The Raptors May Be the Most Interesting Team in the Play-Offs
Playoffs are starting and the Raptors are all too familiar with it. A first round loss to the Nets (4–3) in 2014, and another first round loss in a sweep to the Washington Wizards in 2015. In 2016 they managed to make it out of the first and second rounds but had to go 7 games against both the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat and finally succumbing to the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.
This year the Toronto Raptors are 51–31, slightly worse than their 2016 season. They were 56–26 and one game behind Cleveland last year. However, their offensive efficiency is up since last year. It was 110.0 last year and 112.8 this year. In terms of defensive efficiency, they are down, but since the All-Star break —with the addition of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker it did get better, their efficiency for the season ended at 104.9 which is 8th in the NBA compared to their 105.2 last year which was 11th and one behind Cleveland.
The Raptors are currently third in the East and will face the Milwaukee Bucks. Per Basketball Reference, the Raptors lead this season’s series (3–1). During that last meeting, in which they lost, Kyle Lowry was still out. Having Kyle Lowry back in the lineup will make it a lot harder for the Bucks to move on.
The biggest test for the Raptors will be how much chemistry the Raptors will have considering Kyle Lowry was absent for most of Ibaka’s and Tucker’s tenure as a Raptor. Honestly, I don’t see it as much of a problem considering they’ve looked pretty solid all together, and the kinks that they do have will resolve themselves over a short period of time.
The biggest challenge for the Raptors will be in the second round where they will most likely face Lebron James and the World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors lost (4–2) last year in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and trail in season series (1–3).
However, this may be the best chance for the Raptors to overtake Cleveland in this round. Obviously, they would have liked to take on the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals because as history shows, the Raptors have playoff struggles and may need a series or two to get the playoff jitters out of way. This matchup is inevitable and the Raptors should be ready for it.
The Cavaliers are better offensively with a rating of 110.9 while the Raptors have a rating of 109.8. The difference is slim, but the biggest difference comes with defense. The Cavaliers are an abysmal 108.0 which is 22nd in the league. No team besides the 2001 Lakers have won a Championship without a top 20 defense. The Cavs were 20th in defense in 2015 and made it to the Finals, but lost to the Warriors. Last year the Cavaliers were 10th in defense.
If the Raptors want to beat the Cavaliers their defense will be key. DeRozan and Lowry will score at least 20 points a game during this series, Valanciunas will score some buckets off the pick and roll, and Ibaka will knock down some shots. In terms of defense, the Raptors match up very well with the Cavaliers compared to last year. Lowry can lock down Irving, Ibaka will do a solid job on Love, Tucker or Carroll will have their hands full with LeBron, and Valanciunas can protect the rim. The main problem is LeBron, but the Raptors have better rim protection than last year to hopefully slow down the Cavaliers.
The perimeter is where the Cavaliers can do a lot of damage. The Cavaliers have proven before that they can just shoot their opponents of the gym. Toronto is 21st in 3 pointers made while the Cavs are 2nd, behind Houston. Toronto also hold their opponents to 9.7 threes per game at 35% which is around the 12–13 range in the league. The Cavs are shooting 38.4% from behind the arc. It’s going to be interesting how Dwane Casey manages his lineups and figure out what defenses to run against the Cavs. It’s going to be extremely tough for the Raptors to dethrone the Cavaliers, but it is possible.
Obviously, the Raptors want to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and reach the NBA Finals, but their result of this season will have a lot of implications for the future of this franchise. Kyle Lowry can opt out this year, Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker, and Patrick Patterson are all unrestricted free agents, and Norman Powell has a team option. I’m sure the Raptors don’t want Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to end up being a half-season rental, but the Raptors main priority is going to be to sign Lowry again.
Kyle Lowry has a player option for next year for $12 million that he will most likely opt out of. The Raptors have said that they have no problem making room to sign Lowry to the max and it seems Lowry does indeed want to stay a Raptor. However, if the Raptors lose in the first round or get swept by the Cavs, the narrative may change. Although it is unlikely, some options he can look at will be the Lakers or the 76ers, both of whom are trying to pursue him.
The length of Kyle Lowry’s contract will be interesting. He’s 31 years old, and analytics show that around 32 is when it really starts to go downhill for point guards. Kyle Lowry has definitely been a late bloomer so hopefully that means his decline comes a lot later. The Raptors will have to make a big investment if they want to sign him long term for 5 years.
The other free-agents that the Raptors will most likely want to re-sign again will be Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. The Raptors didn’t give up a crazy amount to acquire both these defensive stoppers, but it would not be in their best interest if both of them leave in free-agency. If the Raptors go to the Finals or even the Eastern Conference Finals, it should sway both of them to sign another contract with them. Both Ibaka and Tucker bring a lot of defense with them, and were great pickups by Toronto. Pre All-Star they were 16th in defensive rating at 106.0 and Post All-Star break they were 4th at 102.3 which is a huge boost in defense.
If they do manage to bring back Lowry, Tucker, and Ibaka, the Raptors will most certainly be in the luxury tax, but a Finals or Eastern Conference Finals appearance would be a good indicator whether or not to bring back the core group of guys. This Summer is going to be really interesting for the Raptors, do they want to lock up an aging Ibaka, Tucker, and Lowry, or start new? Maybe they want to run it back for another year or two and see where it takes them. Nevertheless, the Raptors will have an interesting free agency and this postseason performance will be an indicator of how it turns out. One this is for certain, Masai Ujiri will have his hand full.
All stats per NBA.com if otherwise noted.