On Monday night, the Toronto Raptors defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 114-103 on the road behind a season-high 35 points from DeMar DeRozan. Under different circumstances, this win would just be another footnote in a long season, especially against a team that is 13-47 on the season and barely fielding a recognizable NBA roster. But it was a win the Raptors desperately needed, to stop a season high five-game losing streak.
Four of the five losses were against quality Western Conference opponents (Warriors, Rockets, Mavericks and Pelicans), but the streak highlighted big picture concerns for a team that appeared earlier this season as though they might have been capable of making a deep playoff run. The Raptors may have stopped the losing on Monday, but it's clear there are lingering problems which might keep them from going too far when the postseason starts.
After blowing a fourth quarter lead in Dallas last week, reserve forward Patrick Patterson said the team relies too much on its isolation offense. DeRozan, one of the leaders on this team, has continually talked about the need to share the ball. In the locker room, this message is echoed by most players you talk to, and everyone is quick to point out that it's a collective problem.
"We're not good enough to individually go out and beat anyone one-on-one," Casey said prior to Saturday's loss to the Knicks. "It's not a selfish thing. [Right now], guys think they have to go out and do it on their own, and it digs us into a deeper hole."
Identifying the problem is one thing. Solving it is a much more difficult proposition, especially for a roster with so many players whose offensive game is predicated on creating one-one-one against their defender. Per Synergy, the Raptors have three players -- DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams -- who rank in the top 30 in offensive isolation possessions. While Lowry is shooting 44.4 percent in iso possessions, DeRozan and Williams are both shooting below 36 percent. As a team, Toronto has the fifth highest offensive isolation possessions in the league, but it is near the bottom 10 in team field goal percentage in those situations.
The Raptors are a perimeter-oriented team, and while ball movement can help the team create easier shots, this is Toronto's identity. The Raptors rely on their top options on offense to create for themselves and the rest of the team to hit its open shots from beyond the arc. With 22 games left in the season, the team's offensive approach isn't going to change. And despite all the criticism of how they're scoring their points, the Raptors are still fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. But the amount of isolation possessions, especially in the fourth quarter, and the team's reliance on low-percentage shots, make the Raptors a very volatile team, as we're seeing right now. It does not bode well for the playoffs.
In their 37 wins this season prior to Monday's win against the 76ers, the Raptors shot 47.0 percent from the field and 38.0 percent from three, averaging 21.9 assists and 12.4 turnovers. In their 22 losses, they're shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 28.7 percent from three, with 18.4 assists and 14.5 turnovers in those games. During that aforementioned five-game losing streak, the Raptors shot 40.4 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from three. They're a jump shooting team, and as simple as it may sound, when the shots aren't falling in, they're not going to win many games, because the ability to create those easier shots they speak about just isn't there.
The Raptors have beaten up on lesser competition this season too. They're 28-20 on the season if you take away their 10-2 record against the Atlantic Division. They still remain in second place in the East, but it's fair to wonder whether this team has improved upon last year's surprising 48-win season that ended with a Game 7 home loss to Brooklyn in the first round.
Lowry made his first All-Star team this season, but in February, he shot just 34.2 percent from the field and 24.0 percent from three, averaging just 11.9 points, 5.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds, all well below his season averages. He sat out Saturday's game against the Knicks and Monday in Philadelphia, as part of the team's plan to rest him ("physically, and more importantly, mentally," said Casey) down the stretch. DeRozan is shooting a career low 38.5 percent from the field, and while Jonas Valanciunas continues to develop, Terrence Ross's progress has stagnated in year three. Ross, who lost his starting role in January, has not been a reliable individual defender, and he put up 6.5 points on 33.3 percent shooting in 11 games in February. The supporting cast -- especially Williams, Patterson and James Johnson -- has been a bright spot this season, but it's worthwhile to consider whether the core of this team has gone as far as it can. If so, the Raptors have the flexibility to reconfigure the roster over the next few years.
This summer, Williams and Amir Johnson will become unrestricted free agents. The contracts of Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough will come off the books, so Toronto will have some cap space to figure out how it wants to build around the backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan. The team will also have a chance to extend Valanciunas and Ross, the latter of whom may be on the trade market, or be allowed to hit restricted free agency in the summer of 2016. DeRozan has a $9.5 million player option for the 2016-17 season that he will most likely not exercise in order to renegotiate a new contract right as the salary cap takes a jump due to the new television deal.
The Raptors may face a decision after next season as to whether or not they want to commit a lot of salary to their starting shooting guard. The team stood pat at the trade deadline, despite what felt like a potential opening to make a deep playoff run in the wide-open East. In a strange way, this losing streak has almost rewarded that decision in highlighting exactly why few people see this team as capable of making the Finals, despite its impressive regular season record.
For now, the Raptors need to go 11-11 in their last 22 games to set a franchise record for regular season wins. If they can get to the second round, they will have gone one step further than last season, which would signify progress for the franchise. For some players in the locker room, the focus is more on the immediate goal of getting things back on track.
"We know we're out of rhythm," Greivis Vasquez said Saturday. "We are concerned. But it only takes one game. We're acting like we're not going to the playoffs, like tomorrow is the end of the world. We're second in the East. That's pretty good. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. It's not time to point fingers. We're going to gather ourselves and figure it out. It only takes one game."
In year two under the guidance of general manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have become a team with expectations, and with that, they have to deal with the extra scrutiny, realizing that five-game losing streaks can become a cause for concern. It's unlikely that the Raptors are good enough to compete for a championship this season. But at the very least, the rest of this season and the playoffs will afford Ujiri a chance to evaluate just how far this team is from being a legitimate contender. Performances like the one on Saturday in New York would suggest there's still a long way to go.