Photo credit: Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
In the other Eastern Conference battle, we have the 2-seed Toronto Raptors taking on the 3-seed Philadelphia 76ers. Despite both squads making the playoffs last year, they each enter this postseason with a drastically reworked roster. I’ll let the scholars over at Game of Zones catch you up on the Toronto offseason.
Toronto rebounded from their annual game one home upset to knock out an overmatched Orlando Magic in five games. Philadelphia feuded, fought, and subtweeted their way through the young Brooklyn Nets. Will the Raptors exorcise playoff demons on the back of Kawhi Leonard, or will the Sixers finish their process and coronate a vision built by their beloved prophet, Sam Hinkie? Let’s take a look. As always, thanks to NBA.com and Basketball Reference for powering the data behind this preview.
The standard stats
112.5 offensive rating (5th)
106.8 defensive rating (5th)
5.8 net rating (3rd)
Beat the 7 seed Orlando Magic 4-1 in their last matchup
Average MVP player score: 5.20 (7th)
111.5 offensive rating (8th)
108.9 defensive rating (14th)
2.6 net rating (11th)
Beat the 6 seed Brooklyn Nets 4-1 in their last matchup
Average MVP player score: 10.22 (1st, only three eligible players)
Average MVP score stems from all eligible players on each team from my MVP scoring model. These players must have played 40+ games for the team, with at least 20 minutes per game. The 76ers had three eligible players due to their midseason shake-up, helping power that top finish; for the Raptors, their score got a huge boost from their own major acquisition.
Stars to enjoy: The Process and the Klaw
What a fascinating dichotomy in personalities between the two top players in this matchup. For Philly, troll god extraordinaire Joel Embiid leads the way. His bullying dominance produced one of the best rookie seasons in memory, and this year has only been an improvement. He’s a usage monster at 33.3% (second in the league) and a beast defensively with the tenth-best defensive rating. Embiid even finished as one of the league leaders in PER, producing the sixth-best at 26.1.
For Kawhi Leonard, the year represented a return to form for the soft-spoken Terminator robot. He’s still the hyper-efficient scorer, joining Steph Curry, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the only players with a usage rate above 30% and a true shooting rate above 60%.
The attached graphs showcase how each player performed for our key metrics, measured by their z-score.
Both guys ended the year as fringe MVP candidates in my scoring system, and you see why with these visualizations. They’re far above-average in every major advanced stat, with subtle differences between the two. Kawhi’s more efficient on less possessions, while Embiid’s a man mountain snagging rebounds and blocks at a ridiculous clip. Interestingly, Kawhi has him beat in offensive rating but slips in defensive rating.
The fulcrum role players who may decide it all
Despite how much fun an Embiid v. Kawhi tournament would be, we’d be remiss to forget the rest of these powerful squads.
This framework lets us highlight inflection points for each team. These players, on a good night, might just put their team ahead in what appears to be a tight matchup. Jeremy Lin, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green all jump out as fulcrum candidates, showing a much higher volatility than the rest of the team.
Lin, a midseason pickup from Atlanta, serves as a bench unit point guard. When’s he on, the team is clicking. Toronto went 10-0 in games where Lin had an above-average performance, but 5-7 in his other appearances. In those ten wins, seven were blowouts while three were close. Potentially, this highlights that Lin cleans up in garbage time.
However, the other two fulcrum guys are a different story. Danny Green, once viewed as a secondary asset in the Leonard/DeMar DeRozan deal, has become a vital cog in the Raptors rotation. When he’s firing, the Raptors went on obscene 32-6, and 24-18 when he isn’t. A similar split pops up for Kyle Lowry, a player accustomed to being the bellwether for the Raptors’ success. Lowry powered the Raps to 28-4, good for a 72 win pace; in games where Lowry failed to find any traction, Toronto slips to a more pedestrian 19-14. As Lowry goes, so do the Raptors, and they’ll need him at full strength.
For the Sixers, the chaos of their roster turnover makes the fulcrum analysis a bit more complicated. Deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris completely reorganized the team. Harris himself pops up in our this dataset as a key signal for the 76ers success. While not as stark a contrast as Lowry or Green, Harris does show a wide split between his great and his poor games. Philly went 11-4 when Harris did well and 5-7 otherwise.
This trend played out in the one Sixers loss in the first round against the Nets. In the game one loss, Harris scored a mere four points and a game score of 6.4. He rebounded nicely, averaging 21 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.8 assists as the 76ers rattled off four straight wins.
Kawhi and Embiid (and to some degree Ben Simmons) garner the majority of the attention, but I’m fascinated to see how Lowry, Green, and Harris perform.
Team stats to track
Beyond the individual battles, this series produces a ton of fascinating team-wide statistics to monitor. The three-point shooting and efficiency revolutions have taken over the NBA, and these two teams offer interesting strengths and weaknesses under that spectrum. For the Raptors, they shoot 36.6% beyond the arc, good for sixth in the league. The rate jumps in each corner, shooting 42.4% from the left and 42.8% from the right, good for fourth in the NBA at both metrics. Philly defended these hotspots well in the regular season, hold opponents to a league-worst 33.6% rate from the left and 35.8% from the right (10th overall). The game slows down, and midrange becomes a bit more tolerable, but keeping these spots well-defended should be a top priority for Toronto.
Inside the paint, the metrics highlight two terrific defenses. Both teams posted a top-ten rate at restricting scoring at the rim, but its the Sixers, built up by Ben Simmons and Embiid, who may find more success inside, posting the fourth-highest field goal percentage within the restricted area. These numbers may obscure matchup I’m eager to watch, as newly acquired Marc Gasol battles a somewhat hobbled Embiid in the paint. Look at the stark differences for poor Nikola Vucecic, an All-Star this season turned into replacement-level by Gasol and the Raptors in round one.
The battle down low continues on the boards, which could represent another area that the Sixers can attack. On defense, the Raptors had the 18th best defensive rebounding rate, while Philly ended 11th on the offensive boards, pulling down 27.8% of available rebounds. Flip that around, and again Philly comes out on top, posting the seventh-best defensive rebounding rate at 74.1% while Toronto finished 19th at offensive rebounding. Between Gasol, Embiid, and perhaps even John Wick’s newest victim, Boban Marjanovic, the bigs could have a big chance to dictate how the series goes.
You know it’s a great playoffs when every prediction stresses the hell out of the prognosticator, and in the stats breakout we had no time to delve into the personal demons and drama that plague both teams. Can the Raptors avoid their typical early series malaise, maintain home-court, and finally hit their ceiling? Will Joel Embiid stay healthy, and how does his return impact the spacing and usage for Simmons, their other young star? Will the secondary guys like Butler, and Harris, or Pascal Siakamand Lowry, dictate how the series goes?
Much like the Bucks and Celtics, the teams’ bring contradictory strengths to this matchup. The Sixers have one of the strongest starting fives in the league, while the Raptors call on a deep bench that should be able to dominate the sparse Sixers’ backups whenever they share the court. Philly did well down low all season long, but after the destruction of the Magic big men, the Raptors seem poised to call on the Gasol/Siakam/Ibaka frontcourt rotation to handle Embiid. Kawhi dusted off his playoff game against Orlando, dropping 27.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3 assists, and a career playoff-high 67.9% true shooting in their 4-1 beatdown, while against Brooklyn Ben Simmons flashed both the tantalizing upside and jumpshooting terrors that have followed his career since day one.
Ultimately, I think the Raptors have enough to combat a somewhat gimpy Embiid, and I’m betting that the shocking loss to Orlando at home shook out the cobwebs enough. I wouldn’t be shocked to see both teams drop games at home, but I can’t shake this idea that a well-rested and fully engaged Kawhi can carry the Raptors to the conference finals.
I’ll hedge my bets slightly with a long series, but I’m still going Toronto in 7.