The Toronto Raptors: Forgotten Team In The East

When you hear NBA pundits talk about the Eastern Conference race, all the chatter revolves around three teams—the front-running Atlanta Hawks, along with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. But nestled in between those teams in the Eastern standings is a team that everyone seems to have forgotten about—the Toronto Raptors. Here’s a basic primer on what Toronto brings to the table for the coming playoffs and what they don’t.

It’s understandable why Toronto doesn’t get the attention—they don’t have a star anywhere close to a par with LeBron James or Derrick Rose and they don’t have Atlanta’s fantastic 44-12 record. What the Raptors do have is more wins than either the Cavs or Bulls. Toronto’s 37-19 has them +2 in the loss column on Chicago and +3 on Cleveland with twenty-six games left.

What’s more, the Raptors got their playoff feet wet last spring, dropping a tough seven-game series to the Brooklyn Nets. It might be easy to overlook them, but that doesn’t make it smart.
Toronto’s strength is their offense, which ranks 4th in the NBA in efficiency and most of the production comes from the backcourt. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan each average 18 ppg and Lou Williams comes off the bench to kick in 15 more.
When the Raptors need to go inside, 22-year-old Lithuanian center Jonas Valunciunas chips in 12 ppg and gets nine rebounds. Toronto then has solid depth at forward, able to interchange Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, Amir Johnson and James Johnson, and get a little bit of scoring and rebounding from each one.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the defense and rebounding is still a little below average, ranking 16th and 17th in the league respectively. And while having interchangeable parts at positions is great in college—just ask Kentucky—it’s not so good in the NBA, where a recognizable star getting some beneficial officiating is vital to advancing in the playoffs.
Furthermore, Lowry, DeRozan and Williams all shoot 41 percent or worse from the floor. It’s not intolerable, but it would be nice to see some numbers creep closer to the mid-forties, and the Raptors could certainly use a pure three-point shooter.
Toronto is still a young team, with none of the key players over the age of 28. They aren’t yet at the point in their development where it makes sense to mortgage the future for a veteran shooter or rebounder.
Right now, they are definitely good enough to win a first-round series, so long as they stay at least in the 3-spot (thus avoiding Washington, currently #5) and they at least have to be given a chance at upending one of the three marquee teams—while the Raptors’ weaknesses are apparent, the fact they’ve won more basketball games than Cleveland or Chicago over two-thirds of the season can’t be discounted. And the Hawks and Cavs each have experience concerns of their own, while the Bulls never know when Rose’s legs are going to go.
Whatever happens, it looks like basketball in Toronto is finally looking up and will likely stay that way for several more years. The proverbial window of opportunity is just starting to open.