Can DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay Help Toronto Rise in the East's Muddled Middle?

Joe Flynn@@ChinaJoeFlynnContributor IOctober 24, 2013

Oct 23, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives to the basket against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Grizzlies 108-72. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

To tank or not to tank; that is the question.

The NBA's Eastern Conference looks to be quite stratified going into the 2013-14 regular season. On the top, there are five teams locked into the first five playoff spots. On the bottom, teams like Philadelphia are undergoing historic tanking campaigns in preparation for next summer's strong draft.

And then there are teams like the Toronto Raptors.

At first blush, Toronto looks like a team that could use a good tank job. The Raptors haven't made the playoffs in five seasons and haven't advanced past the first round since 2001. They've recently undergone a total regime makeover, with Masai Ujiri taking over as general manager. Their key player, center Jonas Valanciunas, is entering his second NBA season.

This is a franchise that is clearly looking beyond this season to a brighter future.

And yet, Raptors fans have reasons for hope in 2012-13. Masai Ujiri's biggest move of the offseason—ridding the team of Andrea Bargnani—will probably help Toronto in both the long and short term. The bottom three seeds in last year's Eastern Conference playoffsAtlanta, Boston and Milwaukee—have all seen significant roster turnover. At least one and possibly two playoff spots could be up for grabs.

For what's it's worth (and it ain't worth much), the Raptors have been appointment viewing so far in the preseason. They've run their preseason record to 6-1, and they've scored at least 100 points in four of those games.

Also, Toronto's Terrence Ross might have locked up the award for most clutch preseason buzzer-beater with his overtime heave against the Knicks.

More important than the results, though, is how Toronto has achieved them: with big-time scoring performances from DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay.

After Valancunias, DeRozan might be the Raptors' most critical long-term asset. The previous GM locked him up through the 2017 season at $9.5 million per year, so he represents a significant investment.

Though he had shown little progress in the past four seasons, DeRozan has emerged as one of the pleasant surprises of the NBA preseason thus far. DeRozan is tied for seventh in the NBA in total field goals made; better yet, he is making those field goals at a robust 54.3 percent.

He still isn't much of an outside shooter—just 21.4 percent from beyond the arc—but DeRozan has been relentless thus far in using his supreme athleticism to attack the rim, leading to results like this:

As a result, DeRozan has also been getting to the line, totaling 34 free-throw attempts in only seven games.

The only Raptor getting to the line more often than DeRozan is Rudy Gay, who has totaled an impressive 44 free-throw attempts, sixth in the NBA. Much has been made of Gay's offseason eye surgery, and the early results (taken with a grain of preseason salt) have been encouraging: 8-of-20 shooting from beyond the arc.

Gay has a gargantuan player option for next season—$19.7 million—and probably doesn't fit in with the team's long-term plans, but I'm sure Masai Ujiri is hoping for a quality season from Gay, if only to entice suitors for a possible trade. Any wins Gay might pick up in the meantime would be a bonus.

Toronto might not have a playoff-caliber defense, but with strong seasons from DeRozan and Gay on the wings, along with a breakout season from Valanciunas down low, the Raptors might have the firepower to shoot their way into a seventh or eighth seed.

The fans in Toronto should give Ujiri a few years to work his magic, of course, but even a quick playoff exit would be welcome news for this long-suffering fanbase.