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Show Us What You Got, Raptors

In the past two seasons, January has been the month that solidified the league’s perception of the NBA’s lone Canadian franchise. With the team currently neck and neck with the Eastern elite, what will 2018 tell us about Toronto this time around?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We are in Year 3 of the Toronto Raptors leapfrogging their direct predecessor as The Best Raptors Team Ever. The rub here isn’t that the proclamations have been wrong, it’s that, at this point, we’re clutching at the narcissism of small differences. The rhythms of Toronto’s regular-season success have become as routine as a momentum-driven Kyle Lowry 3-pointer in transition or a measured DeMar DeRozan midrange pull-up out of the pick-and-roll—and it creates our playoffs expectations. Familiarity in the NBA doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds apathy.

The Celtics are a top-two defense in the league, but boast only a middling offense; the Cavs’ desultory defense is masked by their sterling offense. Toronto is in a Goldilocks zone this season—way north of center in both efficiency metrics (fifth in offense, sixth in defense). But a loss at the hands of a 33-year-old J.J. Barea followed by a disappointing effort from their two stars in a statement game at Oklahoma City snap things back into perspective for jaded observers. It reinforces the Raptors paradox, in which their regular season becomes null and void: The team cannot be judged until the playoffs, but until then, it must be held only to the low bar of its past postseason performances.

Might 2018 change that? The new year doesn’t hold any added significance in a league with an arbitrary midway point, but January has served as something of a barometer for Toronto over the past two seasons.

In 2015-16, an 11-game winning streak that began on January 6 turned into a dominant 33-game stretch deep into March; the Raptors ultimately went 27-6, the third-best record over that span behind the Spurs and Warriors, then the two best teams in the NBA. It was a season of firsts: the franchise’s first 50-win season, its first conference finals appearance, and the first time the Raptors had ever been considered elite.

At first, 2016-17 appeared to carry the positive momentum of the previous season. By the end of New Year’s Day, the Raptors were scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions, a rate better than any team in over two decades—including the current-day Rockets’ league-leading offensive rating of 113.6. Optimism drained swiftly thereafter: Toronto lost 11 of 15 games during a stretch from January 18 to Valentine’s Day. Lowry was fed up. Dwane Casey addressed the media as though his team were a band of inexperienced rookies, not a squad that had gone six games in the Eastern Conference finals a season prior. Panic prompted the Serge Ibaka trade, which along with P.J. Tucker’s deadline acquisition stabilized the team heading into the postseason. But it wasn’t enough to eliminate the stigma that had befallen so many other good-not-great teams before them where lack of faith becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We’ll soon find out what January holds for these Raptors, but the parallels to 2016-17 are unsettling. Last season’s team went into the new year with a 22-10 record, a 9.0 net rating (second only to the Warriors), and a two-game losing streak; this season’s team enters its final game of 2017 with a 23-10 record, a net rating of 7.5, and a two-game losing streak. The team, in broad strokes, appears the same.

Outside of having Ibaka to start the season, the biggest change on the roster is the addition of OG Anunoby, a rookie who wears joyless stoicism so well he might’ve singlehandedly forced Kawhi Leonard to adopt an entirely different brand image. In some ways, Anunoby is the face of Toronto’s early-season success, which owes a lot to the coaching staff’s newfound trust in youth. He is the $58 million vision Masai Ujiri had in DeMarre Carroll at a sixteenth of the cost. At only 20 years old, Anunoby is arguably the Raptors’ third-most important player considering how desperately the team needs to modernize—there is no one else on the roster who comfortably slides between five positions defensively and shoots 3s at a higher clip. Toronto outscores opponents at a rate of 15.9 points per 100 possessions when Anunoby is on the floor, which is a net rating second to only Steph Curry among players with at least 400 minutes on the season. Watching Anunoby on the court is like watching karate—he’s rarely out of position, and all the disciplined foreplay eventually leads to a split-second of wow that punctuates his performances. You see it in the way he outmuscles Dwight Howard on a rebound:

Or in the way his pre-ACL-tear explosion is beginning to return:

It’s the little things that matter with Anunoby because, well, that’s the entirety of his role. His early acclaim is contextual: He was a late-first-rounder; he wasn’t supposed to make it back from an ACL tear so soon; his insertion into the starting lineup was a clear catalyst in the early season. He’s the glue that has held many of the team’s lineups together, but at this point in his career, his success by any standard is still dictated by those around him. He is a rookie, and most of the team’s most valuable reserves aren’t much more experienced. Because of their reliance on youth in the supporting cast, these Raptors present the highest risk and highest reward of the Casey era in Toronto. The bench is a shot of adrenaline—and all the concerns about sustainability that come with that.

We’ve seen how effective the reserves can be in times of prosperity, but the sample isn’t quite as large when the team has been pressed. The team has played one of the easier schedules in the league thus far (full disclosure: so have the Celtics and Cavs), and slippage feels inevitable. The bench’s success is built on the premise that Lowry, DeRozan, and the rest of the team’s mainstays can shoulder the load any given night against any given opponent. What happens if the team repeats the mistakes of last season and forgets how to play with a lead? Bigs Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam are fearless bloodhounds, but they aren’t yet reliable on offense. C.J. Miles is a dice roll every night. Norm Powell, who has had two impressive postseasons in a row, has struggled so badly of late that he could be in danger of falling out of the rotation. Fred VanVleet is a coach’s favorite and a savvy defensive general, but at 6-feet, he could see his role could dry up in the playoffs. Delon Wright is the closest thing the Raptors have to a self-sufficient creator off the bench, but the nature of Toronto’s depth makes his role vary from game to game.

The Raptors have adopted the dink-and-dunk philosophy to team improvement, which ultimately still puts most of the pressure on its stars to make appropriate adjustments. There’s always a fear of relapse, but on the whole, there are signs that a change has come.

For instance: DeMar DeRozan, long thought of as inefficiency’s poster boy, has become one of the most efficient offensive stars in the league. It’s largely a product of a career-high 3-point-attempt rate and a booming confidence in his abilities as a pick-and-roll playmaker (which, in today’s game, go hand in hand). Roughly a third of DeRozan’s total field goal attempts over the first eight seasons of his career came from the dreaded long-2 zone that stretches from 16 feet away from the basket to the 3-point arc. This season, only 18.6 percent of his shots have come from that range. He’s diversified how he’s making plays, too, increasing his usage in catch-and-shoot plays running off screens. By extending his boundaries, the space just inside the 3-point line has become the area in which a play begins rather than ends. He’s creating more plays for himself closer to the basket and for others at a position of strength. DeRozan’s taking advantage of the muscle memory teams have when guarding him in the midrange. He has the highest assist rate of his career this season, and it has something to do with how he preys on teams expecting the same old DeMar:

The Raptors are still in the bottom third of the NBA in assist percentage at 56.5, but even then, it’s marked improvement from last season—it’s a nine-point upgrade from their league-worst 47.2 in 2016-17. The passing lanes in Toronto are more open than ever before, but as the Raptors face tougher competition heading into the midway point of the season, they’ll have to enlist their stars to space the floor even further to empower their promising but inconsistent supporting cast.

DeRozan may be shooting only 32.3 percent from behind the arc thus far this season, but the next step in his offensive renaissance might be building confidence in his pull-up 3-pointer—the most dangerous offensive weapon a perimeter player can wield in this era, especially for someone who is effective in the pick-and-roll. In six seasons together, DeRozan and Lowry have established themselves as one of the best backcourt duos in the league; their styles have always contrasted, weaving around each other in search of a balance between Lowry’s ever-increasing prolificacy from behind the arc and DeRozan’s dogged mastery within it. But their roles will have to be more interchangeable than ever if they hope to bring the Raptors back to the conference finals or beyond.

The onus, as ever, falls on DeRozan, far and away the most tenured Raptor in franchise history. From the bleak years of mediocrity through these high times for the franchise, DeRozan has served as an apt one-size-fits-all vector for the team’s identity. His archaic style of play was the refinery that kept the dinosaur-pun wing of the basketball media-industrial complex in business. His outright refusal over the past three seasons to shoot the 3-ball, even in postseason do-or-die situations, signaled that the team’s overall dynamic could not change until he did. It looks like he has. The question of whether these Raptors are legit might be too obtuse to answer in any meaningful way —the paradox will keep the team in its bind for the next four months. The loss against the surging Thunder doesn’t help. But if the regular season for Toronto is simply a process of adapting to a different style of play, both the progress and results appear to be worth buying stock in.

If you’re still skeptical, wait a month. Should trends hold, we’ll learn a lot about where this team stands by then.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly described Toronto as the NBA’s northernmost franchise; it is not.