Over the past four seasons, the Toronto Raptors built a stable franchise by surrounding a very capable starting five with an incredibly deep and versatile bench. The regular season success of that group - and of that starting lineup in particular - was undeniable, leading the Raptors to a franchise-record 59 wins just a year ago, but ultimately that group met a familiar end.
This offseason, the one-two gut punch of trading DeMar DeRozan and firing Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey thrust the Raptors out of the comfort zone they'd created. Those moves hurt at the time - and undoubtedly still do - but they helped usher Toronto into a new era of NBA basketball.
The 2018 offseason helped the Raptors evolve.
Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and Nick Nurse have led the Raptors to a nearly flawless start. Even in a season in which they may not eclipse their regular season success from a year ago, the changes Toronto made this offseason helped them build a recipe for title contention.
Only two starters remain in place from a year ago, with only Lowry retaining his positional designation. Leonard and Danny Green have fit in wonderfully on the wing and newly promoted starter Pascal Siakam has bumped Serge Ibaka down to the five.
That group is, in theory, a small-ball lineup, but it's one that doesn't fall victim to the moniker's traditional shortcomings.
Defensively they've been great, holding opponents to an offensive rating of 91.3 and forcing 17.9 turnovers per 100 possessions. The frontcourt length means they haven't had the expected drop in rip protection that usually comes with going small, and the added speed on the floor helps create more deflections and contested shots.
Adding two elite defensive wings has undoubtedly helped, but Ibaka has been the key in the interior. He's not quite the elite defender he was a handful of years ago in OKC, but he still has enough speed, length and anticipation to be a solid defensive anchor.
BL🚫CKA pic.twitter.com/5jBrzJOKcN- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 30, 2018
Ibaka has been moving towards becoming a center for a few years now, but just 13 percent of his minutes came at the five last season according to Basketball-Reference. So far this season, 100 percent of his minutes have been at center, and his increased comfort level is apparent.
Of the small-ball stereotypes, the one that has held the most truth is that this group is playing faster than last year's team, but they haven't gone as far as the rest of the league. Rather, they appear to be following the old John Wooden axiom of playing fast but not hurrying.
They can undoubtedly run when they want to - and are incredibly effective when they do - but are well equipped to slow teams down and beat them in the half-court. They can lock-down defensively and suffocate opposing offences with increased on-ball pressure. Offensively, the Raptors' starters can survive in a slower game due to having five capable passers, more shooters and the safety blanket of Lowry and Leonard when plays break down.
The curse of the Raptors, though, is the fear of the seemingly inevitable other shoe to drop. The pain of the past four seasons remains with the franchise, but - at the risk of sounding line an annual broken record - this year could be different. It helps that LeBron's shadow is no longer hanging over the conference, but Toronto is better equipped to deal with the best teams in the league than they ever have been before.
The long-term beauty of the smaller starting lineup is its utility against Vegas' preseason favourites to make the NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics have built their success on versatile, switchable lineups. The Raptors now have a great five-man group to counter that, with top-end defenders to throw at Curry, Durant, Irving and Tatum, and no clear weak spot of their own.
Though the takeaways are limited from Toronto's victory over Boston last month, the Raptors did show how well they have defenders to slow down all of Boston's stars. We'll have to wait until the end of the month to see Toronto play Golden State, but they have - in theory - as good a defence for Golden State's MVPs as anyone.
Leonard matches up with Durant as well as any other defender in the league and Danny Green has caused Curry some problems in the past. While he's not the same athlete he was back in 2016, Ibaka's length gave the Warriors fits in the Western Conference Finals.
The biggest concern with any small lineup is how it fares against a dominant offensive center, but we got an initial positive answer on that when the Raptors played against Joel Embiid and the 76ers.
With Leonard and Green putting the clamps on Ben Simmons the entire game - limiting him to 11 points on 4-9 shooting and 11 turnovers - Embiid inherited a lot of offensive responsibility. With Ibaka starting the game defending him, Embiid had a few impressive initially one-on-one victories in the post.
After struggling initially, Ibaka came back to hold his own for most of the game. If he can limit Embiid's offensive effectiveness, Nurse can stick with Ibaka at center and utilize his true value as a floor-spacer on the other end, pulling Embiid away from the rim and opening up the floor for his teammates.
When the Raptors went big against Embiid, former starter Jonas Valanciunas did an admirable job. He stoned Embiid on a couple post-ups and forced the big man out to the perimeter which is the ideal outcome for the Raptors.
|MIN||Embiid PTS||TOR ORtg||TOR DRtg||Pace|
|Ibaka on Embiid||21.9||22||110.0||102.0||109.4|
|Valanciunas on Embiid||10.6||9||137.5||125.0||108.7|
Though Valanciunas was very good against the 76ers - including a season-high 23 points - Ibaka represents the more reliable and higher-upside option against Embiid. Valanciunas' success was built on hitting outside shots, but his gravity doesn't pull Embiid away from the rim the same way Ibaka's does. Valanciunas might be the better option on a given night, but Toronto's success against Embiid with Ibaka on the floor feels a lot more sustainable over the course of a playoff series.
More than anything, though, that victory showed the Raptors have options. Nurse can utilize different matchups and lineups on a given night to exploit the opposition. It's an incredible luxury and one that makes Toronto a serious threat against every team in the league.
While this summer was difficult for every Raptor player, employee and fan, the success of these first few weeks has surely numbed the pain. Toronto has embraced a changing identity and found a way to be incredibly successful against the trends of the league without compromising what makes them great.