Better than Ever?

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Were the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors Better than the Kawhi-Led Raptors?

Before we jump into the analysis, one thing must be said.

Whether or not the numbers and statistical data back it, the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors did something no other Raptors team ever did and that was win an NBA championship. With Kawhi Leonard as the center of attention, the Raptors went on a magical run that created a buzz unlike any other across the entire country.

Numbers don’t lie.

They are an objective visualization of what occurs in sports on the field of play – on the basketball court.

Last year was the greatest season in Raptors franchise history because each member of the team have golden rings to show for it, but numbers could also suggest that last year’s Raptors squad was inferior to the team that went on a franchise record 15 game win-streak this season.

It’s important to separate best team from best season as there are a plethora of outside factors that can benefit a team throughout the duration of an NBA season. Raptors fans don’t want to admit, but let’s understand, that to win an NBA championship, there is also an element of luck involved – more times than not, the teams that consistently play better will find themselves get lucky more often.

The 2018-19 Raptors are no different.

They overcame a depleted Golden State Warriors team in the NBA Finals, they miraculously survived Game 3 in overtime with Kyle Lowry forced out of the game. Kawhi Leonard hit the only buzzer-beating Game 7 shot to ice a playoff series in NBA history. The Raptors were incredibly good, but let’s admit it, some things did definitely go the Raptors way.

So what’s the deal with this year’s Raptors team?

A team that was counted out from the very beginning – before a single NBA regular season game was played – has surpassed all expectations, remaining not only an Eastern Conference powerhouse, but a championship contender.

Some things have changed, but a lot has remained the same.

The reigning Finals MVP and quite possibly the best talent to ever don a Raptors jersey left for California. Danny Green, one of the better three-point shooters and two-way role players in the league has left as well. Yet, the Raptors remained legit – so legit in fact, that many questioned whether this year’s team is better than the won that brought the franchise its first championship.

Hell, my boss asked me to write this article, so yes, it has turned into a legitimate question to ask.

The Raptors became the second team in the entire NBA to clinch a playoff berth and at the time of the NBA announcing its hiatus due to the novel coronavirus, were comfortably sitting in the second seed in the Eastern Conference. They were slowly getting healthy and getting prepared to ramp things up as the 2020 postseason approached. This team no longer had a top-five player in the league, but what this Raptors team was able to do was retain the championship mentality it built throughout last year’s playoff run and get better from it.

The players leftover from last year’s playoff run have all gotten better. They continue to be one of the hardest playing and best coached teams in the league, but most importantly, they were able to fill the hole left behind by Leonard and Green by simply getting better.

Kyle Lowry has looked better than he has in years, all while remaining the heart and soul of the organization – the undisputed leader amongst the players if I may. Pascal Siakam has taken the next step in his development and has transitioned into an All-Star. Serge Ibaka was in the midst of a career season, while Fred VanVleet has looked incredible in what has been his walk year. Meanwhile, Norman Powell has elevated his game to the point where he will undoubtedly earn plenty of Most Improved Player of the Year votes.

Chris Boucher has stepped up. You can see the strides OG Anunoby has made after what was an injury-riddled and confusing sophomore season. Even second-year head coach Nick Nurse has gotten better and looks to be on his way to his first Coach of the Year award.

Diving into the numbers, despite losing two All-Defense calibre players, especially a former two-time Defensive Player of the Year, the Raptors were somehow able to elevate their play on the defensive end of the court.

Fifth in defensive rating (107.1) last year, the 2019-20 Raptors have jumped up to second (105.2) this year while also allowing the fewest points per game (106.5). Their opponent’s field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and effective field goal percent has all gone down.

Anchored by their incredible defense, the Raptors have built up a .719 winning percentage, surpassing last year’s .707 mark, despite playing 18 fewer games due to the suspension.

Offensively, things swing over towards the championship squad pretty handedly.

The 2018-19 champions were top-5 in both offensive and defensive rating, which is very clearly, a recipe for success. This year’s Raptors squad boasted the 14th best offensive rating according to Basketball Reference and sat 12th in the league in terms of points per game. The Kawhi-led Raptors were a juggernaut on both ends of the court, while this year’s team lacked a similar type of offensive explosiveness, which may very well be a by-product of how many missed games due to injury the Raptors have endured.

The fact of the matter is, this year’s Raptors squad was built on their defensive toughness and high basketball IQ.

Offensively, they have a plethora of pieces that can contribute when healthy, but health has been the long withstanding question mark of this reigning champion Raptors team. It is impossible to know what this team could’ve been if they played the majority of the season at full health, but it is fair to assume that offensively, they would be better than middle of the pack.

The playoffs are a small sample size compared to an 82 game regular season, but in the Raptors case, we may need to see them play fully healthy basketball in the postseason to really find out how this team compares to the championship roster of the prior year.

Don’t get too caught up in the 15-game win streak, or the underdog mentality.

This Raptors team is good and this season may turn out to be yet another magical Raptors run that we as fans have gotten all so accustomed to over the past decade – assuming the season returns. All that will not change the fact that what last year’s team did on both ends of the floor maintains them as the greatest team in Raptors history that went onto have the best year in Raptors history.

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