Jan 10, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) and point guard Cory Joseph (6) and guard DeMar DeRozan (10) during their game against the Boston Celtics at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Celtics 114-106. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Toronto Raptors are the Eastern Conference’s second-best team after 41 games and we grade the roster at the season’s mid-point.
As the Toronto Raptors hit the midway point of another NBA season, it seems like a good time to look at how they have performed to this point. The team is just 1½ games back of the Cavaliers for first place in the East.
They’ve already lost the season series to the Cavs, but they have a 2-0 series lead against the Boston Celtics. While home-court throughout the Eastern playoffs may have been the goal, holding off Boston is not a bad consolation prize.
The Raptors have enjoyed relatively good fortune on the injury front this season. Neither Kyle Lowry nor DeMar DeRozan have had issues to this point. DeMarre Carroll has finally been able to get healthy and has only missed games for maintenance.
The only noteworthy injuries have been Jared Sullinger and Delon Wright. Both players have missed the entire season to this point.
So what role has each player played in the success of the team to this point? Who has exceeded expectations? Who has disappointed?
Each player will be graded from A+ to F based off expectations coming into the season. If a player is playing well, but has performed better in the past, they would be graded harsher than a lesser player having a career year. With that being said, here are the rankings for the Toronto Raptors:
Oct 14, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Raptors forward Bruno Caboclo (20) and San Lorenzo forward Gabriel Deck (14) battle for position during the fourth quarter at Rogers Centre. Raptors won 122-105. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
I’m going to go ahead and lump Bruno Caboclo, Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl together. These three players haven’t played a large enough amount of minutes to give them a fair grade.
For Caboclo, it’s probably time to give up on the experiment. When he was drafted, it was infamously stated by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla that he was “two years away from being two years away.” That was three years ago and he doesn’t appear any closer to becoming a rotation player.
He’s played 89 minutes in the NBA over the last three seasons. Compare that to Raptors rookie Jakob Poeltl, who has played 226 this year.
Speaking of Poeltl, he does deserve some recognition to this point. The rookie has started two games for the Raptors this season and has shown flashes of his talent. While the game still appears to be moving too quickly for him, his defensive instincts are sound.
In addition to his instincts, he also has terrific mobility for someone his size.
The lack of opportunity for Poeltl this season is more about where the Raptors are at as a team. Jonas Valanciunas still sees the lion’s share of minutes at center. In addition to him, Lucas Nogueria is having a breakout season for Toronto.
So while Poeltl’s ability would warrant more minutes in a different situation, it’s just not possible with a Raptors team looking to contend.
Jan 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) dribbles the ball up court as New York Knicks guard Sasha Vujacic (18) defends in the second half at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 116-101. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Grade: B Stats: 6.1 points, 1.5 rebounds per game. 45 FG%, 37.5 3P%.
Like Poeltl earlier, Norman Powell is a victim of circumstance. While Powell had the ability to be an X-factor for the Raptors, the team’s depth has limited his opportunity. Beyond backing up an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan, Powell also has to fight for minutes with the emerging Terrence Ross.
Last season Powell made his mark on the team filling in for DeMarre Carroll. Without a Carroll injury, Powell has been forced to stay in a smaller role. His 14.4 minutes to game is comparable to the 14.8 last season.
However, he hasn’t been able to make a big enough impression to warrant more minutes.
Ultimately I’d like to see more playmaking from Powell. He takes good care of the ball, but rarely creates opportunities for others. He presents Toronto with a solid three-and-D option off the bench.
But with the marksmanship Ross brings to the table, the way for Powell to stand out would be to bring some additional playmaking.
Until he brings something someone else isn’t bringing, it’ll be hard for him to get more time, especially once Jared Sullinger returns and there are fewer minutes at power forward available for he and Carroll.
Jan 13, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) controls a ball as Brooklyn Nets forward Quincy Acy (13) defends during the fourth quarter in a game at Air Canada Centre.The Toronto Raptors won 132-113. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
If there was a polar opposite of Bruno Caboclo, it would be Pascal Siakam. While Caboclo was drafted as a young, raw talent, Siakam was drafted as an older player that can contribute now.
When the Raptors drafted him, I doubt that they anticipated that he would start 34 of his first 37 games.
While his counting stats aren’t impressive, Siakam has shown tremendous ability as a defender. He has the athleticism to switch onto wings, a trait that is incredibly valuable in today’s NBA. The issue with Siakam is that he shouldn’t be starting.
As the Timberwolves are learning, young players just don’t make an immediate impact in the NBA. The Raptors have a net rating of minus-1.7 with him on the court, and plus-11.8 when he sits.
His abilities as an individual defender are better than expected, but he doesn’t understand team defense yet and the game is moving too quickly for him.
These issues are to be expected with someone just starting out in the NBA. Going from college to playing against starting caliber players is going to lead to a rough transition. Siakam has handled the change well, but his limitations mean he should probably have a reduced role, which has been the case as of late.
The valuable minutes Siakam has given the team this season are more than anybody could have asked for. Now as the team gets healthy, he can develop in a role more suited for somebody with his current skill set.
Oct 3, 2016; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Lucas Nogueira (92) during a free throw against the Denver Nuggets during the fourth quarter at Scotiabank Saddledome. Denver Nuggets won 108-106. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Grade: A- Stats: 4.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. 66.3 FG%
Now we come to the man affectionately known as “Bebe.” Lucas Nogueira was always an intriguing prospect with his 7-foot frame, mobility and even some touch on his jumper.
But it hasn’t been until this season that he’s really broken out and played his way into meaningful minutes.
This season the Raptors have a net rating of plus-15 with Bebe on the floor, compared to plus-2.9 when he sits. The team’s offense skyrockets with him setting screens and presenting himself as a lob threat. But his biggest impact comes on the defensive side of the floor.
Opponents score 6.6 points per 100 possessions fewer when he is on the court. Keep in mind, this isn’t just in minutes against scrubs. He is playing 21 minutes per game and often has been called on to close games in the fourth quarter over the defensively deficient Valanciunas.
Opponents are shooting just 47.5 percent at the rim against Bebe, which is the second best DFG% at the rim on the Raptors behind Patrick Patterson’s 45.9 percent. (Jakob Poeltl is allowing just 45.8 percent at the rim, but that’s on a much smaller sample size).
He’s also been an above average pick and roll defender, rating in the 51st percentile. A significant improvement over Valanciunas, who’s in the 25th percentile.
While he has his limitations, Bebe has fit in incredibly well with this Raptors team. He isn’t a post up threat, and doesn’t have the offensive repertoire of Valanciunas.
But as a low maintenance center that can set screens, catch lobs and play defense he fits the void left by Bismack Biyombo well.
Jan 8, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross (31) dribbles the ball past Houston Rockets guard Corey Brewer (33) during the second half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
2016-17 has been a breakout season for Terrence Ross. While his numbers haven’t spiked much higher than the career norm, his biggest improvement has come in the form of consistency. Throughout his career, Ross has struggled with reliability.
While his three-point shooting hasn’t been as strong in January, he’s shown an ability to be a reliable rotation player this season.
With the team fully healthy and Norman Powell fighting for minutes, the progress Ross has shown this season was needed in order for him to retain his role. With his ability to play either wing position, Ross gives Toronto a versatile weapon off the bench.
He can stretch the floor by being a kick-out threat, as well as create shots off the dribble.
While his offensive game has improved, his defense has slipped this season. Ross isn’t quite a liability on defense, but had far more impact last season. This year opponents are shooting 43.7 percent with Ross as the closest defender.
That figure is exactly their expected field goal percentage, whereas last season opponents shot 4 percent worse than expected with Ross on them.
With his minutes and role remaining the same, there’s no reason Ross shouldn’t be able to play defense consistently. Some of the change is likely a result of variance in his opponents shooting numbers. But when you watch him play, it’s evident that his focus isn’t always there.
His length and athleticism should make him a good defender. The issue with Ross comes down to attentiveness. While his defense isn’t something you can hold against him, his ability to do more than he currently is prevents him from having a better grade.
Dec 29, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph (6), guard Kyle Lowry (7) and guard Norman Powell (24) talk on the court during the second half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns won 99-91. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
It feels funny giving Joseph such a harsh grade after arguably his best performance as a Raptor. Cory Joseph scored 33 points on 15-of-22 shooting Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets in relief of Kyle Lowry.
While the performance was impressive, it also showed an assertiveness that has been missing thus far.
Coming into this season, it wouldn’t have been controversial to say Joseph is the best backup point guard in the league. His reliability as a ball handler and defender makes him a valuable commodity. The issue is that his defense has trailed off considerably this season.
While not a perfect metric, Cory Joseph ranks 431st out of 438 players in the league in defensive real plus minus. That puts him at fifth last out of the league’s point guards. Last season, Joseph was ranked 16th in DRPM among point guards, 210th overall.
Joseph’s has improved his three point percentage by 13.8 percent this season. While his efficiency is up, he frequently appears passive most offensive possessions.
He doesn’t take bad shots, but can kill a significant portion of the clock only to give the ball up to a teammate for a desperation heave. He’s still been a net positive for the Raptors, but is capable of far more than he’s shown this year.
With Delon Wright returning to the lineup, it may help Joseph to bring the same intensity that’s made him one of the league’s most valuable reserve players.
Jan 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) dribbles the ball up court as New York Knicks center Willy Hernangomez (14) pursues in the second half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Grade: B Stats: 10.4 points, 3.7 rebounds per game. 43.6 FG%, 37.9 3P%
DeMarre Carroll is one of the toughest players on the Raptors to fairly grade. The first quarter of the season would probably be more of a B-, while his recent play would warrant a B+ to A-. The most important thing for the Raptors is that Carroll has remained healthy all season.
As the season has progressed, Carroll has looked more and more like the player the Raptors thought they were getting when they signed him to a four-year, $60 million contract.
What a healthy Carroll brings Toronto is a forward that can play either forward position. He helps lighten the load on DeMar DeRozan by taking the opposition’s toughest perimeter assignment. He gives Toronto valuable spacing, as well as intelligent off-ball movement.
For the month of January Carroll is averaging nearly 13 points per game while shooting 46.3 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from three.
With his legs under him, Carroll provides Toronto with a reliable three-point threat that will now be able to benefit from the open looks his All-Star teammates provide from him.
It’s hard to hold his early season performance against Carroll, as his recovery clearly limited his effectiveness. But the team managed his recovery well by keeping him on a minutes restriction.
Now, barring any setbacks, the Raptors will be a much tougher team come playoffs with a healthy Carroll.
Jan 10, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) reacts after a call went against him against the Boston Celtics at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Celtics 114-106. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Another year, same Jonas Valanciunas. While he’s still a talented offensive player, his fit with this team remains questionable. He’s a strong offensive rebounder that finishes well in the post, as well as a fantastic pick and roll threat.
His scoring and efficiency has declined this season, despite receiving more playing time.
There has been little to no growth for Valancinuas in the areas he needed to improve in to fit in better with this team. His efficiency in the post would be far more dangerous if he were capable of reading double teams and finding the open man.
However he still averages more than two turnovers to every assist he records. His poor foot-speed can take away from the fact that he’s a good screener, once he gets into position. Overall he’s still an effective offensive player.
But your offensive game gets put under the microscope when you are a complete liability defensively.
The Raptors defense gives up 7.3 points per 100 possessions fewer without Valanciunas on the court. While this number may be inflated by playing with a rookie in Pascal Siakam, they also fall in line with the rest of his career.
Valanciunas has played 480 minutes this season with Siakam, and 543 without. So while the numbers are much better when he is paired with Patterson, it’s clear that he requires help to hide him defensively.
Offensive centers that don’t provide play-making or defense are becoming less prominent in today’s NBA. With the Raptors having an elite offense once again, it gets tough to justify throwing the ball into the post, just to watch Jonas.
Perhaps he would be better suited in a reserve role like Enes Kanter, a player with similar strengths and weaknesses.
Jan 8, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Patrick Patterson (54) reacts after sinking a three-point basket against Houston Rockets in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Patrick Patterson started the season in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career. The Raptors stretch 4 takes two-thirds of his shots from behind the arc, but couldn’t get anything to fall during the season’s opening weeks.
Despite a round first half of November, he finished strong to bring his three-point percentage for the month to better than 35 percent. Since then his three-point percentage has inflated to 40.7 percent in December and 50 percent in January.
But as always with Patterson his true value goes beyond the box score.
The impact Patterson has on the Raptors cannot be understated. When he’s on the floor, the team’s offensive rating improves by 5.9 points, and the defensive rating improves by 5.6 points. The team’s three best lineups in terms of net rating all include Patterson.
The Raptors big man rotation is thin on experience and defensive ability. Patterson’s well rounded game brings stability and experience to that position. When Patterson went down in the opening minutes of the Raptors game against the Phoenix Suns, the team was put into a tailspin.
They went 2-3, including the loss to the Suns, with Patterson out of the lineup.
Outside of Lowry and DeRozan, no player is more important to the Raptors than Patterson. Power forward is often pointed to as the biggest hole in the Raptors roster.
While they do require a more dynamic player in their frontcourt, Patterson’s play off the bench has been vital to Toronto’s success.
Jan 17, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Toronto Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (10) controls the ball against Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Caris LeVert (22) during the second quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
It’s time for public perception of DeMar DeRozan to catch up to reality. In the pursuit of capturing the game better through analytics, it seems high volume efficient scoring is becoming undervalued. While DeRozan’s style is a throwback, he has been achieving results this season.
He’s fifth in the league in scoring, while having a higher true shooting percentage than other celebrated stars like Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin.
DeRozan’s scoring alleviates pressure off of the rest of the Raptors roster. Outside of he and Lowry, there aren’t many players capable of shouldering a large offensive role. By keeping his teammates in manageable roles, he makes them better and helps them maintain solid efficiency.
While his style of getting to the line and taking contested jumpers isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, when he gets hot it feels like watching a Kobe Bryant throwback game on NBA TV.
He’s rebounding better than ever before and his improved decision-making and vision have helped him take the next step as a scorer and himself as an All-Star in this league.
Now for the critique … DeRozan ranks 396th out of 438 players in the league in defensive real plus minus. He often completely loses his man off ball and can play matador defense on the perimeter. It’s frustrating because he’s played at least average defense before in his career.
With the game on the line, he can dig down and get you a defensive stop. But on average he’s a liability. It’s a common issue with guards that shoulder a huge load defensively. Unfortunately for DeRozan he just doesn’t have a safety net with a strong defensive center.
Jan 18, 2017; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) dribbles past Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell (1) during the third quarter at Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia 76ers won 94-89. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
In short, Kyle Lowry should be in the MVP conversation. Outside of James Harden, there’s no point guard having a season that’s clearly better than Lowry’s.
While Russell Westbrook records his triple-doubles and wills the Oklahoma City Thunder to wins, the efficiency Lowry brings to the table, as well as defense, give him the nod in my eyes. Over the past three regular seasons, no Eastern Conference point guard has been better than Lowry.
Lowry is the engine that makes everything work for Toronto. While DeRozan leads the team in scoring, Lowry handles more of his fair share of the scoring, while being tasked with keeping everybody involved offensively. The Raptors are in a unique situation with Lowry.
While he’s a score-first player, he’s often the only player on the floor capable of creating for both himself and others. While DeRozan has improved his drive and kick game, he doesn’t possess the experience running the team from the point Lowry has.
Without secondary playmaking, Lowry is tasked with being the primary focus of the defense’s game plan and finding ways to navigate the doubles team’s throw at him.
The only real criticism I have of Lowry is that he puts so much effort in to the regular season. He takes charges in meaningless January games and sells his body for loose balls. As a fan, it brings a passion that you wish all players would bring.
He leads by example and has helped Toronto reach new heights. But he has worn down routinely come playoffs, and failed to show that next gear. You probably can’t change how Lowry plays the game. It’s instinct and what makes him who he is.