Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Toronto Rapture

Teams will ebb and flow, go on runs, win championships, stink for decades but I think sports exists primarily for one reason.  For the early season chance to go from where you are now to something so much better.  Without diehard fans teams would fold during extended droughts, leagues would become smaller, more densely packed with talent, more skewed and less popular without the millions of people watching a local event- that happens hundreds or thousands of miles away half the time. 

The Raptors are hovering in that space now- a 48 win team last year that was on a 52 win pace from January on and a 55 win pace post all-star break- and this early season thrashing is either storm clouds for the rest of the East or a cruel tease for their fans.  With one meaningful win (a thrashing of the currently looking average Wizards) and only one not bad at all loss (5 pts vs Miami in the second game of a road B2B) they are doing what most very good teams do- whipping up on inferior competition (4 wins by double digits).  Is it time for a little cold water or a hot and steamy ECF prediction? 

Who is that masked man?  Last season 5 guys in the NBA attempted 5+ 3s and 10+ FTs per 100 possessions.  Durant, Lebron, Love, Westbrook and Harden.  In 7 short games this year Kyle Lowry is in that club, with 5.8 threes and 11.6 FTA per 100 possessions.  This is a huge leap (+66%) from last season in free throw attempts but it is not totally without precedent in his play.  His FTr this year is at a career high at 64%, but the first 3 full seasons of his career he was over 52% and as high as 58%- on fewer total FGs it should be noted.  Lowry's 32% 3 pt attempt rate is much lower than the past 4 seasons (41-46%) but higher than the rates when he was churning out FTs (22-29%).   We should expect that FTr to come down as he plays against better defenses but it could stabilize around 50%.  The good news is that his efficiency can stay around 60% where it is now as his 3pt% will climb back up to its previous trend (currently sitting 10 percentage points lower than the worst of his last 4 seasons).

In terms of totally unsustainable production, look for his turnovers to bounce back up.  7 games against weak defenses has led to a rate that is a little more than half his career average, but it shouldn't go to high and if his assist numbers stay down as he focuses on his penetrating he could match his career low from last season. 

With that kind of production, along with his decent for an undersized SF, let alone an undersized PG, rebounding and his tenacious without fouling defense could we seriously be talking about the 4th best PG in the league? 

His running mate DeRozan seems to have taken the same class is efficient shot selection over the summer, and though Zach Lowe bizarrely laments the decline in his 3 pt attempts, cutting out most of his long range chucks (career rate of 27%, career high of 30%) without jacking up a bunch of mid range twos in its place has lead to a good start for his TS while also getting on track for a career high in USG.  At 25 he still has 2-3 years as a penetrating, FT generating, ball handling scorer before he needs to add an outside game to mask the slow declines of age.  As with Lowry that rate should come down, but as long as it stays where it was last season or higher the two will still make a dynamic pair.

The good news offensively for Rator fans is that last year the Blazers showed how a modestly efficient team could run a high end offense by limiting turnovers and grabbing extra possessions via the offensive rebound.  With Derozen always good at avoiding turnovers (sub 10% career rate), Louis Williams showing good restraint at points in his career (career rate 11.6%, with 2 full seasons under 10%, and his worst 2 seasons as a rook and sophomore), Ross being a catch and shoot guy (career sub 10% TO) if Lowry keeps his rate low the 4 primary scorers/initiators of their offense will be keeping things cool and under control. 

Defensively they were a solid unit last season with a fair amount of turnover, and limited time to incorporate the returns of the Rudy Gay dump (a trade that both teams won?!?!?!) which bodes well for them this year.  The primary concern seems to be that last season they had an extremely good run of health with their 5 starters appearing in 77+ games each.  This is already in jeopardy this season with Amir Johnson missing 3 games early on and with continuity being their best chance at defensive gains they want to get healthy fast.

Toronto was one of the also rans last season that made the fewest moves.  Chicago mixed up its front line, Washington swapped Ariza out for Pierce and Charlotte snagged Lance, but they addressed their biggest need with Louis Williams and are now riding a young, but not wildly inexperienced, core and I am going to be watching. 

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