The Toronto Raptors seem to be in rebuild mode as the 2021-22 season begins, but if indeed that is the case and last year’s 27-45 record was a true sign of the franchise’s fall from grace, Raptors fans can look back fondly on a seven-year run from 2014 to 2020 that featured seven playoff appearances, nine playoff series wins, and a title.
It is that championship in 2019—the franchise’s only ring and a sign of how a one-year rental on a player can go wonderfully right—that serves now as the high-water mark of the franchise.
So let’s turn back the clock to the last season before a bad bowl of bat soup or a bio-weapons lab or just one of the many pandemics that have risen out of nowhere to literally plague humanity in our 10,000 years as a civilised species (depending on your politics and/or how given you are to believing in conspiracy theories) put a temporary end to 82-game seasons and see how Toronto was able to post the best result in 26 seasons in the league.
The On-Court Record
58-24 is only the second-best record the Raptors have ever posted in a regular season. They went 59-23 in 2018 but crash-landed in the second round as LeBron and the Cavaliers once again clowned Dwane Casey in a playoff series; Casey lost his job for that 2018 failure.
But on its own merits, 59-23 is one heck of a result and served as the fourth of five straight 50-win seasons. Even in the 2020 COVID-shortened season, Toronto still managed to go 53-19; by winning percentage that’s a 60-22 82-game pace. They had a chance to actually top 2019 even with the face of the title team plying his trade in Los Angeles.
In 2019, the Raps put together the fifth-ranked offense and fifth-ranked defense in the league, good for third in Net Rating and the second-best actual won-lost record behind the Milwaukee Bucks. More importantly, winning one more game than that team out west that had won three of the last four titles and was on its way to a fifth straight Finals would make life easier come playoff time.
In the first round, Toronto easily handled the Orlando Magic, a team whose 42-40 record was their first winning season since 2012 and who made two easy-first-round-out playoff appearances before slipping back into perpetual suckage in 2021.
In the second round, the Four Bounces Heard ‘Round the World ensured some sweet revenge for a 2001 playoff encounter. A similar shot by Toronto’s Vince Carter in that series bounced on the rim but would not drop; were it not for that, Allen Iverson‘s entire Hall of Fame case may have gone up in smoke. In 2019, however, Kawhi Leonard‘s buzzer-beater cemented a place in history as one of the single greatest basketball shots ever taken, right up there with the greatest heroics of anyone not named Michael Jordan of all time.
The conference finals featured Toronto losing the first two games on the road in Milwaukee, holding serve at home to tie the series, then grabbing the critical Game 5 road win that ensured a closeout Game 6 back in Toronto. Milwaukee is accused of choking in this series; Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s legacy was under threat before he pulled it out of the fire in 2021, but that Finals this past summer went exactly the way this conference final did. When the road team breaks serve in a series that’s otherwise going chalk, the road team wins in six. It happens a lot in the playoffs. The media just makes it out to be a big deal because the next national media TV talking head who understands the flow of playoff series will be the first—it’s up to those of us in blog land to set the record straight.
Ahem. Rant over. And Finals over when Kevin Durant‘s Achilles tendon exploded and Toronto won in six on the Warriors’ home floor, the beneficiary of Klay Thompson‘s ACL looking over at Durant’s heel and thinking to itself “that whole rupturing thing looks like fun, I’m-a try that.”
The Featured Players
Leonard posted 4.7 VORP, good for most on the team as the squad’s counting (26.6 points per game) and advanced stat king.
But more important than Leonard’s contribution might very well have been the other guy Toronto got in that trade.
Danny Green, unlike DeRozan, can actually hit a 3-point shot. He hit 45.5 percent of them, in fact, on a 3PAR of .690. What’s more, he posted 2.2 VORP on the strength of his excellent defense.
In the prior season, DeRozan made just 31.0 percent of his 3-pointers on just a .203 3PAR. Worse still, DeRozan led the Raptors in Usage Rate, ensuring that the guy who was out there taking the most shots was also the guy taking the worst shots.
Shifting the outside shooting role to Green and letting Leonard do his thing (37.1 percent from the line, 7.1 FTA per game) as the leading scorer was a revolutionary leap forward for the Raptors and played a huge role in the playoffs. With DeRozan on the team, they don’t get out of the second round, and not just because it was Leonard who made that bouncing miracle of a Game 7 buzzer beater against Philly. With DeRozan, Toronto is eliminated before they ever get to take that shot.
Behind Leonard (and ahead of Green) stood Kyle Lowry (2.4 VORP) and Pascal Siakam (2.8); the latter earned Most Improved Player honors for his 16.9 points on 54.9 percent shooting and .591 eFG% in his breakout year.
Unlike so many of these championship-level teams we’ve discussed in this series, the Raptors relied less on pure star power and more on teamwork. It’s all there in the eight guys with 1,000 minutes played, six of whom—the players already mentioned plus Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet—posted 1.1 VORP or better.
The only guy who played meaningful minutes without playing good minutes was OG Anunoby, who in his sophomore season at age 21 averaged just 7.0 points per game and posted his only negative-VORP season (minus-0.1) of his career so far. Anunoby had a breakout year in 2021; he will undoubtedly be part of the Raptors’ post-rebuild core as he enters the first year of a four-year, $72 million extension he signed at the start of last season.
It’s hard to give Nick Nurse too much credit when the Raptors were objectively worse statistically than they had been a year earlier under Casey despite adding Kawhi.
The offense dropped from second to fifth. The Net Rating fell from 7.9 to 6.0 above level. And, of course, the 2018 team had one more win in the regular season.
All the same, the guy has the ring, something Casey does not, and Nurse coached a Kawhi-less Raptors team to 53-19 in 2020 before the bottom fell out on the veterans.
Casey has coached Detroit to three miserable seasons since parting ways with the Raptors, so the jury’s out on whether Nurse was a statistical improvement. All the same, the Raptors consistently play solid, modern offense and even in an utterly miserable 2021 campaign managed to place in the middle of the pack for both offensive (16th) and defensive (15th) rating.
In fact, Toronto underperformed its expected W-L by eight games; the stats suggest a team with a minus-0.5 Net Rating should go 35-37 in 72 games. Toronto went 27-45 in 2021.
Teams that have historically suffered such indignity in one year have tended to bounce back strong in the next; Nurse might have a sleeper playoff team on his hands this season.
A team with just a 26-year history with most of the good seasons coming with the core we’ve already talked about, tends to have a dearth of honorable mention-worthy teams.
The Raptors are no different. They had a three-year run where they won one playoff series after a 47-35 regular season before the Carter miss discussed earlier in this piece during the 2021 playoffs.
They made the playoffs for two straight years in 2007 and ’08, losing in the first round each time, all during an era when they had just one winning season between 2003 and 2014—the year the 2019 title team began to come together.
Despite playing the first seven seasons of his career in Toronto, Chris Bosh was never anything more than a Great Stats Bad Team guy—not for nothing did he not win a title until he was the third-best player on the Miami Heat. The guy’s legacy is at best Robert Parish and at worst Horace Grant. That’s not a bad thing—Parish is in the Hall of Fame and Grant absolutely should be—but when Chris Bosh is your best player for seven years, one winning season and two first-round playoff outs is about as good as you can hope for.
All the same, however, Toronto is a respectable franchise now. They made the playoffs five times in their first 18 seasons; they’ve made seven out of the last eight. That’s a turnaround worth talking about.