Head coach Dwane Casey admitted as much earlier in the season, but the talent on the team turned out to be above average in an Eastern Conference that turned out to be historically subpar. So general manager Masai Ujiri sent the overpaid Rudy Gay to Sacramento on Dec. 8 with the team in first place at 7-12, and the Raptors have turned into one of the East’s best teams.
Toronto is 29-15 since the seven-player Gay trade was announced, a move that allowed their other core players to expand their roles and help the Raptors become an unexpected lock for the Eastern Conference playoffs at this point in early March.
Point guard Kyle Lowry was mired in trade rumors but emerged as an All-Star snub and an overwhelmingly positive force, and with room to operate on the wing, he is the unquestioned primary scorer, DeMar DeRozan flourished and became an All-Star for the first time.
Gay, frankly, had held the Raptors offense back.
He scored just 91 points per 100 possessions when he was with the team and Toronto was outscored by nine points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor. Toronto may be one of the slower teams in the league, its 91.9 possessions per 48 minutes puts it 24th in the league’s pace rankings, but they’re one of the most efficient offensive outfits. Its 107.8 points per 100 possessions ranks 10th in the league, and a lot of that is because of the emerging backcourt pairing of Lowry and DeRozan.
“They have some talented young guys with DeRozan and Lowry, who have been playing off the charts for them,” said Nets head coach Jason Kidd. Sacramento head coach Mike Malone agrees. “I think it starts with their backcourt,” Malone told Sheridan Hoops. “You have DeMar DeRozan, who was an All-Star, and then you have Kyle Lowry, who could have easily been an All-Star.”
Lowry’s 118.7 offensive rating is the best among Eastern Conference point guards and is 13th overall in the NBA. He also stacks up quite well in many other statistical categories:
|Assists Per Game||7.7||8|
|Offensive Win Shares||6.6||10|
|Minutes Per Game||36.5||12|
|Steals Per Game||1.6||12|
Lowry has more win shares than other Eastern Conference stars including Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah who are getting far more publicity. His offensive numbers have been even better since the Gay trade, a testament to him stepping up when the team needed it most. His win shares per 48 minutes are 10th in the league, ahead of the George, Anthony, Noah trio as well.
“Kyle has been distributing the basketball, not really shooting the ball as well but is doing a good job distributing and making sure he pushes it and gets the ball to the right people,” said Casey, the Raptors head coach.
Since the Gay trade, there’s been a noticeable difference in Lowry’s performance.
|Lowry||Games||Minutes||Shots Per Game||FG %||3FG %||Points||Assists||Rebounds||Steals||FTA||FT %|
|Before Gay Trade||19||36.6||11.4||41.9||35.7||14.8||6.7||3.6||1.8||3.8||80.8|
|After Gay Trade||42||36.4||13.6||41.6||39||17.8||8.2||5.1||1.5||4.9||82.9|
Lowry has averaged three more points, 1.5 more rebounds and 1.5 more assists per game since Dec. 8. He’s been a better rebounder and distributor and has made his backcourt mate DeRozan into an even better player.
“Kyle is a dog when he’s out there on that court,” DeRozan told SheridanHoops. “There are not too many point guards out there that’s as grimy and as greedy as Kyle on both ends of the court. Ever since the trade, he’s been showing what he can do out there on the court.”
DeRozan’s improvement has been just as impressive as Lowry’s. “DeMar is playing at a high rate offensively, shooting the ball well, getting to the free throw line,” Casey said. DeRozan has become a better scorer and distributor since the Gay trade, as you can see.
|DeRozan||Games||Minutes||Shots Per Game||FG %||3FG %||Points||Assists||Rebounds||Steals||FTA||FT %|
|Before Gay Trade||19||38.7||17.7||43.3||35.7||21.6||2.8||3.8||1.2||6.1||80.2|
|After Gay Trade||41||37.6||18.2||43.2||26.7||23.1||4.3||4.8||1||8.3||80.9|
The 3-point shooting percentage is way down, partially due to the fact that DeRozan is taking fewer than half as many threes since the Gay trade than before. DeRozan is scoring more, getting to the line more, passing and rebounding better. Casey says that DeRozan’s improvement in the pick-and-roll has led to his improvement on offense.
“Teams have double-teamed him. He’s running more pick-and-rolls so he’s passing more out of the pick-and-rolls,” Casey said. “Just his growth as far as seeing the floor and not just the ‘okay, I got the ball now I’ve got to score’ mentality. He’s evolved into a passer, he’s taking what the defense is giving him and reading those situations pretty well. So it’s just a mark of his growth more than anything else.”
DeRozan said his evolution as a better passer came with experience. “Understanding the defensive rotations, understanding how teams are going to play me and knowing where my teammates like to [get passes to] get good shots,” he said.
Here’s where DeRozan stacks up among the league leaders:
|Minutes Per Game||38||4|
|Free Throws Made||368||5|
|Free Throw Attempts||456||7|
|Points Per Game||22.6||9|
Beyond the team’s backcourt, Sacramento’s Malone called Terrence Ross one of the quiet contributors for the team. Casey mentioned reserve Patrick Patterson’s ability to help space the floor. Patterson and fellow reserves Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak are each very positive players when they come off the bench. Toronto outscores its opposition by 16 points per 100 possessions when Novak is on the floor, while the Raps are a plus-14 with Hansbrough and a plus-13 with Patterson.
“Everybody’s gotten better as a collective unit,” Ross said.
“We just trust everybody on the team,” said DeRozan. “We don’t care who scores, everybody knows their roles, there are no egos on the team. We just go out there and have fun at the end of the day.”
Where the team really shines is on the defensive end. Toronto boasts the fourth best scoring defense in the league, allowing 97.1 points per game, and its 104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks seventh in the NBA. A lot of that has to do with big men Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, who each boast a 103 defensive rating.
“They put a lot of pressure on you on the defensive end,” Kidd said.
Toronto was at the forefront of the “Riggin’ for Wiggins” tanking talk at the beginning of the season, but now the Raptors are all but assured of making the playoffs this season and they’ll only go as far as their guards will take them.
“Their playoff success will all depend on how well their backcourt is able to play,” Malone said.
The words “playoff success” was a distant pipe dream for Toronto at the start of the season, but Lowry and DeRozan have accelerated the team’s rebuilding process all the way to a playoff spot and a possible Atlantic Division title.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for Sheridan Hoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.