NBA

The Raptors Have to Play For the East’s One-Seed

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The Toronto Raptors’ 2017 iteration of themselves is currently competing for the best team of the franchise’s history. This puts them in direct competition with…the 2015 and 2016 Toronto Raptors. But while the last two versions of this team were sent packing by a Cleveland team that seemed to vastly outmatch them, this year’s team appears to be made up differently. That being said, Cleveland has a tradition of taking it easy in the regular season before really ramping it up, and if Toronto wants to top them (and/or Boston), they’ll need every possible advantage. Which is why I think the Raptors getting the East’s top seed is of the utmost importance.

Toronto has been substantially better at home than on the road in the playoffs

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Obviously the Raptors should play for the top seed. Every team in the East should”. And there’s some credit to that line of thinking however, nobody was really bothered by Cleveland effectively forfeiting the top seed last season with a little over a week to play. And it ended up not mattering; the Cavs crushed top-seeded Boston to reach the finals. But, with Toronto, things are different.

When I was discussing a Toronto story with my podcast cohost, Alex Schubauer, last weekend, we got on to the topic of their playoff performances. For as much as the Raptors have improved this season, I was still having trouble buying into that success translating in the playoffs. So, on a whim, Schubauer pulled up their playoff stats for the last few seasons. The results are pretty telling.

In 2017, which isn’t a big sample size, the Raptors were 2-3 at home (though two of those three losses were to Cleveland, who swept them). But they were only a -2 in +/- on their home floor, as opposed to -9.2 and a 2-3 record on the road that year as well. In 2016, though, Toronto went 8-3 at home and was +3.4. On the road, they were 2-7 and a staggering -13.6. This season’s regular season data seems to indicate how much better the Raptors are at home as well. In 16 games Toronto is 14-2 and +12. On the road? They’re 14-9 with a +4.7.

Yes, it’s the regular season and yes, things can change in the playoffs. But Toronto shows a tendency to play much, much better at home. Capitalizing on that in the playoffs is the next step.

Toronto’s youth movement could help them stay fresh for the playoffs

One of the biggest advantages Toronto has over virtually every other team in the league right now is their depth. Dwayne Casey has the luxury of a young, well-built roster full of solid talent. Everybody knows about DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Serge Ibaka. Hell, you might even know about Jonas Valanciunas or OG Anunoby if you’ve been paying some attention to them. But you probably haven’t heard much about Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, or any of the other role players on the bench. And yet, the talent outside of Toronto’s big three is what gives them the best shot at the number one seed as well as a finals birth.

There was a really interesting Reddit post at the end of December that broke down every team’s roster by age. Notice where the Raptors rank here.

Average Age NBA team

image c/o Reddit user Perksofthesewalls

Someone else pointed out that the system would likely work better if weighted for total minutes played, and took into account who teams tend to play the most. So, that was calculated and…

Would you look at that, the Raptors’ number is almost identical. What’s crazier, of the Raptors’ core group of eight or nine guys, only Ibaka, DeRozan, and Lowry are above the age of 25. This has given Casey a lot of freedom to tinker with lineups and give his younger players valuable minutes, while resting his superstars. The result? The Raptors frequently play with ten to twelve guys a night, and are getting to try lineups and rotations that other teams can only dream of doing. Even a Kyle Lowry injury isn’t as scary as it used to be, and gives Toronto a chance to play extended minutes without him and figure out how they’re going to handle those times in the playoffs when he’s on the bench. Compare this to Boston, who’s starting to feel depth issues already, and Cleveland, who’s virtually always had depth issues, and Toronto looks set to be the most rested team coming into the postseason.

In a long series with home court, the youth could be the key

The Raptors are young. The Raptors are good at home. Those two things add up to a potentially lethal combination if utilized in the playoffs. If they use their depth to their advantage, Toronto could put an opponent into a choke hold in a long series. Having four games at home instead of three could mean moving on or going home for a team that has shown such volatility when having to travel. If Toronto wants to increase their odds of making it to the finals for the first time in franchise history, locking up home court throughout their Eastern Conference matchups is the best move to make.

Sure, a lot could change before the playoffs, Boston and Cleveland could tighten up and become even better in March, Toronto could still fail to beat either of those teams even with home court on their side. But the Raptors being able to experiment and keep their players rested now means less chance of exhaustion or injury come playoffs, as well as lengthier careers that last much longer into the future. And for now, in Toronto, the future is brighter than ever.

all stats via stats.nba.com header image c/o NBA.com

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