The Toronto Raptors came into this season with realistic expectations, knowing that even reaching 20 wins in the shortened 66 game campaign would be a challenge. This wasn’t something openly admitted by the players or newly hired head coach Dwane Casey, but it was clear from various pre-season interviews that the franchise knew it faced a season in which they were “building.” An integral part in the process of trying to become a winning team for the first time in five seasons was changing the team’s mentality on the defensive end. Playing good defense does take some inherent ability, experience, and basketball IQ, but the most important factor in the equation is effort. When players are exerting maximum effort on defense, they find themselves paying attention to the details, being sure to switch on screens, box out on rebounds, and play help defense. These are some of the things we have come to expect the Raptors execute on a nightly basis with Casey at the helm, and for all but a select few games they have. Although the team has an overall record that is far from appealing at 8-19, their defensive improvement from last season is hard to ignore. The Raptors allowed opponents to score an average of 105.4 PPG and shoot 48.2% from the field last season, good for 26th and 29th in the league respectively. On the contrary, after 27 games this year the Raptors are only allowing opponents to score 94.4 PPG and shoot a measly 42.4% from the field, ranking them 13th and 8th in the league respectively. They have gone from being one of the leagues most porous defenses known for giving up easy layup opportunities, to frustrating shooters and playing suffocating team defense.
Dwane Casey’s “pound the rock,” blue-collar mentality has been a massive success so far, especially given the little time teams had in training camp due to the shortened season. Although the Raptors have much to improve on and some questions to answer, such as Derozan’s regression, a healthy Andrea Bargnani has this team playing at a near even record when he’s in the lineup. He is averaging career highs in points per game and rebounds, and is showing a relatively consistent effort defensively. With the gifted Jonas Valanciunas joining the team next year, and what is sure to be a lottery pick in this year’s extremely deep draft, the Raptors will have the infusion of talent needed to turn a losing franchise into a winning one. Making the playoffs in the next two or three seasons from now does not seem so unrealistic anymore, and leading them there is an extremely improved defense inspired by Dwane Casey.