It's rare for a team to win a title and then lose their best player in the summer, but that's just what happened to the Toronto Raptors a few months ago. In fact, they lost two key members of their starting lineup in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. And yet, despite the fact that they didn't make any significant additions in the summer, they're once again one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Pascal Siakam has taken on an even bigger role and is thriving aside from a pesky groin injury that kept him out for a few weeks, the defense is as strong as ever due to some inventive coaching by Nick Nurse and they've weathered a ridiculous run of injuries.
At the halfway point of the season, the Raptors check in at 25-14 which has them in fourth place in the East, and just a few games back of the No. 2 spot in a crowded middle of the pack. Considering all the adversity this team has faced, they have a case for being the most impressive team this season.
Siakam's continued growth: A
After what he did last season, winning Most Improved Player and starring in the Finals, it was clear Pascal Siakam was good. But even the Raptors couldn't have expected him to be this good. He came out of the gates looking like a borderline MVP-type player, and even though he's cooled off since the first few weeks, he's making it clear that he's a legitimate star.
Making this type of leap from an energy guy off the bench when he started his career, to an All-Star lock putting up 24.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and shooting 39 percent from 3-point land with strong defense is incredible regardless of the circumstances. But the fact that Siakam has done this in the wake of Leonard's departure over the summer only makes it more special for the Raptors.
That isn't to say Siakam is Leonard, but he's giving them a good 80 percent of that kind of production. Not only is that big for the Raptors' hopes this season, but it gives them an excellent foundation to build upon for the future. And with many of their key players already on the wrong side of 30, that future could be coming sooner rather than later in Toronto.
One of the main reasons the Raptors won the title last season was their work on the defensive side of the ball. Their length, size and talent frustrated the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, helped slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals and made life miserable for the shorthanded Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Now, despite losing Leonard and Green, and dealing with a string of injuries to key players such as Siakam, the Raptors are once again one of the best defensive teams in the league. As of this writing, they're second in defensive rating, allowing just 103.8 points per 100 possessions, they are top 10 in steals and blocks per game and are even higher up the rankings in deflections and loose balls recovered.
While much of that credit goes to the players, coach Nick Nurse deserves praise as well. Maintaining this level of play on that end of the floor despite all the challenges he's faced is quite impressive. As our own James Herbert detailed in his story earlier this month, Nurse's flexibility and willingness to get creative have played a big role in keeping the Raptors' defense at the top of the charts.
Record against good teams: D
At 25-14, the Raptors are off to a much better start than anticipated, and right there in the wide-open race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, when it comes to projecting what kind of success this team could have in the playoffs, it's worth diving a little deeper into their record.
To this point, they've absolutely crushed bad teams, racking up a 20-2 record against sub-.500 opponents. As some simple math would tell you, that means their record against good teams has been less than stellar. They're just 5-12 against teams with a .500 record or better,
When you narrow that down to the eight teams with a better record than them, they're 3-9 in those games, with six of those losses coming by double digits. Admittedly they've been without key players in a number of those games, but it's still a worrying trend. Outside of perhaps the first round if you get the No. 2 seed, you aren't going to play any bad teams in the playoffs.
It's strange to give a grade to health, considering it's not something the team or players can really control, but you can't discuss the Raptors' season without mentioning the impact injuries have had on this team. So far the Raptors have played 39 games, and the only player to appear in all of them is Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie most people had never heard of before the season.
Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell have all missed double-digit games due to injuries, and Fred VanVleet isn't far behind that pace. From groins and hamstrings to shoulders, ankles and thumbs, the Raptors' injury report reads like someone was playing a game of "Operation."
Emergence of unheralded players: B+
Speaking of injuries … Any time a player goes down, it opens up an opportunity for someone else to step up and make a name for themselves, and that's been happening on a frequent basis in Toronto this season. On the one hand, it's a bummer because you don't want to see players deal with injuries, but at the same time, it's resulted in the Raptors finding a number of solid contributors.
As noted earlier, the only player to appear in every game this season is Terence Davis, and he's perhaps the most notable of their bunch of unheralded players. Davis went undrafted after playing at Ole Miss but showed enough in the summer to earn a deal with the Raptors. Now, he's an important member of their rotation. In his first start earlier this month, he put up 23 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in a win over the Hornets.
Along with Davis, there's Chris Boucher, who in the absence of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka at various points this season has assumed a much bigger role in the frontcourt. Lanky and athletic, Boucher fits right in with the Raptors and has played a key role in keeping their defense near the top of the charts.
Likewise, there's Malcolm Miller, Matt Thomas and Oshae Brissett, all of whom went undrafted, yet have earned minutes on this team and helped keep the ship afloat.
Overall grade: A-
No one thought the Raptors would be terrible this season, but they've exceeded all expectations after losing Leonard and Green, especially considering the subsequent bad luck with injuries.
Between Siakam's continued growth, the funky defenses Nurse has devised and inspiring stories from some unheralded players, this team has not only been tough to beat but plenty of fun to watch.
Their ceiling without Leonard isn't as high as last season, but no one is going to want to play this team come the spring.