How the Raptors are defying NBA convention, contending anyway

Kyle Lowry and the Raptors are in prime postseason position despite not taking a barrage of 3s. Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

We are witnessing the golden age of the 3-point shot in the NBA. Records for attempts and makes are being broken on a seemingly daily basis, yet the team that ranks 20th in 3-point attempt frequency -- the Toronto Raptors -- is leading the league in offensive efficiency.

Right now the Raptors are scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions, which is even more efficient than the Golden State Warriors, even though the Warriors have taken over 250 more 3-point attempts than the Warriors. The Raptors have ridden their offensive prowess to the No. 2 spot in ESPN's Basketball Power Index and currently have the best chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals at 48 percent.

The Raptors are running counter to the hottest trend in basketball yet are still leading the NBA in scoring by being the only team in the top 10 within all four of Dean Oliver's Four Factors of basketball. The Four Factors are shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. Taken together and measured properly, a team's performance in these four factors explains more than 90 percent of its offensive productivity.

Shooting is typically measured by effective field goal percentage, which is field goal percentage adjusted for 3-point attempts. The Raptors are seventh overall in eFG% because they shoot well, and while they do not take a lot of 3s, they do get over one-quarter of their 3s from the corner (the fifth-highest rate in the league) and hit 41 percent of those, which helps push their shooting rate more positively. Additionally, Kyle Lowry is having a career year from 3 right now, hitting 44 percent of his 3s despite being a 36 percent career shooter from 3 and never finishing a season above 40 percent before this year.

Turnovers are measured by the number of a team's possessions that end in a turnover -- or turnover percentage -- and the Raptors are tied with the Charlotte Hornets for the lowest turnover rate in the league. The Raptors' low turnover rate has been driven largely by the growing role of DeMar DeRozan in the offense. DeRozan has increased his usage rate this season from 29 percent to 34 percent, without increasing the rate at which he turns the ball over. Last season, DeRozan turned it over on 9.5 percent of his possessions, which is exactly what he is doing now, meaning that since he is a low-turnover player using more possessions, as a team Toronto will commit fewer turnovers. This also signals that Lowry may have improved as a decision maker and is getting the ball to DeRozan earlier in possessions.

Offensive rebounding is measured by the percentage of possible offensive rebounds a team is able to grab. Among the four factors, this is the Raptors' biggest weakness. They have only one player (Jonas Valanciunas) who has played significant minutes and has an individual offensive rebound rate greater than 10 percent, but they still rank ninth overall at 25 percent.

A team's ability to get to the line is measured by the rate at which a team takes free throws relative to their field goal attempts. The Raptors lead the league in this area, again with DeRozan leading the way with 12.3 free throws per 100 possessions -- just one behind James Harden, and sixth overall among players with over 100 minutes played.

The more important issue for Raptors fans is whether they can keep up this scoring pace. The BPI's measure of offense is a forward-looking measure that adjusts a team's performance so far this season for the level of competition faced, location of games and days rest, among other factors. The offensive component of BPI indicates that while they may not keep pace with the Warriors for the entire season, the Raptors still rank second overall at more than six points better than an average team, and still less than 1.5 points behind the Warriors. That puts them nearly a point ahead of the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers.

The trouble spots will be if Lowry is not able to sustain at least close to his current 3-point-shooting prowess and if as a team they start to get sloppy with the ball and generate more turnovers. Both are possible as the Raptors have played the seventh-easiest schedule so far according to BPI. The good news is that Toronto has the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA and is projected to win 58 games.

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