Here are the odds of the Raptors winning the NBA Finals

Some predictive models are giving the Raptors more than a fighting chance to dethrone the defending champs

Here are the odds of the Raptors winning the NBA Finals

The Toronto Raptors have never seen a team quite like the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. It’s not that they haven’t had strong competition in the past: the Philadelphia 76ers are loaded with talent, and the Milwaukee Bucks had the best regular season record in the NBA this year, as well as the probable league MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Warriors, however, are a different beast altogether. They’ve won three of the past four NBA championships, have a full starting lineup’s worth of All-Star-calibre players, and two of the best players in the NBA. Yet the Raptors — a team which has never made an NBA Finals — are being given a chance to win them, and were even favoured at the beginning of the series.

How can this Canadian expansion project, with a history of underwhelming playoff performances, be favoured to defeat the greatest dynasty that the league has ever seen? Is it time to question the validity of these predictive models? Or is it possible that the Raptors are actually a good team?

Roster Construction

Raptors President Masai Ujiri and General Manager Bobby Webster were diligent in addressing their shortcomings this offseason. Last July, Ujiri made the tough decision to trade fan favourite DeMar Derozan, along with Jakob Poeltl, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Both Green and Leonard have played in two NBA Finals, and won an NBA championship together, with Leonard winning Finals MVP. Ujiri and Webster not only upgraded the team’s talent, but its experience and championship pedigree as well. The Raptors front office also reportedly refused to include forward Pascal Siakam in the trade for Leonard and Green.

This seemed like an odd decision, given that Siakam had only averaged 20.7 minutes and 7.3 points per game in the previous season, but he has since blossomed into a starter and the Raptors’ secondary scoring option after Leonard. At the trade deadline, the Raptors acquired veteran centre Marc Gasol, who brought more playoff experience, as well as elite defence and passing.

By the numbers

The American data outlet FiveThirtyEight gave the Raptors a 54 per cent chance to win the NBA Finals at the start of the series. That number dropped down to 49 per cent after game two but has since increased to 87 per cent. FiveThirtyEight uses a projection model called CARMELO, which takes into account numerous factors.

CARMELO is a more advanced version of Elo ratings, which factor in which team won each game, the margin of victory, and where each game was played. Elo is a somewhat useful statistic, but has numerous flaws in evaluating future performance. For example, if a player is injured, or is resting — as was the case with Leonard throughout the regular season — Elo would not be able to account for that.

Adding Leonard, Gasol, and Green to the roster has quite clearly made the Raptors a better team, but this did not show up in their Elo score: the Raptors highest ever Elo rating came in March 2018, before acquiring any of these players. CARMELO incorporates individual player projections to account for offseason transactions, injuries, and rest. FiveThirtyEight also later added a playoff experience adjustment to account for the advantage that more experienced teams have.

A U of T model

U of T statistics professor Jeffrey Rosenthal has been working on his own model for the NBA playoffs, although he admits that it is much less advanced than other models like FiveThirtyEight’s. He created this model in response to media inquiries asking him to calculate the probabilities of Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beating shot in game seven against Philadelphia.

“That was an interesting one because I couldn’t find actual statistics about how often the shot… bounces four times. It’s extremely unlikely,” Rosenthal recalls.

Rosenthal’s predictive model is heavily based on past performance. “I just looked at the regular season records and outcomes of the competing teams, and compared their performances at home and away, and extrapolated from that into the playoffs to give an estimate for each game of the probability that one team would win or the other, taking account of home court advantage and that kind of thing. And then do that to get an estimate of the probability for each game,” he explained.

He found that there was a huge difference in how certain teams performed at home versus on the road, noting that Toronto and Milwaukee played much better at home, whereas Golden State was about even in both settings. The Raptors had a better regular season record, giving them home court advantage in four of the seven games this series. Rosenthal gave the Raptors a 51 per cent chance at the start of the series, dropping down to 48 per cent after game two, and now at a high of 89 per cent going into game five.

Many are also predicting that the tides will turn even more in Golden State’s favour when star forward Kevin Durant returns from an injury, but Rosenthal isn’t so sure. “You can say, ‘He’s a great player, and coming back, it’s going to make all the difference.’ Or you could say, ‘They’ll have a new guy back in the lineup, he’s missed a few games, he’s out of rhythm and he’s still hurting,’ or whatever. So, it’s hard to say.”

With only one more win needed, Raptors fans are counting on the team to overcome the odds and bring home its first championship title. “It’s the cliché, but there’s a reason you have to play the game, right? You can [only] get so much by trying to predict,” Rosenthal notes.

Could the Raptors win it big this postseason?

First round will be easy, but good luck against the Bucks and the Warriors

Could the Raptors win it big this postseason?

April marks a bittersweet time for NBA fans at the University of Toronto, as exam season is made slightly less dreadful with the countdown to playoff basketball underway.

With Toronto’s regular season success, Raptors fans are excited for what the postseason may bring. But are fans naïve for thinking that Toronto has any chance of making it to the NBA Finals, or possibly even winning it all?

Looking at potential first-round opponents, there’s little doubt that Toronto wouldn’t be able to easily do away with teams such as the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, and the Detroit Pistons in a best-of-seven series with home court advantage.

The real question facing the Raptors is how they will fare against potential second round and Conference Finals matchups with the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Eastern Conference favourites Milwaukee Bucks.

Looking at the Celtics, Boston has struggled since the All-Star break with a record under .500 and a bottom-10 offensive rating during this stretch.

Offensive consistency is where Toronto appears to get the edge in this matchup, as the Raptors currently sit in the top 10 for offensive rating. Also, with Pascal Siakam’s dominant performances against Boston this season, it’s difficult to imagine the Celtics getting past the Raptors in a playoff matchup.

Shifting to the 76ers, the Raptors are one of the few teams in the league who can match up effectively against the Sixers’ starting five, one of the best in the NBA, due to the athleticism that the Raptors also have at all five positions on the floor.

This is what led to Toronto’s success against Philadelphia this season, as the Raptors defeated the Sixers in three of their four regular-season matchups, with Kawhi Leonard sitting out for the Raptors in their only loss.

The Sixers have the star power, but with their poor three-point shooting and defensive liabilities, the odds in this series are in Toronto’s favour.

The Bucks are Toronto’s biggest obstacle to hopes of a conference championship, as Giannis Antetokounmpo is sure to continue his MVP-calibre season through the playoffs. But Toronto does have some advantages over Milwaukee.

With the length and athleticism of Siakam and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have strong defensive options to limit the damage that Antetokounmpo can do on offense. The Bucks have also been hit with the injury bug late in the season, as Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic, and Pau Gasol are all currently nursing injuries.

If the Bucks aren’t able to get healthy down the stretch, and the Raptors are able to limit spacing on defense and make things difficult for Antetokounmpo, Toronto has a strong chance of coming out on top.

Although the Raptors have a legitimate shot at reaching the NBA Finals, envisioning a Raptors championship parade in June is nothing short of farfetched.

The Raptors would be slated to face-off against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors in the finals, who are currently the favourites by far to win the NBA Championship.

Despite playing short of their full capabilities in the regular season due to injury concerns, the Warriors currently sit atop of the highly competitive Western Conference and are entering the playoffs with quite possibly the most talent-filled starting lineup in NBA history.

The Warriors are by far the best three-point shooting team in the league and would be sure to terrorize the Raptors’ defense across a seven-game series.

Also, the Warriors have the benefit of championship experience, as they are currently eyeing their third straight NBA title, unlike the Raptors, who have many new players that are still in the process of learning how to mesh together.

All in all, if you’re a Raptors fan who’d be satisfied with a conference championship, the 2018–2019 postseason is likely to be rewarding. But if you were expecting nothing short of a Raptors title banner? Maybe next season.