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Old 01-08-2014, 09:08 AM   #1 (permalink)
jeffb
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Raptors Slam online: Raptors resurgence

SLAM ONLINE | Raptor Resurgence


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The Toronto Raptors are an NBA franchise that has been middling in mediocrity for much of their existence. Now in their 19th NBA season, they can only claim four winning seasons, five playoff appearances, one playoff series win, and a combined winning percentage of .409.Most of the team’s best draft choices bolted when they got the chance (Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady and eventually*Vince Carter*and*Chris Bosh) and they’ve suffered through a litany of mistakes, miscues and misfortunes.

Their GMs have had a history of making questionable draft picks, trades and free-agent signings and they’ve never had a coach who had a winning record during his tenure with the team. Arguably the biggest free-agent signing in the team’s history is*Hedo Turkoglu*(I won’t even bother trying to be funny there, as that statement is a joke in and of itself). They’ve pulled off some blockbuster deals, but their biggest trades have been for players well past their primes (Hakeem Olajuwan, Jalen Rose) or players whose skill sets didn’t quite fit the rest of the roster at the time (Jermaine O’Neal,*Shawn Marion).The Raptors have always had an uphill battle to claim relevance in Canada, a nation full-heartedly committed to hockey and the NHL.

That’s not to say they don’t have passionate fans, because they have one of the most rabid fan bases in the Association, but the casual Canadian hoops fan has no time for this team and even the diehards have trouble holding on when the losing seasons pile up. Being the only basketball team in Canada, they have a whole nation willing them to be good, but it has yet to work.The winds of change began blowing through Toronto this past summer, however, when the Raptors hired reigning Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, away from the Denver Nuggets. In his time with Denver, Ujiri traded away the franchise’s best player,*Carmelo Anthony, and got a bounty of role players and draft picks that he converted into a starless contending team in a tough Western Conference. Considering Toronto’s history of losing its brightest stars to free agency and bad track record of attracting outside talent, Raptors fans were drooling at the potential of having a roster-tinkering guru like Ujiri at the helm.The turnaround was supposed to take a few years, considering the mess of a roster Ujiri inherited from former GM Bryan Colangelo. Coming off a disappointing 34-48 campaign, the Raps didn’t have the needed flexibility to turn their fortunes around quickly. They had two of what most NBA pundits considered to be the most untradeable contracts in the NBA in*Rudy Gay*and*Andrea Bargnani, and didn’t even have a pick in this past year’s Draft, despite being a lottery team (their first-round pick was traded last year for*Kyle Lowry*and bounced around from Houston to Oklahoma City before eventually becoming promising Thunder rookieSteven Adams).Now, after an impressive 10-4 run, including a stellar 7-2 road record and key victories over the top Eastern and Western Conference teams (the Pacers and Thunder respectively), the Raptors rebuild seems to be ahead of schedule.

What happened?A TALE OF TWO TEAMSThe elephant in the room when it comes to this Raptors season is Rudy Gay. Yes, Ujiri’s first masterstroke of the season was trading Bargnani’s remaining $23 million and career of negative*nERDs (last year he finished the season at -4.2) to the Knicks, but that didn’t right the ship completely. The team started the season 6-12, and many were blaming Gay’s iso-heavy, shot-chucking ways for the underachievement.

There was a growing belief that if the Raptors could just get rid of Gay, they could turn things around and have a shot at being at least a decent team in a terrible Eastern Conference and maybe even have a shot at winning the wide-open Atlantic Division (I said as much*here).What has actually happened is that, since the trade, the Raptors have transformed into one of the best teams in the League. You might consider that to be a hyperbolic statement, but the numbers certainly back it up. Just look at their ratings before and after:
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The net rating is particularly impressive, as that stat tends to sift out the teams that are good on either offense or defense and not the other way. It basically tells us who the best teams in the league are and the Raptors admittedly look like the campus nerd that snuck into the cool frat party. They rank fourth in net rating since the trade, right behind the Thunder, Heat, and Spurs and ahead of the Clippers, Warriors, and Pacers. Those are all excellent teams that we take very seriously as contenders in this league.The big question is, will the Raps sustain the change from geek to chic like in every Hollywood movie about such transformations, or will the stumble and fall back to Earth?

FOUR FACTORSAs I discussed recently in*a piece about the Portland Trail Blazers, Dean Oliver’s*Four Factors*(effective field goal percentage, turnover ratio, rebounding percentage, and free-throw rate) have become a standard way for predicting a team’s ability to be successful and sustain that success. Here’s a breakdown of the Raptors over their last 14 games:
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