Can the Toronto Raptors Really Compete in the Atlantic Division?

James Borbath@@dinonationblogContributor INovember 1, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20:  Ed Davis #32 of the Toronto Raptors attempts a free throw against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 20, 2012 in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
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Can the Toronto Raptors be competitive in what most feel is the toughest division in the NBA?

There is a general consensus outside of Toronto that the Raptors are likely the team that will finish at the bottom of the Atlantic Division. In strange contrast, a lot of people feel the Raptors are much improved. This is a little confusing, but makes sense when you consider the only team worse than them last season was the New Jersey now Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are viewed by many as the most improved team not just in the Atlantic Division, but the entire Eastern Conference and perhaps the NBA. The Raptors are scheduled to face the Nets in Brooklyn. The game Thursday was supposed to be the Nets' opener against the Knicks, which has been cancelled due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Now the Raptors will face the challenge of being the first team to play in the Nets' new home the Barclay Center. It is going to be a tough place to get wins for not just the Raptors, but all teams that pay a visit. The Nets now have a legitimate home court advantage something that they have not had in their time in New Jersey. This combined with the Nets' improved roster should make them better without question.

The Raptors are much improved as well, and if Toronto wants to be competitive in this division, it has to look to defend its own home court and look for a split with the Nets in the season series. Kyle Lowry will be a big upgrade for it in this matchup, as he will be the guy guarding Deron Williams.

The real problems for the Raptors in this matchup will be who guards Joe Johnson and how they stop him. If Toronto decides to throw Landry Fields on him, that leaves DeRozan to guard Gerald Wallace. That doesn’t seem to work well as a matchup either. Leaving DeRozan on Johnson will be a big challenge for DeRozan to deal with.

In addition, the Nets have a lot of guys that can get on the glass. There are a couple of former Raptors among them in Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans. The Raptors get little from Bargnani on the glass and would be counting primarily on Jonas Valanciunas to battle with these guys for boards. You also have Amir Johnson and Ed Davis coming in off the bench.

The Raptors already got a look at the New York Knicks in the preseason and beat them. The Knicks honestly do not look as good as advertised, and the Raptors could do well against them.

True, the Raptors have no answer for Carmelo Anthony for the most part. Landry Fields might be motivated to play his former club, but he is not shutting down Anthony. The Raptors do have an advantage at the point guard position, and the combo of Jonas Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani will be a tough one to deal with for the Knicks.

The fact that Amar’e Stoudemire is injured and the Knicks have other injures heading into the season is not good news for them. They have a roster that is very old, and the Raptors counter with a very youthful lineup.

A split of this season series is a must for the Raptors and even winning it three games to one is not a totally crazy thought. Not saying that will be easy; it will not be, and it will take the Raptors' best effort to get it done.

The 76ers start the year with Andrew Bynum with knee issues. This is nothing new in terms of Andrew Bynum. The Raptors now have the ability to deal better with Jrue Holiday and no longer have to worry about Andre Iguodala on this roster.

I see no reason why the Raptors can not expect to be very competitive in matchups with the 76ers. Both teams want to do similar things in terms of counting on the sum of their parts for offense and playing a solid brand of defense on the other end of the floor.

I would expect four close contests that the Raptors need to hope they can come out on top in at least two of them. The Raptors' goal against all teams not named the Celtics should be to play for a split.

Boston has been the Raptors' bully in the schoolyard for years now. Last season, a less talented Raptor squad was finally able to knock the bully down for once. If they can do it with less talent, you have to think they can do it at least once this season.

The Celtics said goodbye to Ray Allen, and there is no question the Raptors and DeMar DeRozan will not miss him. Allen was a key player in many wins against Toronto taking advantage of DeRozan many times. Boston has added a lot of interesting talent to its squad. It is still the class of this division.

Kevin Garnett will find barking at Kyle Lowry a little different from doing it to Jose Calderon.

In conclusion, there is no reason to think the Raptors’ goal should be to try to be .500 in their division. If they can accomplish this goal, their chances at the postseason greatly improve. If Toronto falls short of this goal and finishes at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, the Raptors will be hard-pressed to compete for the postseason.

These 16 games will be ones that likely define this Raptors season. They are scheduled to begin that quest on Saturday in Brooklyn.