This site’s third NBA Tuesday miniseries returns today with a look at the Toronto Raptors franchise. In 27 full seasons since 1995, the Raptors have reached the postseason 13 times—winning the NBA title in 2019, with one of the bigger upsets in NBA Finals history. Strangely, the five best teams in this organization’s history all came in a five-season period from 2016-2020. How often does that happen?! Well, we’re guessing not too often, although we lack data. Enjoy the read!
No. 5: 2016-17 Toronto Raptors
With a 51-31 record, these Raptors tied for second place in the Atlantic Division with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the defending league champs. They finished tenth in scoring and eighth in defense, for an overall No. 6 rating in the SRS. They beat the Milwaukee Bucks in six games to open the postseason, but Cleveland swept Toronto in four games in the second round—on their way to the NBA Finals once again. There was no shame in this this, of course, for the Raptors.
Point guard Kyle Lowry (10.1 WS), shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (9.0), and center Jonas Valančiūnas (7.9) were the “Big Three” on this team; no one else on the roster even cleared 4.0 Win Shares. This was the formula for the era, although Toronto’s version wasn’t quite the same as some previous title winners. The Cavs outscored the Raptors by 15.3 ppg in the second-round playoff sweep, so the gap was still significant between different versions of “Big Three” stars.
No. 4: 2015-16 Toronto Raptors
This team won the Atlantic Division with a 56-26 record, which was the second best record in the Eastern Conference. Toronto was just 14th in scoring, but the strength was the defense (third overall). This added up to a No. 6 finish in the SRS, and the Raptors reached the conference finals against the Cavs, only to lose in six games. In the first two rounds, Toronto topped both Indiana and Miami in seven games each, respectively. It was an impressive postseason run.
Lowry (11.6) and DeRozan (9.9) really carried the team as a duo: however, the center duo of Valančiūnas (6.9) and Bismack Biyombo (5.9) also contributed some significant minutes. Combining those two towers really gave the Raptors a strong presence inside, and in the series against Cleveland, it was still a 15.5-ppg margin for the Cavs, but that’s what happens when you go up against LeBron James in his prime. Again, there’s no shame in this playoff series loss at all.
No. 3: 2018-19 Toronto Raptors
A 58-24 record was good enough for Toronto to win the Atlantic Division again, and the team was well balanced with the eighth-ranked offense and the ninth-ranked defense. This put the Raptors at the No. 3 position in the SRS, and then the playoffs began … and no one could stop Toronto: the team beat Orlando in five games, Philadelphia in seven games, Milwaukee in six games, and the defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games to win the NBA championship.
The big difference makers on this roster? Well, it was a well-rounded team effort. Small forward Kawhi Leonard (9.5), power forward Pascal Siakam (9.3), Lowry (6.6), C Serge Ibaka (6.1), and SF Danny Green (5.9) formed a very good rotation. With James out of the Eastern Conference, Leonard came over from San Antonio to win a title in his only season in Toronto. In the Finals, the Raptors outscored the beleaguered Warriors by 5.7 ppg to clinch the title on the road.
No. 2: 2019-20 Toronto Raptors
This was the shortened and truncated Covid season, but the Raptors (53-19) won the Atlantic Division title again. The team was No. 1 in defense, but without Leonard, the offense sank to 13th in the league. However, overall, Toronto still managed a No. 4 SRS ranking. In the opening round, the Raptors swept Brooklyn in 4 games, but in the second round, the Boston Celtics shut the door on Toronto’s title defense with a Game 7 victory on the Raptors’ home court.
Four different players on the roster topped 5.0 WS in this short(er) season: Lowry (7.5), SG Fred VanVleet (5.8), SF OG Anunoby (5.7), and Siakam (5.4). Since Lowry has been on every one of these teams, it’s interesting to see his roles fluctuate over the seasons depending on the roster chemistry and makeup. Regardless, Boston did outplay the Raptors in the second-round series, outscoring them by 5.3 ppg—and winning Games 1 and 5 by a combined 40 points.
No. 1: 2017-18 Toronto Raptors
This is the best team in franchise history, sabermetrically: With a 59-23 mark, Toronto posted the top record in the Eastern Conference—and a No. 2 rank in the SRS. The Raptors won the Atlantic Division with the No. 4 offense and the No. 6 defense, and this helped Toronto beat the Washington Wizards in the first round, needing six games to do so, however. Once again, too, the Raptors bumped into James and Cleveland in the second round, getting swept harshly.
Lowry (10.2), DeRozan (9.6), and Valančiūnas (7.6) were still the “Big Three” on this team; no one else on the roster cleared 6.0 Win Shares. But five players came in between 4.5 and 5.6 WS to provide a lot of good support. This as obviously a great team that again ran up against The King in his prime during the postseason and suffered a defeat. That would be the story of any Eastern Conference playoff team between 2011 and 2018, in truth. So, at least Toronto got its title in 2019.