Despite history, Raptors have real hope of emerging from East

Amid all the drama and unanswered questions in the NBA's Eastern Conference -- When will the talented but dysfunctional Cleveland Cavaliers pull it together? Can the Boston Celtics really expect to have staying power without Gordon Hayward? -- the Toronto Raptors continue to lurk beneath the radar.

With a projected 56.9 wins and a 62.9 percent chance of finishing first in the East, BPI sees only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets as better teams than the Raptors. But good luck finding an objective observer who truly believes they'll reach the ultimate playoff stage.

The Raptors' history has something to do with their spot on the B list of NBA perception. Toronto has never reached the NBA Finals, and a very similar roster to the one it features today was swept out of the Eastern Conference semifinals by LeBron James and the Cavs just last year.

Well, if you're waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Raptors, you might find yourself waiting until after they're crowned Eastern Conference champions.

Why is this Raptors team different?

DeMar DeRozan's De-Renaissance

While the Raptors haven't completely revamped their offense, they have made a bunch of smart tweaks to help them gain an edge. The most notable is the dramatic improvement in shot selection and efficiency by DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan has taken 2.8 fewer midrange jumpers per game in 2017-18 than he did a season ago, turning those into 3-point and layup attempts. The change in shot selection has increased his effective field goal percentage to a respectable 50.1 percent. In terms of shot-making, the All-Star choice ranks as the 36th-best shot-maker in the league with at least 50 shot attempts, according to Second Spectrum's quantified shooter impact metric.

Meanwhile, the team has lightened the workload on its other All-Star, Kyle Lowry. Lowry's playing time has dropped by almost 4.6 minutes per game, and the amount of times he's the ball handler in the pick-and-roll has decreased by 3.2 possessions per game, according to NBA.com/Stats.

With less reliance on the pick-and-roll, the offense has been coming from different areas. The Raptors were dead last in the league last year in scoring attempts that came off cuts, but they have risen to a respectable 15th in the league in that area in 2017-18, according to Synergy. Toronto was also dead last in percentage of made shots that were assisted last year, and has seen that mark improve to 23rd in the league.

If it comes down to facing the Cavs again -- and Cleveland can't fix its notoriously leaky defense -- the tweaks on offense could bear fruit for Toronto when it matters.

Tighter defense ... and better luck

On the other end of the floor, the Raptors' defensive rating has improved by 2.2 points in 2017-18, from 104.9 to 102.7. That might not sound like much, but it's bumped them from No. 8 in the league in that category up to No. 3.

Opponent shot-making is down this year, as the Raptors' defense against shooter impact has improved from 16th in the league to fourth, per Second Spectrum. That number can be tricky, mind you. Did the Raptors' defense actually make a difference, or did opponents just happen to make fewer shots than last year? The Raptors' opponent shot quality is slightly better, which suggests Toronto has just been luckier on the defensive end.

But there are other ways to view this. The Raptors have increased the pace this season, adding about three more possessions per game. Increasing pace increases the chance for points in transition, but Toronto opponents have only averaged 1.03 points per transition chance this season, versus 1.31 points per transition last season -- a jump from No. 8 to No. 5 for the Toronto D. So while luck always has some impact on the opposing shooting numbers, the Raptors deserve credit for simultaneously increasing pace and improving transition defense.

Staying the course

When you've been a playoff team averaging 51 wins per season over the previous four years, it is tough to find room for improvement without significant change. While other perceived contenders went the route of massive, headline-grabbing lineup shifts, the Raps and GM Masai Ujiri may have taken a bolder step by only slightly tweaking the formula after last year's humbling playoff ouster.

The Raptors did jettison Rudy Gay among their big moves of recent memory, added Serge Ibaka last season, and made a show of resetting the team culture prior to this season, but kept Dwane Casey as coach and didn't undertake a massive overhaul of their identity. Once they get to April and beyond, that continuity could matter in a big way.

The organization has been shrewd in only making subtle changes that improve its playoff odds without introducing much risk, and that's evident from its general manager down to its players. While it may appear easier to tear things down and start fresh, it arguably takes greater strength to hold on to your beliefs about what the winning formula is. Success is fleeting in the NBA, and it may turn out that holding onto that belief was the Raptors' best move.

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