Could the Raptors Make the Playoffs?

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Recently the Toronto Raptors have been playing much better basketball. What has caused a team that started the season 4-19 to go 10-5 over its next fifteen games? A few reasons:

No Andrea Bargnani

Long-time Wages of Wins readers and long-suffering Raptors fans know most of the answer already. On December 10th, Andrea Bargnani, the team’s leading scorer for the past two years, suffered an injury. Since that time, Bargnani has not played a single NBA minute, and his team has gone 10-6 without him. This is not really surprising, as Bargnani was “leading” the league in negative wins — at -2.3 — when he went out. Even now, without having played since December 10th, he’s still in second place, only behind Kevin Seraphin of the Wizards (-2.7) and tied with Michael Beasley of the Suns.

By the way, this is not a surprising occurrence. Including this season, Bargnani has been in the bottom ten for six of his seven years in the league. When you add up his totals, Andrea has not only been the worst starter over the past seven years, but the worst starter since 1978-79, which is the first season for which we have complete box score statistics.

More Ed Davis and Amir Johnson

With Bargnani out and over 32 minutes of playing time to make up for, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has been forced to play these two more than he had earlier in the season. Luckily enough for the Raptors, it just so happens that Davis and Johnson are very productive players. Ed Davis has posted a WP48 of 0.200 or better (star-level production — twice the production of an average player) in each of his first three seasons. Amir Johnson‘s career WP48 is also above 0.200, and the 25 year old is in his eight season now. Both players should have been ahead of Bargnani in the rotation when he was healthy, but coaches (and management) don’t always play the right players.

More healthy Landry Fields

Landry Fields started out the season quite poorly, adding fuel to the fire of criticism that the Raptors have been facing for signing him to his 3 year, $18.75 million contract. He played 106 minutes in five games, producing a WP48 of -0.055 and -0.12 wins. He then sat out the team’s next 23 games. But since he returned on December 26th, Fields has been playing a lot more like the man the Raptors were expecting, posting a WP48 of 0.206 and 1.02 wins in 239 minutes. With him in the lineup, it also means that the Raptors don’t have to give the unproductive Linas Kleiza and Mickäel Pietrus as much playing time.

Regression to the mean and random fluctuation

Before the Bargnani injury, a lot of the Raptors’ previously productive players — Jose Calderon, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry, and the aforementioned Fields — were playing below their previous standards. It was only a matter of time before these players started playing like their usual selves. But some of these players not only returned to form, they were also on a “hot streak” — a brief period where they strung together a bunch of their better games. These “hot streaks” happen randomly, as do the “cold streaks” some of the same players were having when the team was playing poorly. Calderon, Lowry, and Johnson have started to produce in the neighbourhood of the superstar level (a WP48 of 0.300 or above). Additionally, rookies Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas (before he broke his finger) started playing much better, going from negative and below-average production, respectively, to somewhere near the star level.

Playoffs?

The Raptors have been playing much better, and as is often the case, the Eastern conference is quite weak after the top few teams. Could this team make the playoffs?

They have an outside shot at it, but barring any major developments (injuries, trades), I don’t think it’s very likely. Bargnani will have to come back sometime, and when he does, his negative production will torpedo his team’s chances. There’s also the matter that the team’s most productive players — Calderon, Davis, Johnson, and Lowry — are likely to cool down somewhat. And of course, there’s the fact that Lowry has missed significant time with injuries this season, and Calderon, Lowry, and Johnson are all currently nursing injuries. Valanciunas, who has been much more productive this season than Aaron Gray, is also still out with his fractured finger. Don’t forget that the team still likes giving a huge chunk of its playing time (and salary) to players like DeMar DeRozan and Alan Anderson — like Bargnani, two more scorers who can’t put the ball in the basket. The team also refuses to play its most productive players — Calderon, Lowry, Fields, Davis, and Johnson — at the same time, and some of these productive players play the same position.

Add it all up, and despite the team’s recent play, I think they’ll finish around 9th or 10th — just out of that final playoff spot. Given that the team would likely be facing an early exit at the hands of the Heat or possibly the Knicks, I’m not so sure that the playoffs would be that much better.

- Devin

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