Just a few months after the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA title, virtually no one picked the team to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions. In some ways, the reasons were obvious, ranging from the defection of Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) to the potential for future-facing trades during the 2019-20 campaign. After nearly a quarter of the season, though, the Raptors look to be in fantastic shape and, in short, they’re playing the same tune again in a slightly different form.
Though the Raptors have faced a relatively breezy schedule in the recent past, Toronto is riding a seven-game winning streak that arrives amid trying circumstances. The Raptors recently topped the Philadelphia 76ers and blew out the Utah Jazz and during the run Toronto has a sparkling +16.7 net rating. To make things even more impressive, Nick Nurse has been dealing with high-profile injuries, with the Raptors posting an insane 9-2 record without Kyle Lowry and an 8-2 mark without Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Considering the team was billed as “shallow” entering the season, that is both startling and impressive.
Part of Toronto’s uptick can be attributed to the superstar turn of Pascal Siakam, who is averaging 25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game as the No. 1 option. The talented forward is knocking down 39 percent of his three-point attempts, filling out an already potent arsenal of weapons, and the Raptors have a +13.5 net rating when Siakam is on the court. Further illustrating his value is the fact that Toronto struggles to an unsightly -7.4 net rating when he leaves the floor but, considering the relative model of a team centered around a superstar, that isn’t totally atypical.
In support, the Raptors are receiving incredible contributions from Fred VanVleet. The rock-solid guard has made a leap without Lowry, averaging 18.6 points and 7.5 assists per game for the season and, even when Lowry returns, VanVleet’s versatility and shooting (39 percent from three) make him an ideal complement. Toronto’s supporting cast isn’t overwhelming on paper but, with the emergence of rookie Terence Davis alongside strong efforts from the likes of Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nurse is making things work with what he’s been given.
Overall, the Raptors are in the top-three of the league in net rating and defensive rating, which is virtually unthinkable when considering the absences of two of their best players in Lowry and Ibaka. More shocking, though, is the team posting a top-tier offense (111.2 offensive rating), which is a credit to Siakam, VanVleet and elite-level scheme management.
The Raptors face a difficult week of competition, with match-ups against the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets, followed by a perilous trip to Philly. Still, few (if any) teams in the NBA are playing as well as the Raptors and, even if this doesn’t maintain over the full 82-game schedule, it is awe-inspiring to consider what Toronto has been able to do.
Where do the Raptors land this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s check it out.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (18-3, Last week — 2nd)
The Bucks haven’t lost since Nov. 8 and Milwaukee has exactly one (!) loss since the calendar flipped to November. That is a pretty startling reality and this was an easy choice this week.
2. Toronto Raptors (15-4, Last week — 6th)
This is probably as high as the Raptors will be all season but they’ve earned it. It helps to be 9-0 at home.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (17-3, Last week — 1st)
After winning 10 in a row, the Lakers fell at home to Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Sunday. There is no great shame in that but this is a fluid document. Let’s just say that no one is worried about Los Angeles.
4. L.A. Clippers (15-6, Last week — 3rd)
Like the Raptors, the Clippers have been thoroughly dominant at home with a 12-1 mark. They’ll put that on the line against a suddenly resurgent Blazers team on Tuesday but, in the meantime, Kawhi Leonard and company are just cruising right along.
5. Dallas Mavericks (13-6, Last week — 5th)
Dallas has won seven of eight, with the lone blemish coming against the Clippers. Granted, that was a 15-point home loss but the Mavericks are still comfortably exceeding any rational expectation. It helps to have a legitimate MVP candidate on the roster, but just imagine what Dallas might look like when/if Kristaps Porzingis figures it out.
6. Denver Nuggets (13-4, Last week — 4th)
It isn’t a disaster to lose by three points to the Kings on the road. That is the only crime committed by Denver this week and, following a seven-game winning streak, only the stellar play of other teams pushes the Nuggets down a peg or two.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (15-6, Last week — 10th)
The Sixers are another team that has been dominant at home, posting a 10-0 record including a decisive win over the Jazz on Monday. Philly has also crept into the top five in defensive rating, and the pieces are seemingly falling into place.
8. Houston Rockets (13-6, Last week — 11th)
Mike D’Antoni should send a thank-you card to the Hawks for helping Houston’s peripheral numbers. The Rockets led by more than 50 (!) points in the third quarter on Saturday and James Harden had 60 points in three quarters. It was something to behold.
9. Boston Celtics (14-5, Last week — 7th)
By any measure, the Celtics have cooled off. They are still in good shape but, after a split with the Kyrie-less Nets and a close call against the Knicks, some of the full-fledged optimism from the early portion of the season has faded.
10. Miami Heat (14-5, Last week — 8th)
The Heat might just be this good. They are 7th in net rating and above-average on both ends of the floor. More people should be talking about Miami’s play this season.
11. Indiana Pacers (13-7, Last week — 12th)
It feels like a broken record, but I still don’t know what the Pacers are. They’ve won seven of eight, but only two of those victories are against playoff teams. It is unquestionably a good thing that Indiana is holding serve against inferior competition, but trying to find their actual baseline of performance is kind of difficult.
12. Utah Jazz (12-9, Last week — 9th)
This is the dividing line (between the definitively good teams and everyone else) right now and that is why Utah didn’t fall any further. The Jazz just went 1-4 on a road trip and looked like a complete mess at times. We’ll see if they can bounce back against the Lakers (at home) on Wednesday.
13. Portland Trail Blazers (8-12, Last week — 19th)
The Blazers aren’t suddenly “fixed” after three straight wins, particularly when those victories came against Chicago (twice) and Oklahoma City. It was good to see Portland score effectively, though, and the Carmelo Anthony surge was undeniably fun.
14. Brooklyn Nets (10-10, Last week — 13th)
Brooklyn stopped winning every game in a Kyrie Irving-less world, but it isn’t as if the Nets were embarrassing this week. They simply lost to two better teams in Miami and Boston. It will be exceptionally interesting to see what happens when Irving returns. That’s where we’ll leave it for now.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (8-11, Last week — 17th)
The Thunder have the same net rating (-0.7) as the Wolves and a better net rating than the Nets and Magic. OKC also just won three out of four games, even if the competition wasn’t terribly difficult. This is a largely competent basketball team.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-9, Last week — 14th)
Undoubtedly, the Wolves have visions of challenging for the No. 8 seed in the West and, so far, they seem like a team that could make a run. What Minnesota can’t do, though, is lose to the Grizzlies (without Ja Morant) at home like they did this week. Yikes.
17. Orlando Magic (8-11, Last week — 20th)
The Magic are in a great position to make the playoffs. Granted, it’s the East, but there is something to be said for that, especially when Orlando currently sports the 29th-ranked offense in the NBA.
18. Phoenix Suns (9-10, Last week — 16th)
Phoenix is backsliding a bit, losing six of their last eight games including a home loss to Washington. Both wins did come on the road, though, and the Suns aren’t exactly dead with a 9-10 record in early December.
19. Detroit Pistons (7-13, Last week — 18th)
The Pistons look better on the margins than they do in the standings, which could signal an uptick on the horizon. On the other hand, Detroit just got swept in a back-to-back by Charlotte. That’s inexcusable for a team with playoff aspirations.
20. Chicago Bulls (7-14, Last week — 23rd)
Chicago is 3-4 in their last seven games. That may not seem like much (because it isn’t), but the Bulls won the games they were supposed to win, plus they pulled off a road win in Sacramento. That’s a step forward.
21. Sacramento Kings (8-11, Last week — 15th)
Most of the Kings’ slide this week is dictated by a home loss to the Bulls. That is one that Sacramento can’t afford, even with the built-in excuse of being without De’Aaron Fox.
22. San Antonio Spurs (7-14, Last week — 26th)
San Antonio beat the L.A. Clippers, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, by double-digits this week. If nothing else, that is a positive data point in an otherwise hideous season so far.
23. Charlotte Hornets (8-14, Last week — 27th)
The Hornets are 4-11 with a -9.6 net rating in their last 15 games. Doesn’t that feel like what was supposed to happen all season? On the bright side, Charlotte faces Golden State, Atlanta and Washington (all at home) within the next week.
24. Washington Wizards (6-12, Last week — 21st)
Some are marveling at how the Wizards could be top-five in offense and, to an extent, I get it. They don’t have that much talent outside of Bradley Beal. The reality, though, is that Washington is simply deploying a lot of one-way players. That also explains the league-worst defensive rating of 115.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. That isn’t a winning model, but it might be Washington’s best chance anyway.
25. Memphis Grizzlies (6-14, Last week — 25th)
It’s been a little rough for the young Grizzlies lately, and Ja Morant is currently on the shelf with injury. Nothing is surprising about Memphis struggling but they need Morant back in the worst way.
26. New Orleans Pelicans (6-14, Last week — 22nd)
Alvin Gentry’s bunch has an ugly record and, in the grand scheme, that is all that matters. The Pelicans do have a (much) better net rating than the dregs of the league, though, and their five-game losing streak comes against reasonable competition.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-14, Last week — 24th)
The Cavs were more competitive than expected in the early going, posting a 4-5 record. Since then, Cleveland is 1-9 and any perceived strides on the defensive end have been erased. For reference, the Cavs have a 117.5 defensive rating during that 10-game sample.
28. New York Knicks (4-17, Last week — 28th)
New York has the NBA’s longest losing streak, so why didn’t they fall in the pecking order? Well, the Knicks have lost seven in a row but all seven defeats came against playoff teams. What are they supposed to do?
29. Atlanta Hawks (5-16, Last week — 29th)
After losing 10 straight games, the Hawks suddenly had the worst peripherals in the entire league and things were pretty dismal. Then, the Warriors came to Atlanta and cure many ills, with the Hawks winning by 25 points on Monday. It’s not entirely clear that the Hawks even played well in the game but, in contrast to a 47-point loss to Houston over the weekend, it was a sparkling event for Atlanta.
30. Golden State Warriors (4-18, Last week — 30th)
It was a nightmare spot for the Warriors on the second night of a back-to-back, and they didn’t have Draymond Green on top of everything else. You still can’t lose to this version of the Hawks by 25 points. That’s a one-way ticket to No. 30 overall.