The Toronto Raptors are the hottest team in the NBA, which doesn’t necessarily make them the best team, but given the franchise’s recent success doesn’t mean that winning 10 of their past 11 starts and sitting a half game out of first place in the Eastern Conference is an aberration, either.
The Raptors have been among the best teams in the NBA for three calendar years now, and appear to be improving. When you sport a league-leading offensive rating of 115.3 points per 100 possessions — nearly two points ahead of the second-place Golden State Warriors and three more than the Warriors managed in their 73-win season a year ago – clearly something is happening.
And they know it.
“It’s not a fluke,” said DeMar DeRozan, amid a career year in his eighth season, averaging 28 points a game, fourth in the NBA. “We’ve had one of the toughest schedules the league and we’ve figured out a way to come out on top and it’s not just from one individual, it’s coming from a team perspective, you know?”
People should now.
But the curious thing as the Raptors continue to roll — they are going for their fifth straight win and 11th in 12 games against the visiting Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre Friday night — is how little apparent buzz their performance is generating outside of the ACC, which will be sold out for the 106th straight game, and among local television audiences, which are up significantly.
In a long NBA season there are lulls and this part of December – after all the early season excitement has petered out and before the Christmas Day hoops festival ramps up – qualifies as one of them. It’s a good time for lists.
Thus we have the quarter-season award watch. One might think that the Raptors, given their status as the league’s most excellent offence and their December dominance and status near the top of the league tables would get their share of buzz.
One might think wrong.
We’ve long given up thinking that the Raptors will ever be top-of-mind league-wide. Their status as the NBA’s lone Canadian franchise means they will always fall short in terms of getting their fair share of national US broadcasts or appearances on the Christmas Day showcases and the like. It’s not going to happen. Two US markets drive ratings and broadcast revenues more efficiently than one Canadian market and one US market. It’s just math.
But what is interesting is how the Raptors’ early season accomplishments have barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who aren’t presumably thinking about ratings or advertising revenues and who are appealing to a hardcore basketball audience.
A sampling of three respected NBA voices’ early season awards tracking leaves the Raptors virtually bereft of any kind of recognition whatsoever.
At SI.com, Ben Golliver – who drew the Raptors ire when he and colleague Rob Mahoney had DeRozan ranked 46th on their pre-season list of the NBA’s top 100 players — listed five candidates for Most Valuable Player and two honourable mentions without getting to DeRozan or Kyle Lowry who have been the twin locomotives driving the Raptors train.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been putting together all-star seasons yet again. (Frank Gunn/CP)
Similarly, Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today didn’t acknowledge the potential candidacy of either of the Raptors duo.
Howard Beck, who covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, listed nine players who deserved MVP consideration through the season’s first 20 or so games without mentioning a Raptor.
Granted, the MVP award is the NBA’s tallest mountain, scaled only by Hall-of-Famers, and this season to date has produced some incredible performances by the likes of Russell Westbrook (everyone’s MVP favourite or co-favourite, it seems), Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and more.
And this isn’t to suggest that either of Lowry and DeRozan should or will win the award at the end of the year. It’s just that it seems strange that two players having career-years for an Eastern Conference finalist team that is hitting never-before-seen peaks in offensive efficiency while on pace to win 59 games is doing all of it with so little fanfare league-wide.
For the first dozen games DeRozan was doing things – like posting 10 30-point outings – not done since Michael Jordan was in his physical prime. For the past dozen or so games Lowry is doing things — like hitting 59 per cent of his three-point attempts — that Steph Curry (34 per cent from deep over his last 10, but who’s counting) would envy and would likely have generated a Twitter hashtag by now and a sponsored spot on ESPN’s Sports Center.
So far? Silence.
“You can’t control that,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey about the lack of attention Lowry — the only player in the NBA averaging at least 21 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting at least 44 per cent from deep — has generated. “All you can do is continue to win, play at a high level, continue to do it and hopefully the US media will see it and recognize it. We’re biased here, but he’s played at such a level it should be talked about it. But I can’t control it, Kyle can’t control it. The one thing he can control is to continue to put forth the effort to help us win and almost embarrass everybody else to [talk] about it.”
But the list of Raptors deserving attention for their individual accomplishments in the context of team success doesn’t begin or end with DeRozan and Lowry.
DeRozan made a point of mentioning Terrence Ross as a viable Sixth Man Award candidate after Ross rescued the Raptors with 25 points off the bench against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night. Only six players in the NBA are averaging at least 19.9 points per 36 minutes and shooting at least 44 per cent from three, but Ross is the only one doing it off the bench. Throw in his 1.7 steals and Ross is the only player in any role providing that combination of ball-hawking, scoring and perimeter marksmanship on a per 36 basis.
But while most Sixth Man lists include Jamal Crawford of the Clippers, Zach Randolph of Memphis, Lou Williams of the Lakers or Eric Gordon with Houston, they don’t mention Ross and the Raptors.
“What Terrence does for us is incredible,” said DeRozan. “For me not to hear he’s a Sixth Man candidate, it’s kind of unfair because without him coming off the bench and doing the things he do, we wouldn’t be who we are and be in the position we are now.”
How about Coach of the Year?
Dwane Casey is one of the most likeable and media-friendly bench bosses in the NBA. He gives of his time freely. He’s also turned a team that was within a hair’s breadth of being blown up for tanking purposes three years ago into one of the most consistent winners in the league that is now putting up unheard-of offensive numbers.
Yet all that gets him only one mention as a Coach of the Year candidate and third place at that, even though he’s managed the NBA’s third youngest roster and features a raw rookie in Pascal Siakam starting at power-forward; has been missing its only significant off-season acquisition in Jared Sullinger and lost its best defensive player from a year ago — Bismack Biyombo — to free agency.
In that sense, Casey fits right in with his team: overlooked and under-appreciated.
“That’s just the way it is when you’re in Toronto,” said Patrick Patterson, the anchor of the Raptors’ unheralded second unit. “It’s been that way since I’ve been here. I don’t think it will ever change, but as long as the people around [us] understand it. that’s all that matters.”
The solution to all of it is to keep winning, of course.
“We do,” DeRozan said when asked if his club deserved more attention than they’ve received to this point. “[But] I’m not going to sit up here and cry about it or mention about why [we’re] not in it; it just gives [us] more fuel to keep winning, keep doing what we know how to do and everything will figure itself out.”