The biggest improvement is in his three-point accuracy, which jumped from 33.8 percent last year to 37.5 percent so far this season. While this jump in three-point percentage may not seem like a big deal, it is the difference between being considered a non-threat from distance to being comfortably above league-average, which forces opposing defenses to zone in on this aspect of Lowry’s game.
He’s put in the work to help his team this offseason and the results are paying off so far this season.
DeRozan, three years younger than his backcourt counterpart, picked up his game when Lowry cooled off from his hot start. In December, DeRozan averaged 25 points per game, more than the 23 points he’s been averaging on the season, or the 20.1 points he averaged last year.
A lot of his production is coming off of drives. According to NBA.com, DeRozan is second in the league in drives per game (11.8), behind only Reggie Jackson (12.0) of the Detroit Pistons. To add some context to this, Russell Westbrook is seventh (10.6), James Harden is 11th (9.6) and his teammate Kyle Lowry is 14th (9.2). DeRozan’s field goal percentage of 52 percent on these drives is the best out of these “high-volume drivers” with the exception of Rajon Rondo’s 54.7 percent on 10.2 drives per game. DeRozan gets fouled the third-most (17.2 percent of the time) when he drives to the hoop among this category of players, falling close behind Russell Westbrook’s 19 percent foul-rate and Harden’s ridiculous 23.8 percent.
Both Lowry and DeRozan are likely heading for their second All-Star game in February that will actually be hosted in Toronto. In the second returns for All-Star voting, Lowry came in third and DeRozan in sixth among East guards, however, they will likely be added to the roster by the coaches’ vote.
Friday’s nine-point victory over the Washington Wizards was a demonstration of why these two players need to make the All-Star team and also illustrated the evolution they have undergone. DeRozan had a season-high 35 points as well as eight rebounds, while Lowry had 21 points, along with 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals.
Where does the evolution of the Raptors’ two leaders, combined with their standing in the Eastern Conference put them come playoff time?
With their defensive stopper and big-time offseason acquisition, DeMarre Carroll, out for six-to-eight weeks due to an arthroscopic procedure on his knee, the Raptors could falter in the standings. By the end of the season, they may end up with home-court advantage, but that hasn’t necessarily helped them in the past as they hosted both the first round series they lost the last two seasons.
Fortunately, with the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers, it isn’t a stretch to say this new and improved Raptors backcourt (and a healthy Carroll come playoffs) can beat any team in the East in a seven-game series. The question is, will they? The answer is, arguably yes. Depending on injuries to other teams and matchups, they may even get to the Conference finals, but the chances they beat out the Cavs and get to the NBA Finals are depressingly minuscule, unfortunately for Raptor fans.
The Raptors have a good, young core. However, if they falter in the playoffs again, Toronto’s management may have no choice but to trade the oldest member of their core (Lowry, age 29) and build around Jonas Valanciunas (23) and re-sign DeRozan (26) at the max, if he opts out of his player option at the end of the season.
The Raptors find themselves in a tough position, but with the significant improvements of both Lowry and DeRozan, there is a chance they could find more success in the 2016 playoffs than they have in past postseasons.
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