On Dec. 10, the Toronto Raptors completed a brutal West Coast trip with a 92-74 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. In their five games out west (all losses), the Raptors allowed 109.0 points per night. Even worse, in that Blazers rout, both Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani went down to injury.
But then the schedule turned in their favor. In the midst of a heavy stretch of home games against mostly weak opponents, the Raptors have suddenly become a team to avoid when setting fantasy lineups. While winning eight of their past nine games, the Raptors have allowed just 89.8 points, 19.1 assists, 4.8 3-pointers and 5.2 steals per contest. For context, consider that for the 2012-13 NBA season overall, the Memphis Grizzlies have the top-scoring defense (89.8 points), the Chicago Bulls are the only team allowing fewer than 19.0 assists per game and no team is allowing fewer than 5.2 3s or 5.9 steals per contest.
The Raptors have benefited from a soft schedule; in their past nine games, they've played the seven-win Cleveland Cavaliers and the seven-win New Orleans Hornets, along with the struggling Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic (twice). While they do own victories over the 18-14 Houston Rockets and 16-15 Blazers, the Raptors were blown out by the one elite team they faced of late, the 26-9 San Antonio Spurs.
So of course it would be misleading to characterize the Raptors as a dominant defensive unit based on this recent run of success. But if you only focus on Toronto's season stats -- 20th in points allowed (99.2) and 23rd in opponents' field goal percentage (45.7) -- you'd also be misled. The Raptors are getting better. They're better than their overall stats. Chances are, they're better than you think.
I started thinking about the Raptors when I was searching for potential free-agent adds. While Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan and Lowry remain the only Raptors worth rostering in standard 10-team leagues, for deeper 12-team leagues and large leagues of at least 14 teams, Toronto has some players that strike me as underowned. Despite averaging 12.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.9 blocks and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 59.6 percent as a starter, Ed Davis is available in about 85 percent of ESPN.com leagues. And while I realize consistency isn't his strong suit, with Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas sidelined, Amir Johnson once again has an opportunity to play major minutes. Over his past eight games, Johnson is averaging 10.9 points, 7.1 boards and 1.8 blocks. Johnson is available in more than 90 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Finally, there's Terrence Ross. In his past two outings, the 21-year-old rookie is a combined 10 of 14 from downtown. Of course, up to that point, Ross was just 24 of 84 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range. He's certainly had his struggles as an NBA newbie, and even in those 16- and 26-point outings against the Magic and Blazers, respectively, he played only 22 and 25 minutes, respectively. So you'd be taking a pretty steep risk adding and activating the youngster for the week ahead, but then, that's what makes large leagues fun. Plus, one of the three games Toronto has in Week 11 is against the Charlotte Bobcats, whose opponents continue to lead the league in 3-pointers allowed by a wide margin. Ross is available in more than 95 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Week 11 at a Glance
"R" matchup ratings are based upon a scale from 1 (poor matchup) to 10 (excellent matchup), and are calculated using a formula that evaluates the team's year-to-date and past 10 games' statistics, their opponents' numbers in those categories, and their performance in home/road games depending on where the game is to be played. The column to the right lists the team's total number of games scheduled ("G") as well as home games ("H"), and lists the overall rating from 1-10 for that team's weekly schedule ("R").
While three NBA teams -- the Los Angeles Clippers, Washington Wizards and Pistons -- play just two games, 17 other teams play four times, so maxing out player games in a weekly lineup league shouldn't be a problem. As I noted last week, Patrick Patterson is back with the Houston Rockets after missing seven games with a foot injury. He's seen limited minutes in three games, but after a 15-point, 10-rebound showing against the Hornets on Jan. 2, Patterson could be ready for a return to the starting lineup. Looking at the Rockets' schedule, Boston Celtics opponents rank second in rebound differential, while Hornets opponents rank fifth in field goal percentage. The Rockets also host the Los Angeles Lakers and visit the Philadelphia 76ers in Week 11.
Players to Watch
Vince Carter, SG/SF, Dallas Mavericks (@UTA, @LAC, @SAC, MEM): In starting the past three games, Carter has averaged 17.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 3s. While he may not remain a Mavs starter -- it seems either he or Shawn Marion will soon have to step aside for Dirk Nowitzki -- if he sticks in the vicinity of 30 minutes per night, Carter should retain broad fantasy value. However, these four games look fairly tough. Clippers and Grizzlies opponents both rank in the bottom seven in shooting.
Mike Dunleavy, SG/SF, Milwaukee Bucks (PHX, @CHI, DET, @TOR): Fantasy owners are finally warming to Dunleavy, who missed seven of eight games in the first half of December. Despite his reserve status, Dunleavy has played at least 26 minutes in seven of eight games since his return, and over his past four, he's averaging 15.8 points and 2.8 3s. While Dunleavy should be rostered in leagues of at least 12 teams, this figures to be a tough set of games. Bulls and Pistons opponents rank in the bottom nine in field goal percentage, and all of these opponents rank in the bottom half in 3s.
Richard Hamilton, SG, Chicago Bulls (CLE, MIL, @NY, PHX): Coming off his monthlong foot injury, Hamilton's minutes figure to be limited, though he did manage 30 minutes in a four-point, nine-assist performance against the Magic on Jan. 2. This is another risky play for leagues of at least 12 teams, but you have to like this set of games with Cavs and Suns opponents ranking first and second, respectively, in field goal percentage. In addition, Rip could possibly do some damage from distance, as New York Knicks opponents rank sixth from beyond the arc.
C.J. Miles, SG/SF, Cleveland Cavaliers (@CHI, ATL, @DEN, @LAL): In deeper daily lineup leagues, you might want to add Miles for this weekend. Though Miles didn't show much in his first start of the season (12 points in 29 minutes against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 2), the Cavs face the Bobcats on Friday and the Rockets on Saturday, and Charlotte and Houston opponents rank first and third, respectively, in 3-pointers made. The Week 11 schedule is only slightly less inviting, as Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers opponents all rank in the top nine in triples.
Opponent Performance, Past 10 games
All statistics are for teams' past 10 games played, and are defensive numbers. PPGA: Points per game allowed. FG%A: Field goal percentage allowed. 3PT%A: Three-point percentage allowed. RPG diff.: Rebounds per game differential. SPGA: Steals per game allowed. BPGA: Blocks per game allowed.