The NBA has been playing 82-game seasons since 1957-58. That’s…not an insignificant amount of time.
So it seems fairly relevant that in that span of over 60 years, only twice has a defending champ won at least 13 fewer games than they did the year before (or the equivalent by winning percentage in shortened seasons). In a fitting little bit of NBA lore, each time came at the end of one of the great dynasties the sport has ever known, and each coincided with the retirement of one of the greatest players to ever live.
First, the 1969-70 Celtics inverted the previous year’s 48-34 record to go 34-48. Losing Bill Russell was hard enough, but so was the retirement of fellow Hall-of-Famer Sam Jones, who had been with Russell for all but one of his 11 championships.
Almost three decades later, the Chicago Bulls engaged in a tear-down that has no peer in sports history, dropping from 62 to 13 wins. Michael retired for the second time, Scottie chased respect in Houston, the Worm turned to Shaq and Kobe in LA, Steve Kerr won another ring in San Antonio, starting center Luc Longley went to Phoenix, and the Zenmaster rode off into the Montana sunset.
Now, 21 years later, the Toronto Raptors enter the 2019-20 NBA season trying to avoid becoming the third team to completely fall off the rails. The reason why a 13-game drop is what we’re focusing on here is because that’s what it would take for the Raptors not to hit their over.
Toronto is currently assigned an over/under total of 45.5 wins, or 12.5 fewer wins than they had last season when they finished second in the league with 58 victories. At first glance, it’s not that staggering of a drop to predict. When you consider the fact that they not only lost arguably the best player in the NBA, but also fellow starter Danny Green and his 45 percent conversion rate from downtown, a 12.5-win drop sounds about right.
There are some advanced stats to back this up. According to Basketball Reference, Leonard and Green accounted for 15.4 win shares last season. Cleaning the Glass offers a similarly bleak outlook if you simply look up how the Raptors faired in the 2188 possessions that featured neither former Spur. Without either Leonard or Green on the floor, Toronto was outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions last season, a net rating roughly equivalent to the 33-win Grizzlies.
Of course, no one thinks the Raptors are going to nosedive to the depths of the lottery. Despite Leonard’s decision to bolt, the fortitude of their culture alone should be enough to avoid that fate. After all, they swapped out both their coach and nominal best player a year ago and didn’t skip a beat.
But betting the over here requires a bit more than faith in general organizational competence. Luckily for Raptors fans, there’s quite a lot of evidence to make that case, and it’s why they’re easily the safest over bet on my board despite everything you just read.
Let’s start here: Toronto has something of a history of hitting the over – eight consecutive seasons, so be exact. No team in the NBA has a current streak that approaches it. Maybe it’s because they play in Canada, maybe it’s because they can’t escape the stigma of having had a purple cartoon dinosaur as their original mascot, but for whatever reason, they seem to get disrespected year after year after year.
Streaks are made to be broken though, and the above stats would seem to indicate this is the year it happens. Except they don’t…not when you look a little deeper.
That minus 2.5 net rating from above was largely achieved when all of Toronto’s starters were on the bench. If you followed the Raptors last year, you remember that their once mighty bench mob was largely a disaster for most of the season. Nick Nurse kept going to it as a unit though, never wavering on a plan that ended up paying off in the end. The numbers in the meantime weren’t pretty though.
There were, however, stretches of time when some starters played without their normal counterparts, and the data from those minutes offers more than a bit of hope. For instance, Kyle Lowry was on the floor for 808 possessions last season without either of Leonard or Green. During that time, the Raptors outscored opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions, a figure buoyed by a 103.1 defensive rating.
This makes a lot of sense considering the fact that the Raptors ran almost a completely different, more iso-heavy offense when Leonard was on the court. When Lowry had to run the show on his own, there was a bumpy adjustment to playing the way he had become accustomed to, as you might expect.
What about the minutes when Lowry had the benefit of rising star Paskal Siakam to offset losing Leonard and Green? Funny you should ask! In what was admittedly a limited sample size of just 324 possessions, lineups with Lowry / Siakam but no Leonard / Green outscored opponents by a whopping 21.6 points per 100 possessions, which was in the 99th percentile league-wide.
So we should expect the Raps to challenge the Warriors’ 73-win record, taking the Ewing Theory to the most absurdist conclusion imaginable? Umm, no. Leonard is freaking awesome, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if we look back a few decades from now and see the lineage of the league going from Bird/Magic to MJ to Shaq/Duncan to LeBron to KD/Kawhi (which is part of why I’m also super high on Leonard’s chances for MVP).
Here’s the thing though: we’ve already seen a champion lose an all-time great and not skip a beat.
The 93-94 Bulls were coming off of three rings in a row and watched the GOAT hang it up to go play baseball. If any team has ever had an excuse to mail in a season, it was them. Instead, they dropped just two wins – from 57 to 55 – and were a questionable Hue Hollins call away from going to the East finals.
Are there differences? Sure. For starters, that squad didn’t lose an important secondary piece like Green, instead picking up Tony Kukoc to shoulder some of the missed scoring load. The rest of their core was also in the prime of their careers; Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were 28, while B.J. Armstrong was 26.
On the other hand, many key Raptors are on the wrong side of 30. Lowry will be 33, Marc Gasol 35 and Serge Ibaka a very questionable 30. You could easily argue that the decline of each of these players has already begun.
And then there’s Pippen, who was always too talented to be a second banana, even if he didn’t have the personality to be a top dog. The Raps don’t have someone like that to step into the Finals MVP-sized void that now exists.
Or do they?
Paskal Siakam just turned 25 years old. If you had to bet your life on one NBA player making the leap from “almost an All-Star” to “Holy S---, this guy is going to compete for MVP’s,” wouldn’t it be him? It might seem far-fetched, but think about the growth of Giannis over the years. It’s not that insane.
Throw in 22-year-old OG Anunoby, who was Paskal before Paskal became Paskal, Kyle-Lowry-playing-for-one-last-contract (his new legal name), a remaining core that is on the ascent, and a Toronto talent pipeline that always seems to produce a gem out of nowhere, and 45 wins seems more than attainable.
Like a wise man once said, never underestimate the heart of a champion. Take the over.