Everything just clicked. That’s probably the best way to describe what happened to the Toronto Raptors following the Dec. 9 trade of Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, a seven-player deal that brought back Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. The previously 6-12, mediocre Raptors team (that had gone 18-18 late the year before with largely the same core) turned a major corner, going 42-22 the rest of the way for the franchise’ first playoff berth since 2008. It was an odd change, given that many assume the team that gets the best player in a trade — in this case, Rudy Gay — does best, and because many thought this was Step Two (what’s up, Andrea Bargnani?) in a major tear down for a proper, ground-up rebuilding under new general manager Masai Ujiri. But things clicked, and Ujiri rolled with it, opting to sit back and evaluate rather than continue with what may or may not have ever actually been a plan to burn it all down.
This offseason, his first proper summer at the helm for the Raptors, Ujiri opted to continue rolling with that same group. Kyle Lowry got four years and $48 million, Patrick Patterson got three years and $18 million, Greivis Vasquez got two years and $13 million, and the only changes noticeable in the rotation have come at the fringes, where James Johnson and Lou Williams will replace Steve Novak and Nando De Colo, respectively.
The primary rotation is largely unchanged. From a wide angle, this was an obvious move. A city that has struggled to maintain a consistent enthusiasm for the team (beyond an incredible, vocal, online minority) got behind a team that played with an identity that was easy to buy into — with a marketing campaign focused on othering, this is a group of underdogs, players who had bounced between homes or were thought to be underappreciated on a league-wide scale. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and the change in style of play, especially on the offensive end, was aesthetically pleasing.
From a basketball and cap management perspective, however, the Raptors are gambling on that synergy being sustainable. It’s easy to have great chemistry when things are going well, but a combined $24.5 million for Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez — the latter two as restricted free agents without offer sheets forcing the team’s hand — is a clear bet that what was developed in 2013-14 can be carried over to 2014-15. Looking at the team’s core seven players, what you find is a lot of players playing beyond their previously established levels, even with greater efficiency as usage increased in many cases. Yes, that’s the benefit of having one of the younger teams in the league, as player development, though hardly linear, can be relied upon to some degree.
|Player||2013-14 Age||Previous PER||2013-14 TOR PER||Previous Usg%||2013-14 TOR Usg%||Previous WS/48||2013-14 TOR WS/48|
While it seems cavalier to expect further positive development from players like Lowry, Vasquez and Amir Johnson, there are signs that this team could be just fine, beyond further development for Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross in particular. That’s because a few key trends from 2013-14 involving these players could carry over to 2014-15 in meaningful ways.
Lowry and Vasquez Can Play Together
$6.5 million for a backup point guard is insane, unless that backup point guard and your starter have shown that they can play together for long stretches successfully (not to mention that Lowry’s physical style leads some to believe he’ll eventually miss time). The duo played 490 minutes together this past season, and the results were astonishing, perhaps not a surprise given the experience both have in two-point guard sets. Lowry and Vasquez together not only thrived offensively — generally a given for two-point looks, so long as one of the players can play off the ball as a 3-point threat, as both of these two can — but were surprisingly stout on defense, too.
|Post-Trade||O Rtg||D Rtg||Net Rtg||TS%|
|All Other Lineups||106.5||103.6||2.9||55.0%|
Vasquez is generally a very bad defender, but at 6-foot-6, he proved capable of handling the bigger of two opposing guards, assuming they weren’t particularly quick. Lowry, meanwhile, is an above-average defender, and the duo played nearly 50 percent of their minutes together with Johnson, the team’s best defender in the pick-and-roll and as a helper, on the floor with them (surprisingly, the duo with Jonas Valanciunas posted a 92.9 D-Rating in 228 minutes, despite Valanciunas still proving raw at that end). With the team somewhat thin on offensive-impact wings, the ability to play Lowry and Vasquez together for long stretches is paramount.
Patterson’s Spacing Makes a World of Difference
Patterson shot 36.4 percent on threes for the season, a rate that spiked to 41.4 percent in 48 games as a Raptor and hung at 38.9 percent in the playoffs. He can hit the corner three, and he can hit a high elbow three, while also shooting well from the mid-range. That’s crucial for a team begins most of their action with a basic pick-and-roll. It’s also important because the team almost always has inside-the-arc-only DeMar DeRozan on the floor and lacks another power forward or center capable of hitting those shots, Patterson’s value is immense.
|DeRozan, no Patterson||105.1||55.6%||26.5%||51.0%|
|Patterson, no DeRozan||106.7||55.6%||36.4%||50.6%|
|Patterson & DeRozan||111.0||55.0%||29.4%||50.6%|
Because the Raptors’ primary usage option is someone who doesn’t spread the defense, pairing him with a big who can shoot it proved effective in maintaining balance around the floor. Patterson’s a slight negative in terms of rebounding and isn’t all that versatile defensively, but he’s a great fit with this particular roster, enough that it may even make sense to start him over Johnson when the opposing four isn’t a daunting pick-and-roll option. It’s easy to argue that the Raptors didn’t do themselves any favors by bringing back three core pieces at market value, forcing them to rely on the synergy they stumbled upon to sustain itself, but between Lowry’s “putting it all together,” the Lowry-Vasquez pairing proving effective and Patterson’s fit with the team’s existing roster, it’s tough to point to any key metric for their success and blindly expect regression.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats