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  • Nikola Cuvalo

Sensational Start in the 6ix: A Quarter-Season Review of the 2018/19 Toronto Raptors

We’re quarter of the way through the 2018-19 NBA season, and the Toronto have thus far had their best start in franchise history. Sitting pretty at the top of the league standings with a 20-4 record, the Raptors have been steamrolling competition. Their current 83 percent winning percentage puts the club on pace for a 68-14 record – which would obliterate the team’s previous record of 59-23 from last season.

While many Raptors fans may still suffer nightmares from last year’s playoff humiliation at the hands of LeBron James, it’s worth noting that this iteration of Canadian basketball is decidedly different. And these early results speak volumes of Team President Masai Ujiri’s offseason decisions.

Firing Dwane Casey – the 2018 Coach of the Year – and installing his assistant, Nick Nurse, as the franchise’s new head coach has ushered in a faster, space-oriented offense and a switch-everything, malleable defense. The Raptors currently rank second in offensive rating and eight in defensive rating. Toronto joins Milwaukee and Denver as one of three teams to rank in the top eight for both metrics.

The Raptors are bonafide contenders, and are league-leaders in multiple statistical categories. As such, there’s been a whole lot more working for the team than against it. For example, Toronto has also enjoyed a fair bit of luck in terms of avoiding the injury bug thus far; outside of sitting newly acquired superstar Kawhi Leonard on the second night of back-to-backs, Toronto has only endured minor injuries to players who mainly reside on the fringes of the rotation, such as Norman Powell and CJ Miles.

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In order to truly gauge and properly interpret Toronto’s early-season success, let’s break down what has been going right for the Raptors, as well as what hasn’t.

What’s gone right for these Raptors?

Pretty much everything has been clicking for these new-look Raptors. The team is building on an eight game win streak, is enjoying the unexpected emergence of Pascal Siakam and the dominant MVP-level play of Kawhi Leonard. Toronto is leading the league in field goal percentage and a top-10 standing in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

There are six players on the roster averaging double-digit point totals per game. This doesn’t including Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, two young players still acclimating to Nurse’s new system who are sure to heat up as the season progresses. The very idea that this version of the Raptors is not yet fully actualized should scare the sneakers off the rest of the league, even the defending champion Golden State Warriors – whom the Raptors just defeated this past week in a thrilling overtime game.

All-Star Kyle Lowry is leading the entire league in assists per game, and he continues to revel in his position as a chip-on-the-shoulder locker room motivator and the soul of the franchise. Leonard, meanwhile has missed a quarter of the season but leads the team in scoring, rebounds, and steals per game. As his health improves, this offense should coalesce to an even greater degree, and possibly finish the season as the league’s very best.

What’s gone wrong for these Raptors?

Truthfully, not a whole lot has gone wrong for these Raptors. Beyond managing a few unfortunate but ultimately inconsequential injuries to end-of-the-rotation members, head coach Nick Nurse could not possibly have envisioned a more lucrative start to his coaching career. The roster’s eye-popping depth and two-star centrality have shown great adherence to his demands, and have flourished because of his willingness to adapt to the modern NBA.

We are left, then, to nitpick. The Raptors, with their bevy of wings and switchable bodies, can probably up the defensive ante a touch. One could reasonably expect a top-five defensive finish from these Raptors, and they’ve been a hair off of that mark 24 games in. Although Nurse has been reluctant to show the rest of the league his entire defensive repertoire, the best opportunity to practice the playbook comes in regular season games.

Finally, these Raptors are currently ranked 16th in three-point percentage making their threes at a 35 percent clip; this number figures to climb as the season proceeds, more long-balls are launched, and traditionally sharp-shooting rotation members find their shots again.

The Raptors are off to a hot start, and the evidence suggests that they’re only bound to get hotter. If the first quarter of the season sets the kind of precedent Raptors fans surely hope it does, they should count on playing all the way into June, with well-warranted dreams of the Larry O’Brien Trophy dancing playfully in their collective imagination.

#NBA #Raptors #NikolaCuvalo

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