Are Toronto Raptors Legit Playoff Contenders for Next Season?

Christopher Walder@@WalderSportsContributor IIJuly 16, 2013

With the way the roster is currently constructed, should the Toronto Raptors be considered a legitimate threat to make the postseason in 2013-14?


It's not a definitive yes or no. 

For five straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors have failed to qualify for the NBA playoffs. The last time this team was playing meaningful postseason basketball was in 2007-08, when it ended up losing a first-round series in five games to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic

There's only so much disappointment a fanbase can take. As much as Raptors devotees support the franchise, watching them fall short of the playoffs year after year is starting to become emotionally draining. 

With reigning NBA General Manager of the Year Masai Ujiri coming over from the Denver Nuggets, you get the sense that things are finally starting to go in the right direction.

During a time when many teams around the league are planning to "tank" the season with hopes of landing a top pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Ujiri said last week that he plans on following another blueprint (via (RaptorsHQ):

What are we going to do, throw players away?...We're not going to do that. And I think winning is what you want to build around and I think when you [tank], I'm not so sure the karma is great when you do stuff like that. But I understand the whole big picture and we're putting all the options on the table.

Creating a winning culture in Toronto is near the top of Ujiri's to-do list because, frankly, unless you're winning, you don't matter. You aren't relevant in the NBA.

This transformation isn't going to happen overnight, and management understands that. This is a process. The wheels are in motion. Moves are being made. 

Dealing Andrea Bargnani was a good start towards improving their chances. On July 10, "Il Mago" was officially sent to the New York Knicks for a package that included sharpshooter Steve Novak, veterans Marcus Camby and Quentin Richardson, as well as three future draft picks (2016 first-rounder, 2014 and 2017 second-rounders). 

It's highly unlikely that either Camby or Richardson will ever suit up for the team, so in essence, Bargnani was shipped off to "The Big Apple" for a one-dimensional player in Novak and three draft picks. 

Yes, Steve Novak is a one-trick pony, but his area of expertise (three-point shooting) is what the Raptors desperately need. This team shot just 34.3 from behind the arc in 2012-13, which ranked just 25th in the league. Novak is a career 43.3 percent three-point shooter, so he's clearly going to be an asset in that department. His role will be to stand in the corner, help stretch the defense and hit open looks.

That's it. There's nothing wrong with that. It's what he was brought in to do. 

Ultimately, what this deal with the Knicks comes down to is Bargnani no longer being a Toronto Raptor. It's a fresh start for both the franchise and the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 draft. After Bargnani missed the majority of last season, it would have been difficult to integrate him back into an offense that already had its pieces in place.

He was one of the last remnants of an era in Toronto that was stigmatized and ridiculed for poor play and losing.

It's time to move forward.

Signing former Indiana Pacers power forward Tyler Hansbrough to a multi-year deal was a nice touch. In 81 games last season, Hansbrough averaged 7.0 points and 4.6 rebounds. 

"Psycho T" wasn't acquired for his offensive prowess, that's for sure. He's a tough, gritty player who's earned a reputation around the league for being extremely physical. He's someone you'd love to have on your side but absolutely hate to go up against.

Hansbrough is a nice addition to the roster, but he's not a game-changer. To be fair, he wasn't brought in with those expectations. It was a culture move. He's been a winner everywhere that he's played, from his days as a North Carolina Tar Heel to his four-year stint in Indiana. 

Will his presence on the roster help lead to more victories? Not likely, but that conclusion does not downplay the move. Raptor fans are happy that he's here, but ultimately, it's not going to put this team over the top. 

The backup point guard position is still of great concern. Kyle Lowry will remain the starter heading into next season, but as of right now, only Dwight Buycks, an unproven Developmental League player, is backing him up. 

That simply won't suffice. With all due respect to Buycks, who averaged 15.1 points for the Tulsa 66ers in 2011-12, he's merely a third-stringer who should be playing minimal minutes for the Raptors. If he does enter 2013-14 as the primary backup to Lowry, this team could be in for a world of trouble, especially if Lowry goes down and misses any significant time again. 

It's a huge gamble on the part of Ujiri, but he obviously sees some value in Buycks as a basketball player. I fully expect another point guard to be added in the coming weeks on a cheap deal, if nothing but to provide more insurance at the position. 

The Raptors had no picks in the 2013 NBA draft, so a lot of focus will be on second-year players Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross and their development towards being the cornerstones of this franchise.

The Raptors' playoff hopes could very well rest on the shoulders of these two young men. 

If the Summer League is any evidence, Valanciunas has clearly bulked up and added some much-needed muscle to his otherwise lanky frame. The Eastern Conference possesses some of the most menacing big men in the game today, including All-Stars Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert.

Valanciunas hitting the weights this summer is absolutely huge, no pun intended. Having to go up against those powerhouses in the paint on a nightly basis becomes a bit less daunting with the added size. 

Ross is still a huge question mark. He's averaging 11.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in two Summer League games, thus far. These games aren't a true indication of anything, so any improvement Ross has made from the end of last season won't be evident until he hits the court in October and November. 

In life, there are only three guarantees: death, taxes and five of the eight spots in the Eastern Conference playoff picture already being determined (Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks).

Those final three seeds are up for grabs. That's what the Raptors need to be striving for if they have any realistic hopes of clinching a postseason birth. 

As management continues to make adjustments to help this team reach those goals, other franchises in the East are hoping to make their own push up the standings, as well.

Bleacher Report featured columnist Justin Bedi recently wrote a tremendous piece on teams the Raptors would be competing against in the conference for those final playoff spots. 

The Charlotte Bobcats signed Al Jefferson, a career 16.4-point and 9.0-rebound guy, to a three-year, $40.5 million deal. Not only did the Cleveland Cavaliers land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft (Anthony Bennett), but they also signed two-time NBA champion Andrew Bynum and former Golden State Warriors' sixth man Jarrett Jack. The Detroit Pistons also made a huge splash in free agency, signing Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract. 

As some perennial playoff teams enter a state of rebuilding (Boston Celtics? Philadelphia 76ers? Milwaukee Bucks?), others are looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel. 

As solid as some of the Raptors' offseason moves have been, other teams are making superior additions.

It hurts the Raptors' playoff stock, if only a bit. It's a wide-open field where five to six teams could legitimately find themselves landing in those lower seeds. It's just a matter of which team(s) comes together, produce at a high level and take it in the end. 

The Milwaukee Bucks, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference last season, finished the year six games under .500 (38-44). The Raptors were just four games behind at 34-48.

That has to be encouraging for Raptor fans. Rudy Gay, acquired at the end of January in a three-team trade with the Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons, wasn't around the entire season. After his deal went through, the team played .500 basketball for the remainder of the year.

That would have been good enough for one of the final two playoff spots.

Now with Gay able to get a full training camp under his belt, the Raptors' playoff chances look better. Putting aside his contract for the moment (owed nearly $17.9 million in 2013-14), Gay is still the most prolific offensive weapon the team has, as he led the team in scoring at 19.5 points per game. 

Is this all enough? Will the Toronto Raptors be competing in the 2013-14 NBA playoffs?

It's going to be tough. It's going to be a bumpy ride. But never discount the willpower of a team that genuinely wants to get better. 

Don't sell the Raptors short, just yet. Ignore the recent history. Wipe the slate clean. It's a new day in Toronto. 

Playoffs? It's about damn time. 


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