Raptors mid-season report cards: Kawhi Leonard continues to get better

Eric Smith and Michael Grange talk about Kyle Lowry’s return to the Raptors and how Toronto beat the Indiana Pacers.

The Toronto Raptors are just past the halfway mark of the NBA schedule so it’s time for some reflection.

Toronto has an NBA best record at 30-12 and a half game lead over Milwaukee for top seed in the Eastern Conference. Winning 30 of their first 42 games this season is the fewest number of games needed to reach 30 wins in team history. They are also a league best 7-1 on the second night of back-to-backs.

The Raptors have already beaten the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers (twice), Philadelphia 76ers (twice) and Golden State Warriors (twice). Toronto is one of three teams with a .700 plus winning percentage and one of three teams that are top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency.

It’s hard to give them anything but full marks for how the season has played out so far. However, let’s take a look at how the individual contributors to Toronto’s team success have fared.

The grades below are relative to a player’s expectations, not their sole performance. For example, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam have the same rating. That by no way means indicates they are equally as valuable or have performed to the same level. It means they both have performed their expected roles to the same level.

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Serge Ibaka – A

Ibaka is having the best season of his career at the age of 29. He’s averaging career-highs in points (15.9), assists (1.5), assists percentage (8.4) and usage percentage (23.5). Ibaka is already just 31 assists away from a new career-high. Why? The most important career-high, 98 per cent of his minutes being played at the centre position rather than power forward. Ibaka has been a pick and pop beast, shooting 63 per cent on shots between 16 feet and the three-point range.

Pascal Siakam – A+

Siakam is the front runner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Last year he went a month without hitting a three-point shot and he’s a career 27 per cent three-point shooter. But this year he’s shooting 35.6 per cent from three and he’s not just exclusively shooting them from the corner anymore. He’s also shooting them from above the break. Siakam has a team high 58 field goal percentage, and after being the main cog in the power forward platoon has made the starting position his alone.

Danny Green – A-

After leading the league in the category for most of the year, Danny Green is fourth in plus minus right now with a plus-nine. There is no defensive or offensive situation, including shooting the ball at the end of the shot clock, that you don’t feel better if Green is on the court. Once considered a throw in in the Leonard and DeMar DeRozan trade, Green has already shown he is invaluable.

Kawhi Leonard – A+

Kawhi Leonard’s clean bill of health is the biggest accomplishment after he played just 210 minutes in nine games last year. He started this season strong and has gotten better throughout. In December he averaged 29.3 points on 50.7 per cent shooting from the field, 41.3 per cent from three and 89.2 per cent from the line. In 17 games in October and November, Leonard had a combined 16 dunks. In 12 games in December, he had 15. His explosiveness is gradually returning and he’s averaging a team high 27.2 points. Simply put, he’s been the best player on the league’s best team.

Kyle Lowry – B

While Leonard is the best player, you could make the case that Lowry has been the most valuable player on the Raptors. This was the hardest grade to give. At times he’s played well, at times he’s struggled and at times he’s been hurt, missing games due to back and hip ailments. Lowry has a team and career high 9.7 assists which is good enough for second in the league and his plus-9.3 rating puts him in third.

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Fred VanVleet – B

Fred VanVleet has started 15 games already this seasons after entering the season having never started a game in his previous two years in the league. With higher minutes, his percentages and defensive impact have come down a bit but he has solidified his spot on the team. What used to be a time share for the back-up point guard spot is solely VanVleet’s domain now.

Delon Wright – C-

This grade is more about what Delon Wright hasn’t done than what he has done. He has played almost exactly to his career averages, which is a disappointment because he was expected to make a similar leap to the one Siakam has made. Instead he’s looked like the exact same player. For his career he’s averaging 6.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 44.7 field goal percentage, 35.7 three-point field goal percentage, and 50.4 effective field goal percentage. This season he’s posted similar or worse numbers across the board with 6.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 42.1 field goal percentage, 34.2 three-point percentage and 47.9 effective field goal percentage. Not bad for a reserve guard but Wright has the capacity to be a super sub off the bench.

C.J. Miles – D

C.J. Miles is shooting 27.8 per cent from three. Only reserve centre Greg Monroe has a worse percentage from three than Miles, whose only above replacement value is shooting the three prolifically. When he isn’t doing that the team has better wing options. Because of his shooting struggles, Miles hasn’t played in four of the team’s last seven games. Only three times this season has Miles played over 20 minutes in a game.

OG Anunoby – C

Everything said above about Wright is true about OG Anunonby. Both dealt with injuries early in the year which played a factor in their slow start. The main difference between the two was Anunoby also was dealing with a sudden death in his family and Anunoby is younger, still only 21, while Wright is already 26 and in his fourth year in the NBA.

Norman Powell – B-

Powell had an early-season shoulder injury that forced him to miss 20 games, which could have kept him down after a nightmare year a season ago. Instead he was a good supportive teammate while hurt and been an explosive offensive player now that he’s healthy. Powell followed up a season-high 14 points last week against the Jazz by coming within one point of his career high with 23 against the Pacers on Sunday. He’s also put up double figures in four of his last six games.

Jonas Valanciunas – B+

Jonas Valanciunas has been out 11 games and counting after having surgery on his left hand and his absence is clearly being felt. No one on the team has been able to replicate his scoring punch off the bench and reliable defensive rebounding. Despite losing his permanent starting spot, and playing less minutes, Valanciunas has a career high 25.3 player efficiency rating, which is just behind Leonard’s mark of 26.6.

Greg Monroe – C

Monroe only played 51 games last year, for three different teams. The fact that he’s already got in 25 with the Raptors is a bit of a surprise but he’s exceeded expectations in his role as the third big on the team. With Valanciunas out for an extended period Monroe has been pressed into action and legitimized his signing late in the off-season.

Nick Nurse – A+

Nurse earns full marks for adjusting on the fly with a fluid lineup. Every rotation player on the team has already missed time with injury, but that hasn’t slowed them down much. The Raptors have recently beaten the second and third best teams in the East in a 24-hour span without one of their two best players for both games.

Lowry and Leonard have only played together in 21 of Toronto’s 42 games and the Raptors are 15-6 when they have both stars in the lineup. But in games one of them are missing they are also 15-6, going 8-2 with Lowry but not Leonard, and 7-4 with Leonard and not Lowry. Lowry and Leonard haven’t played together for a month as one or both of them have missed the last 14 games. Nurse gets credit for how he’s managed to get his stars the rest they need and continued to win by adapting his tactics.

The Raptors under Nurse have a 14-8 record against teams that are .500 or better, best in the East and third in the league. Toronto also has 17 double-digit wins, second-most in the NBA, and just five double-digit losses which is the fourth-fewest.

Despite a tough schedule and tough circumstances, Nurse has the Raptors playing better than they ever have while he continues to learn his new role.

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