If you want to make a case for why the Toronto Raptors now are better than the Boston Celtics, then go right ahead.
After all, Toronto now has Kawhi Leonard, and it still has talented guard Kyle Lowry, a physical frontcourt and a bench that often outplayed Boston last season. The Celtics still are more talented, well-coached and better defensively than the Raptors — but Toronto shouldn’t be dismissed.
But please, please do not bring “Pythagorean wins” into the discussion.
Jeremias Engelmann, an ESPN NBA insider, attempted to do just that in a recent roundtable on updated Eastern Conference power rankings, and the results were decidedly brutal. Engelmann, the only member of the five-person group who said Toronto is better than Boston, offered this gem:
“The Raptors had significantly more Pythagorean wins — a better indicator of future success than straight win percentage, as it factors in point differential — than the Celtics last season. Assuming the Raptors will improve through this trade, even the return of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving won’t be enough to fully bridge the gap.”
Cue the palm face.
For the uninitiated: Pythagorean wins are a product of the NBA Relative Play Index, which throws winning percentages, opposing winning percentages, points scored and points allowed into a calculus blender to determine how good a team really was, and how good it will be going forward. The “formula” essentially is basketball’s equivalent of Bill James’ Pythagorean theorem of baseball, which we all know and love.
For the record: The RPI also will tell you both the Raptors and the Houston Rockets were/are better than the Golden State Warriors — so there’s that.
What Pythagorean wins don’t account for, however, is the variable of individual improvement. It stands to reason that young Celtics stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier will be even better next season than they were last. Sure, members of the Raptors’ young core, such as OG Anunoby and Lucas Nogueira, also should make leaps in 2018-19, but you’ll twist yourself into a pretzel trying to find a reason to believe either player is better than Tatum or Brown.
Furthermore, calculator basketball also doesn’t account for the nuances of regular season success or failure. The Celtics, of course, didn’t have Irving for stretches last season, and missed Hayward for virtually the entire campaign. Surely Boston’s games wouldn’t have been as close if it was at full-strength, right? And surely the overall numbers would’ve looked better if the Celtics didn’t navigate injuries and ease off the gas prior to the playoffs, right?
Also, the Raptors’ perpetual ineptitude in the postseason must account for something, yes?
Maybe the computers do, maybe they don’t. But when all else fails, try using your eyes, along with that fleshy, self-sustaining computer inside your head, before assessing the very non-digital product on the court.
If you do that, the decision you arrive at should be a (green) no-brainer.
Thumbnail photo via John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports Images