Toronto rode its unmatched player development to 15 straight wins, and could eventually ride it to a title
The Raptors are fine just the way they are
Winning streaks are a function of luck, and luck, in basketball, is often a function of talent. Rarely does a team manage to truly outplay every opponent it faces for weeks on end. Streaks are littered with escapes. The easiest way for a team to win a game it shouldn't is for an individual player to swing the outcome singlehandedly. The longest winning streaks in league history are proof of that.
Since the adoption of the 3-point shot in the 1979-80 season, 33 teams have won 15 or more games, but 22 of those teams heavily featured an MVP-winner. Five more featured at least one No. 1 overall pick, and while the remaining teams don't fit quite so neatly into boxes, it's not as though groups anchored by Clyde Drexler are bereft of raw talent. For all of the bellyaching about their impact on small-market basketball, the best player on the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks was a No. 3 overall pick in Al Horford. Inexact as the proclamation might be, it is at least fair to conclude that star-caliber talent is the common denominator binding teams that win high numbers of consecutive games.
And then, along came the Toronto Raptors. While hardly hellbent on defying the norms of traditional team-building (they did just win a championship with Kawhi Leonard, after all), the Raptors are, on paper, exactly the sort of roster that isn't supposed to rip off double-digit wins in a row. In its entire (now concluded) 15-game winning streak, the Raptors put 16 different players on the floor. Among those 16 players, Toronto only got 18 minutes and 58 seconds of playing time from a single lottery pick: Stanley Johnson.
Meanwhile, nearly half of their roster in that span was comprised of undrafted players. The Raptors played seven of them during the streak over 950 minutes in total. That free depth was the catalyst of the streak. After all, the Raptors had only three 30-point performances across the entire 15-game span, all from former No. 27 overall pick Pascal Siakam. Giannis Antetokounmpo alone had 10 during Milwaukee's 18-game winning streak earlier this season.
None of this is meant to suggest that Toronto lacks a traditional superstar. Siakam is going to draw down-ballot MVP votes. Kyle Lowry makes the All-Star team every year for a reason. Fred VanVleet appears destined to replace him as Raptors point guard that perpetually scores in the high teens per game while infuriating opponents with his mastery of minutia. The Raptors have elite players. What matters is where they're coming from.
Toronto was Lowry's third team, and was very nearly shipped off to a fourth before James Dolan nixed a potential Knicks trade. He wasn't even a full-time starter before putting on a Raptors uniform. VanVleet was undrafted and unwanted. Siakam, a New Mexico State product with only five years of formal basketball experience prior to being drafted, evolved from a dribbler who was practically allergic to the ball...
Into one of the game's most lethal one-on-one scorers.
Though the outcome ultimately differed, the process that led to Toronto finally losing a game and ending the streak against the Brooklyn Nets looked fairly similar to a typical Raptors game. While Siakam struggled, his slack was picked up by a different star of the day. In this case, it was Serge Ibaka, averaging a career-high in scoring in his 11th season despite coming off of the bench more than half of the time, who dropped 28 to keep the Raptors afloat.
Though the streak may have died, what it represented is alive and well. It's no secret that the above criteria for a lengthy winning streak is not exactly dissimilar to the formula for winning a championship. Toronto experienced that a season ago behind Kawhi Leonard, yet has a better record through 55 games this season (40-15) than it did a year ago with its brand-name superstar (39-16).
Toronto's lust for another such player is no secret. Masai Ujiri has taken great pains to keep his cap sheet clear for a 2021 run at Antetokounmpo, and while no team would turn down the defending MVP, the consensus surrounding Toronto's future is that the Raptors are utterly dependent on him. Never mind the fact Siakam has either himself provided the value of a superstar, or has contributed to his team generating it in the aggregate (Toronto's clutch offense, for instance, is currently ranked No. 6 in the NBA and is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better than last year's outfit thanks to a balanced attack between Siakam, Lowry and VanVleet). The mere idea that it once took Leonard for Toronto to win a championship seems to suggest to the masses that the addition of a similar player to is inherently necessary in winning another one.
But the blueprint established by Leonard's first championship team seems entirely replicable for the Raptors. Leonard was once a No. 15 pick that couldn't shoot. San Antonio's unrivaled development program helped turn him into an MVP candidate and flanked him with out-of-nowhere supporters like Danny Green and Patty Mills. Where once the Spurs won with a traditional superstar in Tim Duncan, their 2014 title relegated him to a supporting role in favor of the in-house production Leonard.
Toronto's winning streak was the first indication that the Raptors could follow a similar path. Their championship infrastructure masks the holes in a not-yet-championship-caliber roster. If it can produce 15 straight wins in the winter, why can't it generate 16 in the spring?
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