At the end of November last season, the Raptors were 13-4 and starting a stretch of 21 games without DeMar DeRozan, who was out with a groin injury. This season, they're 11-7 at the same calendar mark, and have to deal with the absence of another key cog in their starting lineup—Jonas Valanciunas—for about a quarter of the season.
That's where the parallels end between this season and last, in terms of how the team has positioned itself atop the Atlantic Division entering December. Last season's team took advantage of a home-heavy schedule in November, whereas this year's squad just finished a stretch of playing 11 of 14 on the road. The 2014-15 Raptors struggled to put together wins against quality opponents, especially during their second-half spiral. This season, the team already has road wins against the Mavericks, Thunder, Clippers and Wizards, and beat the Cavaliers at home last week.
The Raptors, as Dwane Casey said earlier this year, lost their balance last season, counting on their offence to win them games while slipping into a bottom-ten defensive outfit. The emphasis during the offseason and in training camp was to revamp the defensive end, and so far, it has paid off. The Raptors, like two years ago, are currently a top ten team on both ends of the floor. It is early, and the key will be sustaining this level of play throughout the season, and even though Valanciunas' usage (before he was injured) and the late-game play calling remain a concern, there are enough encouraging signs to think the Raptors will be able to rely on both their offence and defence to win games this season.
After visiting Atlanta on Wednesday, Toronto will play six games in a row at home (the homestand includes San Antonio and Golden State). This will be a key stretch for the Raptors, who are bunched up with a handful of teams in the middle of the East standings. Cleveland, Indiana and Chicago occupy the top three spots in the conference. After that, nine teams, including Toronto, are separated by just four games in the standings.
Last season, the Raptors began the New Year with an 8.5-game lead in the Atlantic Division, which guaranteed them a top-four seed and home-court advantage in the first round. The luxury of having home court in the first round by virtue of winning the division is gone this year. Based on the league's revised rules, the eight playoff teams in each conference will be seeded based on regular-season record, with no preferential treatment to the division winners. In a sense, the Raptors don't have to worry about being complacent even with a huge division lead this season. Their in-division foes—well, some of them—have improved as well. The Nets and 76ers are going nowhere this season, but the Celtics and Knicks look as though they will be in the playoff mix.
The path to a top-four seed is attainable, but much more difficult this season. For the Raptors to get there, they'll need to find a new kind of balance: the distribution of minutes. So far, Kyle Lowry, DeMarre Carroll and DeRozan all rank in the top 20 in the league in minutes per game. To win games, Casey's had to lean heavily on his starters thanks to injuries and below-average play from the bench, which ranks near the bottom in almost every statistical category. Aside from Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo—both currently part of the team's closing lineup in the fourth quarter—the second unit has been subpar, led by Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross. The Raptors need more from their bench, because relying on their starters—especially Lowry and Carroll—to do the heavy lifting means risking another second-half fall in the standings.
Lowry has been tremendous, but he wore down toward the end of last season, culminating in a playoff showing where he had more turnovers than assists in four games against Washington. Even though he's in much better shape this season, the Raptors would be well-advised to monitor the minutes of their starting point guard, especially now that Joseph is in the fold. Carroll is battling plantar fasciitis, an injury that will linger for the season. Toronto can't risk running their best perimeter defender into the ground, either. The league tweaked its scheduling this season and limited four games in five nights for teams. But as the Raptors start jostling for playoff position, it'll be worthwhile to keep an eye on whether Casey can find a way to distribute more minutes to his second unit.
A few other thoughts...
- Biyombo has filled in admirably in Valanciunas' absence. Before Sunday's loss to Phoenix, the Raptors were undefeated with him in the starting lineup. Biyombo grabbed 16 boards and blocked four shots in 35 minutes during Saturday's road win over the Wizards, and extended his streak of double-digit rebound games to three against the Suns. Joseph has been the team's best offseason acquisition so far, but Biyombo has really shown his value as well during this recent stretch.
- Saturday's victory in Washington won't erase the bad taste of last year's sweep at the hands of the Wizards, but the Raptors—especially Lowry—will take it. Lowry, the league leader in steals per game, is averaging 20.7 points, 6.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds. He's been one of the most valuable players in the NBA based on several metrics, ranking third in the league behind only Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook in real plus-minus, and 15th in PER. It's early, but Lowry should be headed toward a second consecutive All-Star appearance, at home no less.
- The Knicks have lost four in a row but are much improved this season. There's extra incentive to root for them to miss the playoffs since the Raptors are going to receive either New York or Denver's first-round pick (the lower, or if easier, the worst of the two picks) in next year's draft. Assuming Denver doesn't crack the top eight in the West, if the Knicks make the playoffs, the Raptors will miss out on being in the lottery.