Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors

Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Raptors are still far from a surefire playoff team next season, and I maintain that. Upset wins over teams like the Pacers and Knicks or blowout wins over the Pistons don’t make any more of a statement for next season than losses to the Bobcats, Cavaliers and Wizards do.

If you recall though, my main concerns in the immediate future of this team are addressing the glaring hole at backup point guard, finding another competent big man (whether a solid bench big or a starter who can let Amir excel as the third big) and getting some value out of either trading or amnestying Andrea Bargnani. The current starting lineup, however, despite all of the negative attention on the combined shot selection of Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, may just be good enough heading into 2013-14.

The Raptors are only 10-13 with Gay in the lineup, but a number of those losses have had to do with poor bench production, and a look at the numbers tells us that the five-man unit of Gay, DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is actually getting the job done.

In fact, according to NBA.com, the Raptors’ current starting lineup has an impressive net rating of +16.5, which ranks fourth in the Association among all five-man units that have played at least 200 minutes together. The three units ahead of them belong to the Spurs, Knicks and Heat, and of the top 18 five-man units, the only one that belongs to a non-playoff team is the Raptors’ starting unit (An Orlando combination is 19th). This speaks to the potential of this group going forward, but it also reinforces the need for depth behind what has actually turned out to be a solid starting five.

Now, the shot selection of DeRozan and Gay at the wings can have a clearly negative impact on the offence and at least one of those two players is going to have to become somewhat of a threat behind the arc to space the Raptors’ attack out (Gay has shown signs recently of regaining his three-point stroke), but the efficient frontcourt combination of Johnson and Valanciunas balances things out nicely and still gives the five-man combination a decent offensive rating of 102.1 (points scored per 100 possessions), good for 33rd among listed units.

You can get by with an average offence like that if you have a great defence, and so far in their short time together, the athletic combination of Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Johnson and Valanciunas has been great on the defensive end.

Without question, the most encouraging statistic on this team right now is the phenomenal defensive rating of their current starting lineup. Their stingy defensive rating of 85.7 is second-best in the NBA among five-man units, with the only combination that allows less points per possession belonging to San Antonio (Duncan, Green, Leonard, Parker, Splitter) at 84.6. Even more impressive is that the third-best defensive rating, which belongs to Memphis, is more than three points per possession worse than Toronto’s best defensive unit.

If utilized correctly, that stellar D can also improve the average offence, as the Raptors are athletic enough to turn stops and turnovers into easy fast break points the other way, which is why you often hear Dwane Casey talking about how he wants his team to run.

It’s premature and naive to talk about this team as a shoe-in for the postseason next year, but the backbone of a top notch defensive team and a well above average starting lineup seems to be in place according to the numbers. The question now is can those numbers be built upon or even improved upon heading into next season, and can the Raptors utilize the limited cap flexibility available to them to plug the glaring holes they have outside of that starting lineup?