The Toronto Raptors are just a little over an eighth of the way through their 2023-24 campaign and so far, the results are looking awfully familiar to last season’s 41-41 slog.
Through 11 games, Toronto sports a 5-6 record, only slightly worse than the 6-5 mark it sported through the first 11 last season. The Raptors also appeared to be playing better ball at this point last season, with a net rating of plus-5.5 compared to the minus-2.0 they’ve managed so far this season.
Minor discrepancies in their respective net ratings aside, the 2023-24 Raptors are trending to look a lot like the 2022-23 Raptors, and considering the comments made before the start of this season by Toronto’s leaders about a desire to be different, that probably isn't a good thing.
Looking at team record and a few big-picture stats is merely a surface-level reading of things, however.
So then, how different is this Raptors team from last season’s squad?
Quite a fair bit, actually.
For starters, Toronto is playing much sounder defence, allowing just 110.6 points per 100 possessions compared to the 113.1 they allowed last season. On a more granular level, the terrible effective field goal percentage — a stat that takes into account that threes are worth more — of 56.5% the team allowed last season has improved this season to a more tenable 53.2%.
The Raptors appear to be sounder defensively, are gambling less, staying in their stances more and doing a better job keeping the play in front of them, leading to a good start to the season on that end of the floor (ranked 10th in the league).
Playing well defensively is always a good base for future success, and while the team’s defence has slipped with OG Anunoby out of the lineup the past two games, the principle of maintaining solid play on the defensive end is still probably a better idea than looking to make the home run play all the time.
This is particularly because the Raptors remain one of the best fastbreak teams in the league, averaging 18.6 fastbreak points per game, an improvement over the 17.8 per contest they averaged last season. It's proof that the Raptors don’t necessarily need to create turnovers to get out and run — grabbing the rebound and getting out is working well for them as well.
On the offensive side of things, the Raptors also appear to be playing a much less “selfish” brand of basketball, assisting on two-thirds of their total field goals made this season, compared to just the 57.1 percent they assisted on last season.
New head coach Darko Rajakovic came into this season saying there would be more ball and body movement from the Raptors, and that’s exactly what has happened so far, directly leading to the higher assist percentage seen so far.
Another promise Rajakovic made was to expand the Raptors rotation, giving more leeway and room for improvement for the likes of rookie Gradey Dick and sparsely-used guard Malachi Flynn.
Again, that’s exactly what we’ve seen from the Raptors, while Flynn, in particular, has appeared to benefit the most. The fourth-year man out of San Diego State is playing the most consistent minutes of his NBA career and appears to be playing with more confidence than ever before.
So, yes, a lot has actually changed with the Raptors, but this isn’t to say it’s all been good.
The Raptors were the best team in the league last season at taking care of the ball, turning it over just 11.7 times per game. This season, however, they’ve been coughing the rock up a demonstrably worse 15.3 times per game, a number indicative of the struggles they've faced on the offensive end this season.
Toronto is among the worst offences in the NBA, putting up just 108.6 points per 100 possessions. Last season, the Raptors were a slightly above-average offence racking up 114.6 points per 100 possessions.
So, while it’s true that the Raptors are passing the ball better than before, it’s also true that quite a few of those passes are ending up in the opponent’s hands, killing offensive opportunities.
The Raptors are clearly still adjusting to Rajakovic’s new offensive system — with Pascal Siakam chief among them, unsure of what he should be doing on a game-to-game basis as evidenced by his Jekyll-and-Hyde start — but while they continue to adjust, the result has been problems that were apparent last season: This team still appears in need of a lot more shooting, while trying to get offence in the halfcourt is a real struggle.
As much as things have changed, key issues with the team from last season remain the same.
So, how different are the Raptors from last season? A lot. Yet, if the goal is to actually compete, not nearly enough.