Unless you live in Canada, you probably haven't noticed that the Toronto Raptors are in the midst of a season that might rightly be labeled a pleasant surprise. At 37-29, the Raptors have already surpassed their win total from the entire 2012-13 campaign and are currently on track to snag the three-seed in the Eastern Conference.
Those distinctions may not seem like much at first blush. After all, finishing third in the East these days signifies little more than being the "Best of the Rest," with the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat so firmly entrenched atop the standings. And at their pace of success, the Raptors won't even crack 50 wins—a benchmark that typically separates the cream of the crop from everyone else.
But considering Toronto's accomplishments in this context merely trivializes what a surprise this team has been thus far and how much of a threat it may well be in this year's playoffs.
To fully comprehend what the Raptors are now and where they're headed, it's important to first understand where (or, rather, how) they've been. The 2013-14 season is Toronto's 19th in the NBA. Only five of the previous 18 ended with the Raptors competing in the postseason.
The last of those came in 2008, when Chris Bosh and company went 41-41 before they were bounced from the first round by the Orlando Magic, 4-1. Barring an epic collapse over the next month, the Raptors can count on bringing to an end the longest playoff drought in franchise history.
There'll be plenty of positive history at stake for the Raps, too. Toronto has twice won 47 games—in 2000-01 and 2006-07—but never more than that. If this squad wins 11 of its final 16 games, it'll set a new team record for most victories in a single season.
The odds of the Raptors doing so are surprisingly favorable. Just four of their remaining games will come against teams with winning records. On the flip side, Toronto will play seven games opposite squads that are at least nine games removed from the playoff picture in that team's conference.
It should come as no shock, then, that, according to Playoff Status, the Raptors' remaining schedule is the softest in the NBA, with a collective opponent winning percentage of 43 percent. If anything, it'd be a severe disappointment if they didn't set a new franchise mark for regular-season success.
The same could be said for Toronto in the playoffs. Only once before have the Raptors enjoyed home-court advantage of any kind: in 2007, on account of winning the Atlantic Division. If Toronto can hang onto any sliver of its three-game lead on the surging Brooklyn Nets—which an easy schedule suggests it should—it'll take home the franchise's second-ever division title.
With a first-round matchup against those Nets, no less, should the current standings hold until mid-April. Such a battle would project as one of the more competitive from the opening weeks of the postseason. The Raps and Nets split the season series at two games apiece, with three of the four meetings decided by four points or fewer.
The exception? A 96-80 win for Toronto back on Jan. 11. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Kevin Garnett were all absent that evening as the Nets failed to extend what had been a five-game winning streak.
Williams and Johnson are back in the fold in Brooklyn. Garnett figures to join them soon enough.
But there's no guarantee that the Nets will be the ones to impede Toronto's progress at the outset. The Washington Wizards and the Chicago Bulls are both floating around the East's muddled middle, and the Charlotte Bobcats are within striking distance. Of those three, the 'Cats might actually pose the biggest threat to the Raptors' hopes for advancement; Charlotte went 3-0 against Toronto this season.
A playoff series victory of any sort, regardless of length or opponent, would be just the second-ever for the Raptors. In 2001, they snuck past the New York Knicks in five games as the five-seed in the East. Vince Carter nearly carried Toronto to the conference finals that year, but was ultimately outdueled by Allen Iverson, the league MVP, in one of the more captivating postseason tilts pitting one superstar against another in recent memory.
Even by the most favorable projections, the Raptors would be hard-pressed to push either of the East's top two teams to seven games in the second round as they did the Philadelphia 76ers nearly 13 years ago. Toronto has lost five of six against Miami and Indiana this season, with one game against each left on the schedule.
Running Without Rudy
That doesn't mean, though, that the Raps would be totally hopeless and helpless against either of those juggernauts. If anything, Toronto's performance since early December points to a team that will be anything but roadkill to be trampled by the beasts of the East.
The "early December" starting point is no accident. That's when the Raptors shipped Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray, in a deal that brought Chuck Hayes, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons to Toronto. Since then, the Raptors have gone 31-17 while outscoring the opposition by 5.7 points per 100 possessions. According to NBA.com, that point differential is the fifth-best in the league over that time, a half-point behind that of Miami and just ahead of Indy's.
Unlike the defensively-frustrating Heat or the offensively-challenged Pacers, the Raptors do their damage on both ends of the floor. They've sported the league's ninth-most efficient offense (106.7 points per 100 possessions), thanks to a more pass-happy approach that's seen Toronto register assists on 62.2 percent of its makes—sixth-best in the NBA.
And despite an absence of interior scoring. Only the Knicks and the Portland Trail Blazers have scored a smaller share of their points in the paint since Dec. 7 than have the Raptors, per NBA.com. On the other hand, the Raptors have tallied 26 percent of their points from three-point range while knocking down a sturdy 37.8 percent of their long-range looks.
This would seem to put Toronto at a disadvantage in the playoffs, when the ability to score easy baskets is of paramount importance as the pace of play slows and defenses tighten the screws.
Just because the Raptors don't score much on the interior doesn't mean they simply wander around the perimeter and hope for the best. They still draw fouls aplenty, with aggressive athletes like Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross and All-Star DeMar DeRozan attacking off the wings. As such, the Raptors have ranked among the 10 most free-throw-prone teams in the league without Rudy while scoring 18.7 percent of their points from the stripe.
That same aggression has followed the Raptors from one end of the floor to the other. They've forced turnovers 15.6 percent of the time (eighth since early December), albeit while putting their opponents on the free-throw line at the seventh-highest rate in the Association.
At least the Raptors are doing a solid job of challenging shots in the process. Their opponents have registered an effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers) of 48.1 percent—the fifth-lowest mark in the league—sans Gay.
That defense certainly isn't without its weaknesses. The Raptors are far from elite on the boards, and their emphasis on clogging the lane has left them vulnerable on those oh-so-valuable corner threes. According to NBA.com, Toronto's foes have nailed 40.6 percent of their looks from the left corner and 41.2 percent from the right.
Frankly, the Raptors would be fortunate to do much more than win a game or two in the conference semis if they were to escape the opening round of the playoffs. The glass-cleaning Pacers and the three-point-happy Heat would each make minced meat of Toronto's chief on-court weaknesses.
Not to mention the Raps' collective lack of postseason experience. Toronto's regular rotation has combined for 128 appearances in playoff games, only 24 of which have come from the team's starters. Compare that to, say, LeBron James, who's participated in 138 over the course of his decorated career.
In truth, qualifying for the playoffs at all could be considered a coup for the Raptors. This squad stumbled out to a 6-12 start before Gay was excised from the equation. The departure of arguably the team's most talented player—and definitely its most expensive one—appeared to portend a one-way trip to Tank Town for Toronto.
And not without reason. GM Masai Ujiri was brought in this past summer to rescue the Raptors from the mediocrity that had come to define the Bryan Colangelo regime. The assumption was that this organization would have to be ripped down to its studs and rebuilt, and that the chance to draft Toronto native Andrew Wiggins in June would represent the Raptors' best hope for establishing a more competitive tradition going forward.
To that end, Ujiri suckered the Knicks into not only taking Andrea Bargnani off his hands, but also sending back three draft picks, including two first-rounders, in the process. Once Gay was gone, the Raptors seemed ready to shop some of their other expensive parts (i.e. DeRozan, Lowry and Amir Johnson) and ride out the rest of the season while evaluating a bunch of unproven youngsters in service of the future.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the cellar. The touches and scoring chances that once belonged to Gay were redistributed to DeRozan and Lowry. The former performed well enough to earn a spot in the 2014 All-Star Game. The latter was considered the East's biggest "snub."
Gay's starting spot at small forward went to the 23-year-old Ross, who's since parlayed the opportunity into 12.7 points per game while shooting a scorching-hot 43 percent from three. Without Gay, the ball's moved more free within the offense.
His absence has presumedly had the same effect on that of stat sheets in the locker room.
The point is, the Raptors weren't even supposed to be here—or, rather, they (probably) didn't think they'd be here.
It's a good thing they are, though. Toronto might not have much wiggle room under the cap with which to add free agents until 2015. The Raptors could create some space by parting ways with Amir Johnson, John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough, all three of whose salaries aren't guaranteed beyond this season.
Either way, the Raps won't likely have max-level cap room with which to attract a marquee free agent this summer, assuming they decide to re-sign Lowry. The lack of top-tier options on the market wouldn't seem motivation enough for Toronto to let go of a player, in Lowry, who's emerged as a leader for the Raps.
And a productive one at that; Lowry's registered career-highs in points (17.2), rebounds (4.7), assists (7.8), steals (1.6) and three-point percentage (.383) in this, his age-27 season.
If the Raptors build on this season's success in 2014-15 and Ujiri uses his team's existing assets (i.e. players and draft picks) as intelligently as he did when he was in charge of the Denver Nuggets, they could come into the picture as a surprisingly attractive destination next year, when the free-agent market could be replete with franchise cornerstones at the top and plenty of other All-Stars seeking paydays just below.
Who's to say that a marquee free agent won't make his way north of the border, to the fifth-largest media market in North America, if the money's right and the team's trajectory is an upward one?
That'd be uncharted territory for Toronto. Then again, if the Raptors finish this season strong and parlay that push into an impressive playoff run, drawing a big name into the fold 15 months from now would be only the latest in a growing list of firsts for the NBA's lone Canadian outpost.
And just in time for the return of the "Angry Barney" jerseys, too.
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