This is part five of the Contender Series, one where I’ll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the best NBA teams, taking into account previous history of play and capability of flipping the switch and getting into playoff mode. In this part, I’ll analyse the Toronto Raptors.
Why they will win:
Ever since signing former executive of the year Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have ascended to the top of the Eastern Conference over the past 3 seasons, winning 48, 49 and now already surpassing 50 wins. With a balanced team they are viewed as one of the main threats in the East to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Dwane Casey has accompanied this development and has been able to steer this team in the right direction after just getting 29 wins in his first season. They rank 5th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating (a figure that probably does not reflect this team’s potential as DeMarre Carroll has missed a significant chunk of time).
In terms of roster, this team is led by the All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry, perhaps due to last season’s late collapse due to fatigue, returned this year a lot slimmer and more athletic playing a career high 37 minutes per game while scoring 21.5 points per game and dishing out 6.4 assists. He is quietly having a season that puts among the elite point guards (not considering the brutality of a season that Curry is having) and could make some damage in the playoffs by imposing his newly acquired physicality as he did for instance to Kyrie Irving, or by showcasing his range (shooting 38.6 % per deep on 8.5 tries per game). The other part of this backcourt is DeMar DeRozan, prime candidate to a max contract this offseason, continues to elevate his game translating in a career high 23.6 points, heading to the free throw line an average of 8.6 times per game. He is putting up his highest PER (21.7) and looks healthy and confident enough for a playoff run.
The depth of this team probably does not get enough credit. From former San Antonio Spur, Cory Joseph to the shot blocker Bismack Biyombo, the offensive prowess of Jonas Valanciunas and the veteran guidance from players like Luis Scola, this team seems to be equipped for the grit and grind of the playoffs and they will need contributions from their bench if they want to hang with the elite teams they will have to face.
In terms of competition the threat in the East is obvious. LeBron’s Cavs are the team to beat as long as LeBron is there and he is healthy. However, the Raptors did steal the season series and are still in striking distance of obtaining the 1st seed, especially with some of the late collapses the Cavs have endured as of late. Kyle Lowry seems to have a field day every time he meets the Cavs backcourt and, make no mistake, if the Cavs do not gel in the playoffs, the Raptors could have a legitimate shot of knocking them down. Nonetheless, they still have some stiff competition in the East in the form of Miami and Boston, two teams that could quite possibly pull off an upset.
Out of the West it gets trickier, as it is very hard to imagine a scenario where Toronto could hang with San Antonio or Golden State in a seven game series. That does not mean it is not possible, as the Spurs could finally succumb to their age and Golden States run for the record and path to the Finals could have them extremely fatigued and the Raptors could find a way to pull of an epic upset.
Why they will not win:
For those who say Casey has done a phenomenal job, there are many who still believe he is not the right man for the job. When Paul Pierce went at them in the Nets series, he was supposed to energize his team to stand up against a 36 year old and a bunch of aged veterans. They did not. They lost to a team that, while more experience, was remarkably less athletic and overall more inferior. Some blame has to be put on Casey.
Then, we have last season’s collapse. After starting rather nicely the Raptors went against a wall late in a season, with Lowry fatigue being one of the main issues, and never quite recovered. This season we are already seeing a drop that, while not as dramatic as last year, could be a reason for concern, especially if the mental aspect of this team still is not at a high level.
The roster is another issue. While I did point out the positives of this teams depth, they still seem to lack something. They do not have a transcendent star like their rivals have, despite Lowry and DeRozan forming a formidable backcourt. Actually, they are an injury away to one of their backcourt members to having to fight for their lives in the 1st round. There is also no indication on how this team will respond to playoff pressure. Forget about the NBA finals, just think about an elimination game for a team whose stars have never moved on from the 1st round.
They play at a very slow pace (29th) and still rank just 11th in defensive rating which could prove fatal when facing the offensive juggernauts of Cleveland, Golden State, Spurs or even the Oklahoma City Thunder. They allow opponents to shoot 37% from deep and are one of the worst teams in terms of assists per game, which could be an area they would need in order to survive when opposing teams lockdown Lowry and DeRozan.
Their biggest issue still is competition. They will probably have to get through either Atlanta, Miami and Boston, all teams who are exceptionally well coached and have (with the exception of Boston) more playoff experience. In the conference finals, they would in theory have the Cavaliers waiting and, despite winning the season series, it is very hard to envision them being able to contain the trio of LeBron-Irving-Love, even with them not playing to their full offensive potential. Even LeBron could probably carry the Cavs by himself until the finals. But if they somehow manage to make it through the East, what a lot of people view has a dream scenario would be to make it to the finals, not winning it because that seems too much of a long shot. Even if the somehow managed to avoid the Warriors or Spurs (which does not seem likely), the next two in line, the Thunder and the Clippers, can be viewed as favourites against them, and a win would still seem farfetched. Possibly the best scenario they can hope for is that the Cavs breakdown and they make it to their first finals berth.
By: Step Back-J