Thursday, April 17, 2014

East Round 1 Preview: (3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

Kyle Lowry's biggest national moment this year was a trade rumor involving the Knicks. But that's about to change.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By the Numbers:

48-34 (26-15 Home; 22-19 Road)
PPG: 101.3 (13th); PPG Allowed: 98.0 (7th)
+3.2 Average Scoring Margin (9th)
Off Rating: 105.8 (9th); Def Rating: 102.4 (9th)
+3.5 Net Efficiency Rating (T-8th)

44-38 (28-13 Home; 16-25 Road)
PPG: 98.5 (21st); PPG Allowed: 99.5 (11th)
-1.0 Average Scoring Margin (19th)
Off Rating: 104.4 (14th); Def Rating: 104.9 (19th)
-0.5 Net Efficiency Rating (17th)

Season Series: Tied 2-2
Brooklyn 102, Toronto 100 (November 26)
Toronto 96, Brooklyn 80 (January 11)
Toronto 104, Brooklyn 103 (January 27)
Brooklyn 101, Toronto 97 (March 10)

Players to Watch:

DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan isn't Toronto's best player - that would be Kyle Lowry. And he's not their highest-leverage player, either - that would be either Greivis Vasquez or Patrick Patterson and their kind of insane on/off splits since the Rudy Gay trade back in early December. But DeRozan is perhaps their most important player - shouldering the biggest slice of the scoring load and doing so better than anyone could have expected entering the season.

DeRozan is averaging a career high in scoring - 21.4 points/36 minutes, but the impressive part is that he's above his career average efficiency and his foul rate is the best it's ever been. He's not just chucking, he's actually attacking defenses. His usage rate is also a career high, but there has been no corresponding trade-off of increased turnovers (This is one area where DeRozan has always been good - he's had a very low turnover rate for a guard. Granted, it's mostly because he used to just shoot immediately when he received the ball, so he had no opportunity to turn it over, but even as he's got more disciplined with his shot selection his turnover rate has stayed down.), instead, his assist rate has ticked up and he's posting career highs in pretty much every passing category as well.

There are things to be concerned about. He's still a dreadful shooter from outside the paint, and he still shots far too many long twos. But he's deadly around the basket - his 71.2 percent field goal percentage at the rim is among the league leaders. Brooklyn's defense isn't quite as good as people think it is, so he should have opportunities. 

Kevin Garnett

The league's elder statesmen has had a bit of a tough decline. He's playing (by far) the fewest minutes of his career, and he's descended into being a truly dreadful offensive player. He shot just 44 percent from the floor, went to the line just 47 times all season, and posted the highest turnover rate of his career despite his lowest usage rate since his rookie season. Add it all up and his individual Offensive Rating was a vomit-inducing 93, the fifth-worst of any player in the league who saw at least 1000 minutes this season. Even scarier? The four who were worse are Diante Garrett, Phil Pressey, and Tony Wroten (from the spectankular Jazz, Celtics, and Sixers) and the butt of everyone's joke, Kendrick Perkins. The Nets' offense as a whole is a staggering seven points better per 100 possessions when Garnett sits.

On defense, however, Garnett is still a valuable piece. He actually had his best rebounding season since his Minnesota days, pulling down 19.3 percent of available rebounds, and on the defensive end, he grabbed 32.1 percent, a career-high figure that would have led the league if he met the minutes qualifier.

He's still the player who keeps Brooklyn's defense afloat. When he's on the floor, they're a top-five defense. When he's not, they're outside the top 20. His minutes will likely pick up in the playoffs, which means Brooklyn will have a harder time scoring, but so will Toronto.

The Case for Toronto:

Toronto is actually one of the most underrated teams in the league this season. Because they're in the Eastern Conference and aren't either Indiana or Miami, people just assume that they must suck, and that they finished ahead of canonical teams like Chicago and Brooklyn must have been a fluke. That absolutely isn't the case, though. Their net efficiency rating is tied with Portland's and the third-best in the Eastern Conference. And that's including the early segment of the season when Rudy Gay was still on the team. If you only look at the splits since December 9, Toronto has a net efficiency rating of +4.7, which is tied with Houston, and startlingly close to Miami at +5.1. The Raptors are a genuinely good team - the only possible argument against them is that they lack playoff experience.

The "Playoff Experience" argument doesn't really hold up. It's a classic bit of confirmation bias - when the young team loses, it's because they don't have experience. But when the young team wins, their supposed lack of experience is never mentioned after the fact. Just last year, pretty much every member of the Warriors was making their playoff debut, and they were two wins away from the Western Finals. In 2011, the inexperienced Grizzlies manhandled the very experienced Spurs in Round 1. Toronto doesn't have experience, but they're clearly the better team.

Best-Case Scenario: Toronto's youth and speed overwhelms Brooklyn's old, slow team. Dwayne Casey proves he's still a great tactician and makes quick work of Jason Kidd's playoff coaching debut. Kyle Lowry leads the team into a Round 2 showdown with Miami and becomes a household name. Toronto wins in five.

The Case for Brooklyn:

What does Brooklyn even do well? They're barely above league average on offense and decidedly below it on defense. They had a rough start to the season, and a lot was made of the fact that they bounced back after New Year's - deservedly so, they have the league's sixth-best record since January 1 - but the dirty little secret is that even as they were winning all of those games in 2014, they still weren't playing very good basketball. Yes, they have the sixth-best record since January 1, but their average scoring margin in that window is just +1.8, only the 15th-best mark in the league (their net efficiency rating isn't much better, just +2.0, 13th-best in the league).

That being said, Brooklyn seems to be the type of team (read: old) that could conceivably "turn it on" once the playoffs start. With so many veterans, they probably recognize that the regular season isn't the end-all-be-all, and that the real season starts now.

Best-Case Scenario: Winning so many close games after New Year's translates into the postseason, and experience does pay off as Brooklyn steals all the close games in the series, including one of the first two games in Toronto. Kevin Garnett finds his offensive groove, and Paul Pierce's "Playoff Warrior" persona carries them the rest of the way and the Nets win in six.

The Pick: 

Raptors in six.

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