Raptors’ promising start has Nurse excited for what’s to come

Tim and Sid discuss how the Toronto Raptors can still improve even after starting the season 11-1.

Coaches are notoriously bad sleepers, or so the cliché goes. When things are going wrong, they toss and turn all night. When things are going well, they toss and turn some more, fretting about disasters averted and what might go wrong that they haven’t thought of yet.

Toronto Raptors first-year head coach Nick Nurse has lost his fair share of sleep through the first three weeks of the NBA season, but not because of why you might think.

He says he’s always been able to sleep soundly after losses, but less so after wins – they’re too much fun.

"It’s exciting. It’s more that than anything," he says. "You look forward to getting to the next game and see if you can get it rolling … I wish I was sleeping better to be honest with you.

"I’ve always been like that: after a loss, I go home and pass out and don’t give it another thought. When I’m winning, I’m too excited. I’m trying to even-keel it a little bit more, like I’m telling the team to."

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Nurse can be forgiven for wanting to see what comes next in a Raptors season that has the makings of something special so far. We live in an era of sample-sizes and as we are all too familiar, polling results can vary.

But, even with 70 games left to play, it feels like a solid outline of what the Nurse-led, Kawhi Leonard-era Raptors can look like is beginning to emerge. It’s a pretty picture.

They’ve played 12 games, evenly split between home and away and almost evenly split between winning teams and losing ones. They’ve played teams with legitimate championship aspirations in friendly environs and on the road. They’ve managed injuries and absences, stretches of elite-level play and periods of just so-so.

And even with the standard sample-size caveats, it’s becoming impossible to undersell:

These Toronto Raptors are very, very, good and are almost certainly destined to get even better.

It’s heady stuff.

The cause for excitement lies beyond their record – 11-1 heading into a rare Saturday afternoon start at Scotiabank Arena against the visiting New York Knicks – which is the best through 12 games in club history and on Friday was the best mark in the NBA.

And it lies beyond Leonard, who looks every inch one of the NBA’s top-five players as he rebounds seamlessly from his injury-plagued season a year ago, which prompted his divorce from the San Antonio Spurs.

The real excitement is what the team could yet be.

"There is always room for improvement," says third-year power-forward Pascal Siakam, who is having a breakout season that will see him blow past his career marks in every meaningful category if he keeps it up. "… On defence, I don’t think we’ve reached our potential or what we can do just with the length that we have and the guys on the team.

"And offence, we’re still figuring everything out. Kawhi was out for a couple of games, so him coming back and get with him and seeing his spots and all of that. We still have a long way to go."

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Last season, the Raptors were – by most measures – the second-best regular season team in the NBA, finishing with the second-most wins (59) and a net-rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of plus-7.8, which was the second-best in the league as they ended up as the only team ranked in the top five in both offence (2nd) and defence (5th).

Playoff woes aside, the final edition of the DeMar DeRozan-Dwane Casey era Raptors was a special team.

And that team – with the benefit of tremendous year-over-year continuity and unprecedented good health (five players shared 91 per cent of the available starts) – started the season 7-5 with a net rating of plus-4.6 and ranked eighth and 12th in offensive and defensive rating, respectively.

A year later, and the Raptors are integrating a new coaching staff and two new starters and have only had their full line-up available for one game out of 12 as eight different players having started multiple games already with only Danny Green and Kyle Lowry having started every game.

And yet?

Beyond their 11-1 mark, Toronto’s net rating (plus-8.6) is better than it was last year, they have the second-ranked offence and the ninth-ranked defence. They may not catch Golden State offensively but there is no reason they can’t be among the very best defensive teams this season. They’ve shown the ability in stretches since the exhibition season. Their bench unit was among the best in the NBA last year but is still finding itself after injuries and absences have affected key pieces Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles. They will get better and bolster a starting unit that has been one of the league’s most effective all season.

Leonard has been a driving force. He’s averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and 3.3 assists – all in-line with career-bests. His true-shooting percentage (integrating his free-throw shooting and three-point shooting) is 60.5. He’s the only player in the NBA at those thresholds (26/8/3/.60) across the board currently, and if he can maintain them, he’ll end up as one of 10 players to do so in the three-point era. It’s an elusive list of MVP winners and first-ballot Hall-of-Famers that includes Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird.

But he’s not the Raptors’ only bright light and not even the team’s MVP to this point. While Toronto is a perfect 9-0 with Leonard playing, they are an impressive 3-1 without him, all on the road.

The engine driving that train is Kyle Lowry, who is leading the NBA in assists and has crept into the MVP conversation himself. By averaging 17.4 points and 11.3 assists with a true-shooting percentage of .632, Lowry is on pace to be one of five players to pull that off for a full season in the three-point era. The others? Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, John Stockton and James Harden who share six MVP awards and are all either in the Hall-of-Fame or – in Harden’s case – headed there.

There are always notes of caution and banana peels around every corner. The Knicks arrive in Toronto with a 4-8 record trying to manage with a young roster, a new head coach, and without their franchise player, Kristaps Porzingis (still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery). That should make for easy pickings, but the Raptors might be looking to hit the snooze button on the morning of a rare early start just a couple of days removed from a week in the Western time zone.

Toronto will be without Norman Powell for several weeks after he dislocated his shoulder on the road trip.

Something can always come up or go wrong.

But, a more likely outcome is this version of the Raptors keeps rolling and gets even better.

Their head coach may end up with plenty more sleepless nights as the season unfolds, but for all the right reasons.

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