DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 9: The Raptors Are Roaring Back After A Slow Start

After capturing the franchise’s first NBA title in 2019, the Toronto Raptors produced their best regular season effort last season, winning more than 73 percent of their games in the pandemic-shortened campaign. The Raptors exited the playoffs earlier than expected, however, and Nick Nurse’s team suffered a few key personnel losses in the offseason, headlined by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. From there, Toronto, playing this season in Tampa, dug quite a hole at the outset of the 2020-21 campaign, losing eight of their first ten games and drawing all kinds of negative attention as a result.

Since that 2-8 start, the Raptors are 14-7 and, in short, the team looks a lot like it was supposed to look. It is worth noting that the Raptors’ metrics, including a -1.4 net rating, were much better than the 2-8 record in dictated. Still, the team was dealing with unfamiliar surroundings while playing in Florida and essentially nothing went well in the early going. Beginning with Jan. 14, though, Toronto has the third-most wins of any team in the league, boasting a top-five net rating (+4.7) and top-10 units on both ends of the floor.

Individually, several members of Toronto’s core are enjoying success. Though he’s missed the last three games, Kyle Lowry is Kyle Lowry and he provides value both ends. His backcourt partner, Fred VanVleet, is enjoying his best NBA season, averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game to go with career-bests in assist rate (28.0 percent) and turnover rate (10.3 percent). The Raptors are also getting a ton of value from Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, with both wings shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range, and Chris Boucher has proven to be a highly effective frontcourt piece. Powell is averaging 17 points per game to provide a fourth scoring option, Anunoby remains an incredibly valuable defensive player that can take away the best option for almost any opponent, and Boucher brings badly needed versatility on both ends.

Finally, Pascal Siakam seems to have rediscovered his mojo. Siakam famously struggled in the Bubble, particularly when it came to efficiency, and his scuffles carried over to the start of the 2020-21 season. In the first 15 games, Siakam averaged just 18.1 points while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three-point range. As such, the whispers about his sub-standard play increased in volume, but his recent play is a big reason for Toronto’s success. Siakam is averaging 23.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in the last 13 contests, upping his efficiency to 47 percent from the floor, 37 percent from long range and 85 percent at the charity stripe.

Even with Toronto’s broad success after the first ten games, they’ve been even better recently. The Raptors are 9-3 in the last 12, out-scoring opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions and scoring nearly 1.17 points per possession. There was one hiccup in a home loss to Minnesota on Valentine’s Day but, after that, the Raptors reeled off four straight wins, including a road sweep over Milwaukee and a home win over Philadelphia in their last outing on Sunday.

It is certainly worth noting that Toronto’s defense, which was the team’s calling card last season, is not back to elite levels, and it may never be without Gasol and/or Ibaka in the middle. As such, the Raptors may have a lower ceiling than previous groups, but they are playing quite well and Nick Nurse, as usual, has found tweaks to make the team perform at a higher level. The Raptors are now sitting in the top five of a jumbled Eastern Conference and, well, it’s like the first ten games never happened.

Where does Toronto stack up in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a look.

1. Utah Jazz (25-6, Last week — 1st)

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After Utah won 20 of 21 games, the Jazz finally lost once this week. Of course, they still managed to split a pair of road games against the Clippers, and they bounced back from the loss by toppling Charlotte on Monday evening and setting a franchise record for threes in a game in the process. Utah still has the best profile to this point, and they stick in the top spot.

2. Brooklyn Nets (20-12, Last week — 5th)

The Nets are absolutely rolling with the NBA’s longest winning streak. Not only has Brooklyn won six straight, they reeled off a 5-0 road trip that featured wins over the Suns, Lakers and Clippers in succession. It’s not as if the Nets don’t pass the eye test, either, and they’re doing all of this with Kevin Durant sidelined. Defense is a question, but they are scary.

3. Phoenix Suns (20-10, Last week — 4th)

We dove into Phoenix’s stellar play last week, and it continues. The Suns did lose a game to begin this week, but it came by a narrow margin to the scalding-hot Nets. After that, Devin Booker and company beat up on Memphis, New Orleans and Portland to improve to 12-2 in the last 14 games.

4. L.A. Clippers (22-10, Last week — 3rd)

On one hand, the Clippers went 1-2 this week with both losses coming at home. On the other, the Clippers lost to the Nets and Jazz, and both of those teams are in quite a groove. I’m going to side with everything being okay for a team that is third in net rating so far this season.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (22-10, Last week — 2nd)

Let’s get one thing straight. No one should worry about the Lakers. They’ll be fine. Los Angeles just lost its third game in a row, however, and they blew a substantial lead to the Wizards in the process. It goes without saying that Anthony Davis is pretty important… but Anthony Davis is pretty important.

6. Toronto Raptors (16-15, Last week — 14th)

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As discussed above, the Raptors are playing fantastic basketball, but they have an interesting challenge to begin this week. Toronto plays Philadelphia and Miami in a back-to-back (with travel) on Tuesday and Wednesday, and that is a good measuring stick for all three squads.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (18-13, Last week — 7th)

The Bucks just had a five-game losing streak and, if these rankings came out a few days ago, they would’ve been lower. Milwaukee bounced back with two straight double-digit wins, and they still have the No. 2 net rating in the league. That’s honestly pretty difficult to achieve at 18-13 overall, and the Bucks need Jrue Holiday.

8. Philadelphia 76ers (20-11, Last week — 9th)

Philly sits atop the East, but they’ve been pretty ordinary lately. The Sixers are 4-5 in the last nine games, including four losses in the last six tilts. They can get right with a win over Toronto on Tuesday, but it won’t be easy given the way the Raptors are playing right now.

9. San Antonio Spurs (16-11, Last week — 10th)

There might be some smoke and mirrors happening with San Antonio, and I’ll acknowledge that. They are 8-3 in the last 11 games, even while posting only a +0.5 net rating. Some of that could regress, but this is a well-coached team with depth and reasonable talent. They are navigating this season brilliantly.

10. Denver Nuggets (16-14, Last week — 6th)

It was not a good week for Denver. They went 1-3 and the only victory came over the Cavs, who can’t seem to beat anyone. Moreover, the Nuggets looked abjectly terrible at times defensively, particularly when trying to deal with Trae Young and the Hawks on Sunday night in Atlanta.

11. Indiana Pacers (15-14, Last week — 13th)

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The Pacers played one game this week and it was a road win over Minnesota. That isn’t really a game that a team gets “credit” for, so we’ll call this an incomplete because of two postponements.

12. Portland Trail Blazers (18-12, Last week — 8th)

After a heck of a run to six straight victories with a short-handed roster, reality bit the Blazers to end the week. Portland just lost to the Wizards at home before being absolutely throttled in Phoenix. Honestly, it is tough to knock the Blazers because their record far out-paces their available talent, but it will be interesting to see how they finish the first half.

13. Miami Heat (14-17, Last week — 20th)

This is an oversimplification, but the Heat are 11-8 when Jimmy Butler plays this season. I’m going to trust that figure more than their overall profile, and Miami is 7-3 in the last ten games. It helps to have one of your two stars on the floor.

14. Dallas Mavericks (14-15, Last week — 15th)

Dallas is still battling defensive issues on a grand scale, in part because Kristaps Porzingis can’t seem to move. As a counterpoint, the Mavericks are 6-2 in the last eight and scoring 121.7 points per 100 possessions during that mini-run. At least they are back to their offensively dominant form.

15. New York Knicks (15-16, Last week — 12th)

Julius Randle’s All-Star candidacy is of great interest right now, in part because the Knicks are, well, decent. New York just won four of the last five games, even if there is a slight asterisk for competition. Wins over Washington, Houston, Atlanta and Minnesota won’t impress anyone in a vacuum, but they all count, especially for a team hoping to find its way to a surprise playoff appearance.

16. Golden State Warriors (16-15, Last week — 11th)

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Three days later, people are still talking about Draymond Green being ejected in Charlotte. It was a wild play, to be sure, and the Warriors almost escaped with a Steph-less win. Still, it was a regular season game in February, so everything will be fine.

17. Chicago Bulls (14-16, Last week — 19th)

After Zach LaVine led the Bulls in scoring in ten straight games, Coby White toppled him with a 24-point effort on Monday in Houston. The Bulls won (by 20!) anyway. Chicago is tied for the No. 8 seed through 30 games, and they are playing some quality basketball, right as coaches are voting on whether LaVine deserves an All-Star reserve slot.

18. Washington Wizards (11-17, Last week — 21st)

Washington has been one of the tougher teams to gauge throughout the season. This week, there isn’t much nuance required. The Wizards are on a five-game winning streak, capped by a wild comeback win over the Lakers on the road. Credit where credit is due.

19. Boston Celtics (15-15, Last week — 17th)

In all honesty, I was expecting to bump the Celtics up this week after punishing them a week ago. Boston just isn’t playing very well right now, and other teams made a strong impression. Of note, no one actually believes the Celtics are the 19th-best team, but their injuries and uneven play are at least mildly concerning.

20. Atlanta Hawks (13-17, Last week — 25th)

After a hideous stretch in which they lost seven of eight, the Hawks rebounded at the end of last week. Atlanta found its offensive mojo, largely because Trae Young was lights-out, and they beat Boston and Denver in the process. It feels like everything has gone wrong for the Hawks, but they are still in the play-in right now and in perfectly fine position.

21. Memphis Grizzlies (13-14, Last week — 18th)

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It was pretty much a status quo week for the Grizzlies. They beat the two teams they should beat (OKC, Detroit) and lost to the two teams they should lose to (Phoenix, at Dallas). Ho hum.

22. Charlotte Hornets (14-16, Last week — 16th)

The Hornets are wobbling a little bit right now, even if it doesn’t necessarily show in the standings. They are 2-3 in the last five, but the two wins came against the Wolves and an escape job against the Steph-less Warriors at home. In the three losses, Charlotte fell by a total of 60 points. Just something to note as they continue a lengthy road trip to conclude the first half of the schedule.

23. New Orleans Pelicans (13-17, Last week — 24th)

New Orleans is very bad defensively right now. The Pelicans are just 2-5 in the last seven games and, in that span, New Orleans is yielding more than 1.26 points per possession. It is exceptionally difficult to win that way, even with Zion and Brandon Ingram cooking on the other end.

24. Orlando Magic (13-18, Last week — 28th)

It was good to see Orlando play well this week. Things were… dire. The Magic are on a three-game winning streak, even with the caveat that all three games came at home and two of them were over the Pistons and Knicks. Maybe they can ride the wave.

25. Oklahoma City Thunder (12-19, Last week — 22nd)

The Thunder are pretty competitive, even as there is almost as much attention on their team in the G League bubble (hi, Poku!) as the big league club sometimes. OKC just finished a busy, five-game week with only one win, though, and it came against the struggling Cavs.

26. Sacramento Kings (12-18, Last week — 23rd)

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Just two weeks ago, the Kings were one of the better stories in the NBA. They haven’t won a game since. Sacramento has a seven-game losing skid that included an 0-5 homestand, and they are allowing 1.22 points per possession in those seven tilts. One step forward, two steps back.

27. Houston Rockets (11-18, Last week — 26th)

It might be charitable to have the Rockets outside of the bottom three. Houston’s losing streak is now at eight games, and they have been out-scored by 15 points per 100 possession during that downturn. There are issues on both ends but, while Houston’s defense cooling off after a hot start following the James Harden trade was predictable, they are simply unable to score without Christian Wood on the floor.

28. Detroit Pistons (8-22, Last week — 27th)

It wasn’t a complete disaster from the Pistons this week. They were competitive in every game and the whole slate was on the road. With that said, they lost all three games and did so against the Magic, Bulls and Grizzlies. That isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opposition, and Detroit has the league’s second-worst record.

29. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-24, Last week — 29th)

When we last checked in on Minnesota, they knocked off Toronto on the road. That, combined with the return of Karl-Anthony Towns, provided some optimism. The Wolves then lost all four games this week, albeit by single-digits each time, and just fired their coach to hire another team’s assistant during the season. We’ll always have the Anthony Edwards dunk.

30. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-21, Last week — 30th)

It’s really bad in Cleveland. The Cavs have lost ten straight, and they are being out-scored by more than 21 (!) points per 100 possessions during the skid. Defensively, Cleveland is completely off the rails and, with multiple pieces still out of the lineup, they are pretty clearly playing the worst basketball in the league at this moment.

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