NBA Daily: The Toronto Raptors Are Less Star-Dependent


The Toronto Raptors are a team haunted in recent playoff history by stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan taking too much on themselves. As the Raptors have emerged as the East’s top team this season, the biggest change has been the rise of playmakers who have reduced the creative burden for Toronto’s leaders. With nearly a full-season sample to judge, the emergence of reserve point guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright is real, and it makes the Raptors a terrifying opponent with the playoffs iminent.

“It’s a luxury, believe me, when you’ve got DeMar, Kyle, Fred VanVleet — or Delon out there with those three — then you basically have three point guards out there in those situations,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey at today’s media availability ahead of a visit from the Atlanta Hawks.

Last season, the Raptors posted its worst off-court net rating with Lowry on the bench (+0.7). By contrast, Toronto was a team-high +8.3 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan’s 1336 minutes on the bench. This season, struggles with Lowry out of the game have virtually disappeared. The Raptors are +10 when Lowry sits and +11.4 when DeRozan is out.

VanVleet is averaging 8.2 points and 3.1 assists while Wright averages eight points and 2.8 assists. But a look at lineup data brings home just how positive VanVleet’s on-court impact has been. Among two-man combinations, the Raptors outscore opponents by a healthy 6.2 per 100 in the 1720 minutes DeRozan and Lowry have shared the court. What’s really intriguing is that, among two-man units that have shared at least 500 minutes, four of the top five feature VanVleet. Those units range in net rating from +13.8 (VanVleet and C.J. Miles, 571 minutes) to +19 (VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl, 752 minutes).

That’s a stunning level of support for Lowry, which has allowed him to decrease minutes and usage this season as detailed by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett. VanVleet hinted at this potential last season, posting a team-best +12.1 net rating in a limited 294-minute sample. This season, Casey turned VanVleet loose to see if that success would hold up under the strain of rotation minutes. The result? The Raptors outscore opponents by 14.9 per 100 in VanVleet’s 1137 minutes this season, easily a rotation-best.

“I’ve never experienced it at this rate and at this level where you’re playing pretty much every other day,” VanVleet told media after today’s shoot-around. “So that’s a different level of intensity and focus and just mental strength and physical strength where you have to bring it every single day and every night against every team.”

VanVleet also hinted that there’s a competition to keep Toronto’s starters on the bench in fourth quarters this season.

“Most of us are still trying to make a name for ourselves,” said VanVleet of the Raptors’ abundance of young contributors. “Give credit to our starters, too. They come out and handle their business most of the time and we rely on them to do that. If not, we’ll probably take all their minutes and they won’t get to play the fourth quarter.”

Joining VanVleet among Raptors with a net rating above +10 with at least 1000 minutes are rookie small forward OG Anunoby (+11.5 in 1228 minutes) and second-year center Poeltl (+10.5 in 1138 minutes). The list of young players having incredibly-efficient seasons keeps going. The Raptors are +9.3 per 100 in second-year power forward Pascal Siakam’s 1234 minutes and +9 in Wright’s 1035 minutes. All of these young players are posting a better net rating than Toronto’s veterans, who range from Serge Ibaka’s +7.9 in 1573 minutes to Jonas Valanciunas, who is +6.6 in 1285 minutes.

This indicates the Raptors may be the deepest team in the NBA and have a weapon that wasn’t present during previous postseason struggles. The Raptors already outclass every other team in the East with a +8.6 point differential that is double the second-best Celtics (+4.3), as Dowsett noted. But now Toronto has the kind of quality depth that will make the team a nightmare for any opponent once the playoffs start.

“We’re not going to be happy with a 50-win season, 60-win season,” said VanVleet. “It doesn’t really mean that much in the grand scheme of things of what we’re trying to accomplish. Reflecting is for the summer time. Right now we’re locked in and trying to take care of business the last 20 games.”

While VanVleet and Wright have made life easier for Lowry, Casey said DeRozan’s emergence as a more versatile player has made everyone better.

“In the past he’s probably forced some tough shots, thinking that he had to score to help us win,” said Casey. “Now I think he’s more relaxed, understanding he’s just as valuable to us as a passer, as a semi-point guard. People laughed at me last year when I said DeMar is going to be our quasi-point guard this year, and that’s exactly what we need him to be to win.”

With the massive jump in point guard depth and DeRozan averaging a career-best 5.2 assists while matching his lowest turnover average of the last five seasons, the Raptors are seventh in the NBA with 23.6 assists per game. Last year Toronto was dead-last with just 18.5. Casey said that DeRozan’s metamorphosis has been a huge part of the team’s hot season.

“He’s embraced that mentality, which has helped us a lot,” said Casey. “He sees the whole floor and he can make things happen when teams try to blitz us. Consequently, they haven’t blitzed him as much because he’s picking teams apart and he’s making good decisions out of the double team.

“If a team’s blitzing Kyle, we get it out of his hands some and make Kyle a shooter and let DeMar handle and read those situations.”

After elimination at the hands of the Cavaliers in six games during the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals and via a four-game sweep in last year’s second round, something needed to change for the Raptors. Casey has succeeded in transforming his team from a squad that was overly star-dependent to a team that shares the ball like never before.

Casey also deserves a ton of credit for developing the plethora of young talent that has been available because of great personnel decisions by GM Masai Uriji. With the Cavaliers continuing to struggle, even after a major makeover ahead of the trade deadline, this could be the year the Raptors put it all together and become the East’s representative in the NBA Finals.