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Raptors Dream Big, but NBA Reality Says Toronto's Title Hopes May Be a Fantasy

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 3, 2017

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 26: DeMar DeRozan #10 and Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors are seen before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 26, 2016 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

One-and-a-half players away.

That's how one NBA insider with a thorough understanding of the Toronto Raptors put it.

Not just one player away.

And that mystical half player is what has placed the Raptors in a truly devilish quandary as they straddle the blurry line between good team and who-knows-what-more-they-could-become.

It also makes for a fascinating study of what it's like to be considered a contender in an era when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are such heavy favorites to meet in a third consecutive NBA Finals.

The hope is real. The contending isn't.

It's too bad, because the Raptors make for a lovable underdog.

They've got two self-made stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, guys who work for everything they have and whose drives are evident in the Raptors' 23-10 recordespecially in the plus-145 scoring differential Toronto has accumulated during the fourth quarter this season thanks to the 13.6 points the two have combined to score in the quarter.

The two stars also love each other, which is the surest sign to believe in a team's chemistry. After Lowry eclipsed the team's single-game scoring mark this season—40 points, posted by DeRozan twice—with 41 points on an amazing 12-of-16 shooting from the field Sunday, DeRozan, with Lowry getting dressed right next to him, dryly offered about his teammate: "Maybe four or five shots he should've made.

"Could've had more," DeRozan kidded. "He missed a couple easy ones."

They even do their pregame workouts on the court at the same time, which almost never happens for the stars of a team, sharing the same spots on the floor when they could, or maybe should, spread out. Lowry wears his ear-cupping headphones and DeRozan's head is shrouded in his hoodie, but somehow they still look like they're working together.

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 12: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors shares a laugh with DeMar DeRozan #10 during NBA game action against the New York Knicks at Air Canada Centre on November 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It's the same thing even when they're not on the court. Sunday, when DeRozan responded to a flagrant foul from Los Angeles Lakers forward Thomas Robinson by coming right back into traffic to draw more contact, it was Lowry who prowled the sideline in front of the bench in proud support.

There's no doubting how much they do for this team—and what the other guys don't.

Lowry has played 346 more minutes and DeRozan 287 more minutes than the next-most-used player. And when that No. 3 guy is Patrick Patterson, you know you don't have anything close to a Big Three like Golden State or Cleveland.

So unless the Raptors add a guy good enough to slot in as an imposing third wheel, someone who might single-handedly make up that difference of one-and-a-half players, what's the point in pretending they can win the title?

Even adding a guy as possibly energizing as Kenneth Faried, as presumably solid as Taj Gibson or as potentially skilled as Paul Millsap—assuming Raptors president Masai Ujiri, whose impressive track record is not one of a gambler, was able to pull off such a deal—there would be high prices to pay.

Aside from disturbing the fragile balance of how much Lowry and DeRozan carry the ball in what has become a high-efficiency offense, beyond requiring buy-in to Dwane Casey's defensive mantra of "our approach has to be physical," the addition of a new star's salary poses a significant issue for the Raptors.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 1: Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 1, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If Toronto re-signs Lowry, as one would expect, this summer, the franchise would already face luxury tax penalties that would be tough to swallow without real proof a championship is available. Even before the prospect of trading for a legit third player, you might be looking at soon subtracting one of your own meaningful pieces—maybe even Jonas Valanciunas, the guy who was once presumed to grow into a No. 3—to save money.

And as we do this mental math with the rosters, there's still a strong possibility the Cavaliers add a player on their end despite an already massive tax bill, perhaps trading their 2020 first-round pick for someone useful, such as Lou Williams.

The space the Raptors are occupying now should be closer to the penthouse than it is. And while it is a good life, there's no plausible path to greatness. That gulf is precisely the reason the league fretted about the superteam problem and ensured in the new collective bargaining agreement via re-signing raises that clubs can build more organically from within.

And though the Raptors have done a commendable job at that already, it's also easy to look back and see just how fragile their rise has been.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors reacts during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on December 28, 2016 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As recently as last spring, if Toronto doesn't escape Game 7 in the first round against the Indiana Pacers, Casey is likely let go after a third consecutive first-round ouster. Instead, he received a contract extension and now stands as the franchise's longest-tenured head coach.

There's also valid reason to wonder whether DeRozan, who shot 31.9 percent during that Indiana series, gets his new contract from the Raptors and thus gets to pass Chris Bosh last Wednesday as the club's all-time leading scorerif Toronto doesn't squeeze past the Pacers 89-84 in Game 7.

Or if Lowry, who shot 31.6 percent in that series, is even in position to stay this summer.

Although the Raptors won another Game 7 against the depleted Miami Heat during the next round, no sane person could say Toronto was close in their six-game Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs.

Now the Raptors, as currently constructed, are worse off from losing Bismack Biyombo in free agency. (Jared Sullinger, brought in last summer, is out at least another month after foot surgery, will need a lot of conditioning work and doesn't project to defend passably next to Valanciunas anyway.) Toronto and Cleveland have played three times this season, with Cleveland winning them all. The final matchup isn't until the final day of the regular season, so the Cavaliers will likely be in rest mode rather than give the Raptors a last shot at building confidence.

Also worth wondering is how much fresher Cleveland will be by playoff time considering Casey leans so heavily on Lowry, whose only rival in usage, minutes and playing every game is Houston's James Harden. The Boston Celticsthe most stacked team in the league when it comes to trade assetscould wind up better positioned to challenge the Cavs in the East.

Lowry doesn't care about all that. After his 39-minute, 41-point game to beat the Lakers, he could be heard asking to do more on defense to help out teammate Cory Joseph.

"I've been trying to guard the better of the guards to give him some rest," Lowry said.

No matter the potential pitfalls come spring, it's hard not to love Lowry's spirit, which on Sunday night included a Toronto Maple Leafs cap on the day of the NHL Centennial Classic outdoor hockey game. ("They won today," Lowry reminded.) He truly loves to play and compete—and doesn't give a crap how little anyone thinks the Raptors can unseat the Cavaliers.

Indulging the idea that some post-title complacency from LeBron James will further cover that one-and-a-half-player gap is a fun possibility to consider.

Alas, it's more possible that this is as good as it gets.

              

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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