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Which Teams Are Toronto Raptors Competing Against for NBA Playoffs Return?

Justin BediContributor IIIJuly 11, 2013

Which Teams Are Toronto Raptors Competing Against for NBA Playoffs Return?

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    It’s been five years since the Toronto Raptors last made the NBA playoffs.

    During that time, the Eastern Conference has seen teams like the Boston Celtics rise and others like the Detroit Pistons fall.

    Such is the nature of the NBA.

    However, this offseason has had more movement than any other in recent memory. Entire rosters have been eradicated in order to rebuild, and other teams have added pieces to push for a playoff run.

    We have a good idea of what the top of the Eastern Conference standings will look like next season, with the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets topping the list.

    But it’s last season's bottom feeders that we’re interested in.

    Of the teams that missed the playoffs last season in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons appear ready for a rise in the standings.

    Time will tell how these teams will fare, but one thing is for certain: The Toronto Raptors will be competing with each of them for a playoff berth.

    *All statistics acquired via NBA.com and ESPN.com

Charlotte Bobcats

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    Snicker all you want at them, but the Bobcats have put together an intriguing starting five.

    With ESPN's Marc Stein reporting that Al Jefferson has officially joined the Bobcats on a three-year deal worth $41 million, the team has become a credible playoff threat.

    Jefferson is the last of a dying breed. He is a rare big man who can score with his back to the basket whenever he pleases. He averaged more than 10 points in the paint per game last season, per ESPN.

    Sure, he’s a bit of a black hole with his lack of assists (1.5 over his career) and isn't a great defender, but few players can stop him inside.

    Joining him in the starting lineup will likely be Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller.

    They’re young, but each of those players is talented. Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist have the ability to become stars one day, and Zeller should develop into one of the better post scorers in the league while learning from Jefferson.

    Walker was especially impressive last season, averaging 17.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. With Jefferson to lighten the pressure on the young guard's shoulders, Walker should be able to improve his efficiency and develop a nice inside-out game with his new center.

    The Raptors have an advantage against the Bobcats on experience and continuity, but they'll have a tough time stopping Jefferson and Zeller in the paint.

    The Bobcats are a dark-horse team for sure, but if they put it together under new head coach Steve Clifford, they could give the Raptors some trouble in their playoff quest.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cavaliers are another team that has added a potential franchise big man in Andrew Bynum.

    According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Bynum has signed a two-year deal with Cleveland worth $24.5 million.

    While there’s no guarantee he'll stay healthy next year, if he does, the Cavaliers are playoff bound.

    Combine Bynum’s dominant low-post scoring (20.5 points per game in the 2011-12 season) with Kyrie Irving’s perimeter wizardry, and you have potentially one of the best one-two combos in the league. Coming off an All-Star year, Irving will finally have a good supporting cast to help him make the playoffs for the first time.

    With dynamic scorer Dion Waiters, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and solid forward Tristan Thompson filling out the starting lineup, this team has all the makings of a squad on the rise.

    When this team meets the Raptors, Toronto will likely not have an answer for Irving or Bynum. While Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas are both capable defenders, they won't be a match for the talented Cavaliers duo at this stage of their careers.

    However, at the wing positions, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are far superior to Waiters and Bennett.

    Not only will the Raptors’ wing players have a major advantage in both size—DeRozan is 6’7”, while Waiters is 6’4”—as well as athleticism, they’ll also have better chemistry.

    Whereas Waiters and Bennett will play together for the first time this year, DeRozan and Gay will have already played half a season together, giving them the edge in this matchup.

Detroit Pistons

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    Of all the teams the Raptors should worry about, the Detroit Pistons might be the most challenging—especially with Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reporting that the team has signed Josh Smith to a four-year deal worth $56 million.

    Consider Smith's averages from last season: 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.

    The Pistons have gained a versatile player who plays both sides of the ball.

    But more importantly, they may have secured the most imposing frontcourt in the entire NBA.

    How many guards are going to want to go into the rim against Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe?

    The defensive disruption will be ridiculous. Smith was ninth in blocks last season with 1.79 per game, and Drummond, in his rookie year, was 16th with 1.58.

    Add in an excellent rebounder like Monroe (9.6 rebounds per game last season), and Detroit has one of the best interior defenses in the league.

    Granted, this team will have its struggles on the offensive end with Brandon Knight running the offense (2.7 turnovers per game last season), but the addition of Chauncey Billups, reported by Wojnarowski, should help.

    The Raptors will have an advantage against the Pistons’ backcourt of Knight and Rodney Stuckey, but it’s doubtful they will be able to stop their front line.

    Smith’s athleticism is equal to or even greater than Gay’s, and as good as Jonas Valanciunas is, he’s not strong enough to handle the twin towers of Drummond and Monroe inside.

    Advantage, Pistons.

Washington Wizards

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    Last season, the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors broke even against each other, splitting the series 1-1.

    It’s likely to stay that way next season.

    Much like the Raptors, the Wizards have kept their core together amongst the chaos of this NBA offseason.

    However, unlike the Raptors, they had the No. 3 pick in this year’s NBA draft, which they used on Georgetown forward Otto Porter.

    Assuming he starts right away, Washington's starting lineup will likely include John Wall, Bradley Beal, Porter, Nene and Emeka Okafor.

    That’s a well-rounded lineup.

    Of course, at the center of all this is point guard extraordinaire John Wall, who put up some crazy numbers at the end of last season—20.7 points, 7.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds with a 44.7 field-goal percentage after the All-Star break, via ESPN.com.

    Wall should only be better next season, and with a full training camp (assuming Beal and Nene are healthy), this team looks to be a solid playoff contender. The Wizards haven’t made any flashy moves this offseason as of yet, but with their talented roster, they may not have to.

    When the Raptors match up with this team, they likely won’t have an answer for Wall, but then again, not many teams will.

    Where they can excel is inside the paint.

    Nene and Okafor are big, but they had trouble staying healthy last year. Their games are also declining with age (only 27.2 minutes per game for Nene and 8.8 rebounds for Okafor this season, well below both of their career averages), meaning Valanciunas should be able to do some damage from the post.

    Throw in the Raptors’ more experienced wing players, and Toronto should have a slight advantage over the Wizards, providing Valanciunas can do enough to offset Wall’s brilliance.

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