If you go by the regular-season standings, or analytics, the Eastern Conference Finals are already over — it’s the Toronto Raptors, and not by a small margin.
For the first time all season the Celtics are behind the Raptors as favorites to win the East.
But Celtics fans can take heart. No one’s calling off the NBA playoffs. A quick call to Adam Silver confirms: They’ll actually play the games. And sports-betters may want to tread lightly in the next week or so as the conventional wisdom catches up with Toronto’s strides as a team. We’ll come to a bottom line below.
By J.D. Anderson
According to the NBATeamRankings.com‘s predictive power rankings, 538. and others, Toronto is one of only three teams East or West with a better than 10 percent chance of winning the NBA title. You know who the other two are; and the Celtics rank fourth in the league — still — at just below 4 percent. (Hopefully they know something about Marcus Smart‘s hand that we don’t.)
Still, as every “Game of Zones” fan knows, the Raptors have been here before. “You know it’s March when Toronto fans, and many observers, are talking about how nobody’s talking enough about Toronto. You know it’s May when they are getting dismissed from the playoffs.”
So the question for everyone (especially handicappers) is — “what’s different this time?” That applies particularly to the playoffs. The bad news for NBA fans outside of Canada is, the answer is, “a lot.”
One thing that’s different is roster depth and some more toughness and youth up front. We thought the addition of Serge Ibaka last year helped a great deal, but it didn’t make much difference once Tortonto got to the Cavaliers. Jonas Valanciunas is having an Al-Horfordy season — not highly mobile, but as Hubie Brown would put it, “he’s giving you 8 rebounds a game, 10 points, and he can shoot free throws.”
Mojo, added depth and athleticism
Team mojo? Mixed. Toronto is 30-2 against teams with a losing record; 20-15 against teams with a winning record. So they’re beating the teams they should — nothing wrong with that — but none of those teams will be in the playoffs. In games decided by 3 points or less this year, the Raptors fare just 4-6. Toronto imposed an impressive trouncing on the Celtics a month ago. Given the subsequent decimation of the Celtics roster and the #CavsCrackup during LeBron’s potential swan-song season — well, maybe the Raptors can just trounce their way through most series. Still, the numbers are not a strong indicator of playoff success, especially after the first round.
Roster? Strong improvement. The development or (in some cases) addition over the last two years of Fred VanVleet, Ogugua Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Calvin Miles, and Norman Powell is the biggest plus for the Raptors. These are not household names around the NBA — but in Toronto, they’re as known, and valuable, as (say) Daniel Theis, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, or Greg Monroe for the Celtics. Indeed, when the teams last met on Feb. 6, the Raptors bench unit was a cumulative +51, led by VanVleet (+17.)
Can DeRozan and Lowry do it in the clutch?
This is what it’s likely to come down to. DeRozan and Lowry each have a clutch-time NetRtg of -4.2 — not a great sign. In the last 15 games, however, Lowry is at +11.1, and DeRozan, +14. Their won-loss record in games involving clutch-time minutes is 8-1, for an improvement to 21-11 on the year.
Interestingly, both Lowry (52 percent at clutch time) and DeRozan (58 percent) are shooting close to their effective field-goal percentage for the season. But teammates Wright, Poeltl, and Miles (fewer shot attempts, but still) are above 60. This could be a nightmare for other teams in the playoffs — an improved Lowry and DeRozan, and some other capable options to spread the floor.
Are the Raptors just winning more than their fair share of coin tosses — or is this an organic improvement? Looking forward to 15 more games of data, but for now, it appears to be a huge plus.
Bottom line: Raptors, Celtics, Pacers, Cavs
The current odds put Toronto at 11-1 to win the NBA title. The Cavs stand at 13-2 the Celtics, 16-1. Odds to win east stand at the Cavs 4-3, Toronto 2-1, the Celtics at 3-1, 76ers at 10-1, and Pacers 65-1.
Considering the above:
1. The Raptors are slightly under-valued to win the NBA title, but probably over-valued to win the East at 2-1. If our analysis is correct and this team has the clutch-time mojo it never developed over the last 4-5 years, it will stay with them through June, and the implicit 5-1 odds to then win the finals are too high. If they don’t, Toronto will get bounced in the second or third round. 2-1 isn’t enough juice.
2. The best bargain on the board right now is Indiana to win the East at 65-1. (The second best is the 76ers at 55-1 — again, just to win the East.) The Pacers, as the Celtics have seen twice recently, are young, fast, and athletic. No more Paul George? No problem. Victor Oladipo doesn’t have his size but has Scary-Terry athleticism and fearlessness. Not saying they’re going to — but 65-1 is way too high.
3. The Celtics are overvalued at these odds. If both Kyrie and Smart come back healthy, those numbers are fair. But Vegas is probably under-estimating the importance of Smart, and may be over-estimating Kyrie’s healing time. The only argument for this Celtics roster to win the East or the Finals is Brad Stevens — and it’s a heck of an argument. But he’s only human (pending DNA testing.)
4. Stay off the Cavs. LeBron James will go into the playoffs with no second superstar proven to deliver in the clutch. (We love Kevin Love, but he’s not back on the floor yet, and isn’t anywhere near the #2 option LeBron was used to during his march to seven straight finals, namely Dwaye Wade and Kyrie Irving.)
It’s also a potential swan-song year in which LeBron’s meme-ing and flirting with half the NBA cities outside Cleveland has generated even more than the usual amount of LeDrama. Whether LeBron stays in Cleveland or not come July doesn’t really matter. It will drive some teammates crazy from now until June. Or May. (No wonder Kyrie Irving finally asked not to appear in “Season Four.”)
At 4-3, the reward is incommensurate with the risk. If you really like Cleveland, we’d just take them game to game once the playoff starts. James and the Cavs are great front-runners, as the Celtics re-learned last year.