NBA Handicapping: are Toronto Raptors a Real NBA Finals Contender?
by Trevor Whenham - 11/20/2014
I've been a Canadian my whole life, and a basketball fan for almost as long. There has never been a better time than the last couple of years for those two things to co-exist. College basketball and the NBA Draft have been overrun with Canadians lately, and now Canada's team, the Toronto Raptors, have turned a corner to become a real contender.
It's surprising for many reasons, but two stand out - after constant struggles throughout their existence, it seemed like they would never succeed, and as recently as the beginning of last year the team seemed resigned to a slow rebuilding process. As I write this the team is atop the Eastern Conference and behind only the Grizzlies - who they beat on Wednesday night - in the NBA. So, the questions are obvious. How are they doing it? Can they keep doing it? Can we trust them as bettors? Let's take a look:
Unselfish: We are so used to selfishness in sports that we basically accept it as the norm. In fact, we really don't know how to handle it when we see unselfishness. A lack of selfishness is why the Kansas City Royals were such a joy to watch in baseball's playoffs - and the San Francisco Giants, for that matter. It's also what makes this Raptors team so impressive - and makes them stand out so well in what can be a painfully selfish league.
They play much more like a college team coached by a rigidly-disciplined, team-focused coach - a Beilein, Pitino, or, in his own way, Calipari. It starts with Kyle Lowry. He could have gone elsewhere this summer and could have been a bigger star as a result, but he stayed in Toronto. That has had a big impact beyond what he gives on the court. The team also made a massive statement about selfishness last year when they traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento. He was their best offensive player at the time, but he was inefficient and a ball hog. By trading him away the team saw what mattered, and they have taken it to heart and thrived.
Lowry: It was a slow and gradual development, but there is little doubt now that Lowry is one of the best pure point guards in the league. He's a floor general, and his basketball IQ and sense of control is impressive. He's a major asset for this team - and a major reason why the team plays like they will and that we can believe that they will keep playing like this.
Depth is good - maybe too good: This team is the opposite in so many ways of the Big 3 approach that teams are embracing. They have some star-level players, but it is their depth that is as important as anything. They have very impressive depth - especially on the wings. That can make it hard to find a way to get everyone the minutes they need to stay sharp and happy while still performing the best as a team as they can. They have done a good job of it so far, but their ability to keep it balanced and keep people happy will definitely be something to watch closely.
Home-tilted schedule: It's obviously much easier to play at home than on the road, so one asterisk on the accomplishments of this team so far is that they have spent a whole lot of time sleeping in their own beds. Eight of their 11 games have been at home so far. They are 7-1 in those games, so they have done what they need to do. The test gets tougher after one more at home, though. Starting Saturday they play 14 of their next 22 games on the road and never play more than two in a row in Toronto over that stretch. I don't doubt that this team is legitimate, but we will get a better sense of where they are at when January dawns and they have weathered that road test.
Top of the East: It's not hard to argue that the Raptors are no worse than one of the two best teams in the East right now, and they could easily be for the rest of the year. The Cavs have shown that the process won't be smooth and simple. Chicago has murkiness around Derrick Rose - both his health and his mindset. Washington, Miami, Milwaukee - steps behind the Raptors. The team has talent and cohesion, and, most strikingly, a total absence of drama. It would be far from a shock for this team to win their conference.
ATS performance: The team is a solidly-profitable 7-4 ATS so far this year. They are no stranger to success for bettors - at 46-33-3 ATS they were the third most profitable team in the league last year. Since we have talked about how key the Rudy Gay trade was last year, it only makes sense to look at how the team did after Gay was gone. They were 38-22-3 last year without him - a wildly-profitable rate of success.
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