LeBronto, am I right? The Toronto Raptors have been the laughing stock of the league for a few years now. It is not regular season success which has evaded them. It’s the inability to win in the playoffs which have tanked their image.
Everyone is so quick to point the finger at Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but is it really their fault? The star guards have had their fair share of struggles in the playoffs, but is blowing up the roster really the answer?
We’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a look at where it all started.
July 11th, 2012, the Toronto Raptors make a to trade with the Houston Rockets. They give up their first round pick for an up and coming player in point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry went on to have a solid, but unspectacular first year in Toronto with 11.6 PPG 6.4 AST 4.7 RPG on 40.1% FG and 36.2% 3PT.
On July 10th 2013, the Raptors made the trade that altered the history of this franchise. They traded away forward Andrea Bargnani, the closest thing to a superstar they had. They had traded him to the New York Knicks for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, and Quentin Richardson, along with several draft picks. Looking back it, this trade did not improve their roster. What the trade did do was clear a path for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan to take their game to the next level.
What happened next?
Lowry and DeRozan had career years in the 2013-2014 season, leading the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They won 48 games that year, the most in franchise history at the time.
Take a look at Lowry’s stats that year.
A huge reason for the tremendous season was Lowry’s productivity. You can see the uptick in stats after the Bargnani trade. The 6.3 PPG increase sticks out, along with the assists, FG%, and 3PT% all seeing a slight increase. He did all this while playing fantastic defense. Lowry finished 6th in voting for Most Improved Player that year.
DeRozan boosted his numbers all across the board as well. Setting a career high with 22.7 PPG, a whole 4.6 PPG higher than the year before. DeRozan dropped 4.0 APG, showcasing his improved playmaking ability. With Lowry and DeRozan locked in, the future looked bright for Toronto.
The playoffs finally arrived for the Toronto Raptors. They drew a tough matchup with the Brooklyn Dinosaurs. I mean the Brooklyn Nets. A veteran starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez took down the young and inexperienced Raptors. The Nets won in a tough seven-game series. Everyone chalked up the early exit for the Raptors to a learning experience.
The very next year the Raptors had an almost identical record in the regular season with 49 wins. Lowry and DeRozan’s play bounced around the same as the year before, which led to another playoff berth for the up and coming team.
Gaining experience from their last playoffs, the Raptors were ready to take on the Washington Wizards. It did not end well. The Wizards took the series 4-0 in a seemingly too easy series with the Raptors.
The questions slowly started to rise for the Toronto Raptors. While some people still gave the benefit of the doubt to the youth of the Raptors, others were more skeptical. The Raptors knew something needed to change.
The very next season the Raptors won 56 games, another franchise record. You guessed it, Lowry and DeRozan had even better years. Check out the stats for Lowry (1st graphic) and DeRozan (2nd graphic). They both set new career highs with their PPG and 3PT%. Expectations were never higher for the Raptors.
After making it all the way to the conference finals, the Raptors lost 4-2 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. A disappointing finish for a team that looked so strong all year.
I can keep going on but you get the point. Lowry and DeRozan have great seasons and the Raptors lose in the playoffs. It seemed every year Lowry and DeRozan would improve some aspect of their game, bringing them closer to stardom. Unfortunately, this never seemed to translate to wins.
In case you were curious you can take a look at the Raptors seasons and how they corresponded with Lowry and DeRozan seasons.
So let’s get to the point, shall we?
There’s no debating the Raptors have a problem in the playoffs. They can never seem to win the games that matter. So what’s the obvious problem you know I’m about to say? Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan do not play well in the playoffs. For whatever reason, the star guard tandem can never seem to find success in the postseason.
Let’s first take a quick look at Lowry’s stats in the playoffs so you know exactly what I’m talking about.
With the exception of the 2008-2009 season where Lowry was a mere role player, you can see the struggles for Lowry up to the 2016-2017 season. While the PPGs do not seem bad most years, the FG% and 3PT% are way off from his regular season marks.
Now let’s take a look at DeRozan.
Same issue with him. While DeRozan has never averaged below 20 PPG in the playoffs, take a look at the percentages and you see the issue. DeRozan struggled mightily in the postseason.
While watching the games it’s quite apparent what happens in the playoffs. Just about every role player on the team plays as well as they possibly can. Whether it is Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, Bismack Biyombo, or whoever, they all play to their top potential. I even saw Cory Joseph outplay Kyle Lowry while in the playoffs. Joseph made the Raptors look better while he on the floor.
It’s quite obvious to anyone who watches. In spite of Lowry and DeRozan’s struggles, they lose by such a small margin, and that can be contributed to how well the role players play. When Lowry and DeRozan play as they do in the regular season, the Raptors win easily.
Let’s take a step forward to just this past season. The Raptors end with a franchise record 59 wins, 1st in the Eastern Conference by a relatively large margin. Despite that, everyone has already written off the Raptors. Wait what? They’re the first seed. I know.
Year after year the Raptors slowly became the laughing stalk of the league. The Raptors were synonymous with being “choke artists,” as many put it. Every time they would reach the playoffs, they would always seem to crack under pressure.
Anyways, back to the point. The #1 Raptors were in a tight series with the #8 Wizards at 2-2, everyone was ready for the Raptors to choke away the series. The Raptors proved everyone wrong, closing out the series 4-2.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were up next, but more importantly, LeBron James was up. The Raptors had a terrible track record against LeBron and the Cavs.
The Raptors lost in heartbreaking fashion Game 1 against the Cavs, losing 112-113 in OT. It seemed history was ready to repeat itself. The Cavs swept the #1 seed Raptors. Almost no one was surprised, however as they had already written off the Raptors before the playoffs.
So why did the Raptors lose? While everyone wants to blame Lowry and DeRozan, I’m here to tell you it wasn’t their fault. Huh? What? Crazy. I know right.
Taking a look at Lowry’s game log you can see how well he played. A very solid 17.8 PPG and elite 8.8 APG. The craziest thing was his almost unprecedented 57.1% FG and 45.8% 3PT. Lowry has never shot higher than 47.5% FG and 41.2% 3PT in a season, so this was a serious step up. Lowry was clearly not the problem.
While DeRozan did not play as well as Lowry, he by no way hurt this team. His 43.9% FG is still higher than any of his playoff seasons to this point. His three point percentage a bit concerning, but that is not his game anyway, he makes his money in the mid-range.
So what happened then?
In short, LeBron happened. LeBron James was on a mission and nobody was going to stop him. He averaged in mind-boggling 34.0 PPG, 11.3 APG, and 8.3 RPG on an insane 55.3%. Make no mistake, it did not come easy for LeBron, he was going up against fantastic young defender OG Anunoby. Anunoby played great defense on LeBron all game long, forcing tough shots.
Anunoby played tough D all series but simply put, you can’t stop greatness. James was forced to make fadeaway jumpers and tough layups all games. There was no stopping it. In addition to LeBron going super saiyan, Kevin Love finally stepped up and had an impactful series.
After Game 1 you see Kevin Love’s stats blow up. Love has had big numbers like this all year, but this series was different. He was aggressive, he took advantage of mismatches in the post and dominated all series long, on both sides of the ball. This was exactly what Love was brought to Cleveland to do, but had failed to do to this point.
It was all too overwhelming for the Raptors. Despite having the 3rd best defense in the league, the Raptors gave up points at a prodigious rate. Their 111.7 OPPG was 3rd worst among all playoff teams. Their 48.6% OPFG was 2nd worst among all playoff teams.
After this series, the Raptors fired their coach Dwane Casey. Casey went from coach of the year candidate to unemployed. It’s not that surprising, however, after getting swept the past two years, something needed to change. Casey did not have the most creative offense, a very simple offense that ran through Lowry and DeRozan. This Raptors team has tons of talent, whoever they hire next will have a lot to work with.
While everyone wants to see the Raptors team blown up, here’s the reality. Toronto is not a popular place to play. Despite the huge fan base and recent winning success, it is not a free agent destination. Much like Sacramento and Phoenix, nobody has a desire to go to Toronto. Even bad teams like the New York Knicks and LA Lakers get all the fame, everyone wants to play in the big spotlight.
The Raptors have done an impressive job of building up their roster. Doing it all through trades and the draft, the best free agent the free agent the Raptors signed may have been DeMarre Carroll. The Raptors are forced to signed mid-tier free agents who turn out just end up as role players.
Everyone would love to see the Raptors blow up the roster and start from scratch. However, if the Raptors do that, it may be another 10-15 years until they come back to the playoffs. The Raptors made a smart move with the firing of Casey in my opinion. Regardless of whether it was warranted or not, the team will be able to move in a new direction, a new system.
Much like when the Warriors fired Mark Jackson in favor of Steve Kerr, this could be historic for the Raptors. The Raptors are far from extinct. Lowry and DeRozan seem to have figured out their playoffs woes. The talent is on the roster, a fresh start at coach will benefit this team and could unlock their true potential. While I am still treading lightly with the Raptors, I would be a fool to write them off completely.