Ranking the New-Look Raptors in the East

With most of the main action now complete in terms of free-agent signings, Franchise takes an early look at how the Raptors stack up against the rest of the clubs in the East...

David Lee.

Lamar Odom.

Marvin Williams.

Andre Miller.

Allen Iverson.

Nate Robinson.

Ramon Sessions.

These names represent the remaining "marquee" free agents left on the market right now.

It's anyone's guess where most will end up, and all are having a tough time finding a team willing to commit the kind of money to them that they are seeking.

Outside of this list, it's pretty slim pickings for the most part as the NBA's free-agency period slowly crawls towards the finish line.  It may not officially be done till much later this summer, but I thought right now it might be a good time to touch in on how the Toronto Raptors and their moves, stack up against what their Eastern Conference competitors have done.

To that end, I've ranked the Eastern Conference based on how each club currently looks on paper.  How deep are they, how talented is the starting group, what's still missing, etc, etc.

Let's start at the top and work our way down...

 

1.  Orlando Magic - When the Magic lost Hedo and tried to replace him with Vince Carter earlier this summer, I wasn't exactly impressed.  I do think that Vince is a more talented player than Hedo, but I just didn't see Vince being as good a fit for the style the Magic played.

However then Orlando went and got Brandon Bass, matched the Mavs' offer for Marcin Gortat, picked up Matt Barnes and is still trying to secure underrated point guard CJ Watson.

NOW, the Magic can throw out a lethal starting five of Nelson, Carter, Lewis, Bass and Howard, and a second unit of Anthony Johnson, Mickael Pietrus, Matt Barnes, Ryan Anderson and Gortat.

Are you kidding me?  Pietrus, a key player in their run last spring won't even be starting now in all likelyhood!  How is my boy Redick even going to see the court??? 

The club is essentially 10 deep and on paper look to me to be far and away the top team in the East.  Factor in Lewis playing his natural position, a healthy Nelson, an improving Howard and the bruising Bass beside Dwight and you've got all the makings for a return to the finals.

2.  Boston Celtics - Some will say the Cavs should take this spot but I'm not convinced.  I think the addition of Rasheed Wallace, the continued development of Rajon Rondo, and hopefully a healthy KG and co. gives Boston the top six players on one club in the East if not the league.

After that though, it admittedly gets a bit sketchy.  Eddie House is still there but it looks like Big Baby Davis could be playing elsewhere when the season starts.  And even if Boston brings back Leon Powe, there's no guarantee that he'll be able to return to his pre-injury level of play.

The starters though plus Rasheed make an intimidating force though and I think again, if everyone can stay healthy, this puts them right near the top of the East.

However to really challenge Orlando, the team is going to need young guns like Bill Walker, Gabe Pruitt and JR Giddens to step up from being end of the bench fodder.

3.  Cleveland Cavaliers - In my books, the Cavs really didn't do much to upgrade their roster this off-season.  Yes, they got Shaq Daddy, but I think they overpaid for Varejao, they lost Ben Wallace, who despite his decline I felt was under-appreciated, and while I respect the abilities of former Raptors Parker and Moon, I'm not sure they really address one of the key problems for Cleveland last year in the playoffs - scoring the ball.

Minus Lebron this team was anemic offensively in the clutch and while Shaq maybe solves the match-up issues with Dwight, I worry that there's still not enough firepower around Lebron so that he doesn't have to everything himself.

The other concern I have with the Shaq acquisition is fit. 

He played well for Phoenix last year statistically,but he tends to need to dominate the ball to be effective on offense similar to Lebron.  Coach Brown is no Phil Jackson and you have to wonder how these two alpha dogs will work out.  It worked for Shaq and Wade of course, but this is an older and creakier O'Neal, and Lebron might not be receptive to playing second fiddle.

In any event, I still have Boston slightly ahead however the Cleveland situation is going to be a fascinating one to watch this season.

4.  Washington Wizards - This is where it gets interesting.  I'm guessing many readers will plunk the Raptors in at this spot and it's quite possible they finish the season with the fourth seed.  And considering that Washington was one of the worst teams in the league last year, it does look like I'm going out on a limb here.

However take a quick look at this roster.

If Gilbert Arenas can return to pre-injury then suddenly this club looks extremely deadly from an offensive perspective.  Combine Arenas with Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Nick Young and now Randy Foye and Mike Miller, and I expect the result will be one of the highest scoring clubs in the East, especially with giant playbook afficianado Flip Saunders now at the helm.

Defensively the returns of Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson should also be a big boost, and if players like Javaris Crittenton, JaVale McGee, and Andray Blatche continue to develop, this club could really surprise other teams.

5.  Atlanta Hawks - I'm ranking the Hawks here with a large caveat. 

If the team can't keep Marvin Williams, they could easily drop and the Raptors get this spot.  However if he's retained, I'd be hard-pressed to see how this team wouldn't be even better than last season.  Josh Smith and Al Horford continue to develop, Joe Johnson is entering his prime, Jamal Crawford's streaky scoring was brought on-board, and I really like the late first-round pick of Jeff Teague, who may get major minutes with Acie Law now gone to Golden State.

They're not very deep, but both Mo Evans and Zaza Pachulia are quite effective and this club should be fighting with the other top teams in the East again this season.

6.  Toronto Raptors - Now we come to the Dinos.

As most readers know, I'm not sold on the Hedo acquisition as pushing Toronto into the upper echelon of the East.  However his addition along with that of Jack and some other pieces definitely gets them back into the playoff mix in my opinion.

"How high" the team finishes really depends on 3 things in my books; team health, the continued development of Andrea Bargnani, and the play of DeMar DeRozan.

ESPN.com's David Thorpe recently had this to say about DeRozan in his look at the top rookies going into the season: 

No player impressed me more during the summer league than he did. He played like a bigger version of Courtney Lee -- he was smart with the ball, didn't force things and played off his teammates very well. Those attributes are perfect for his role on the Raps, who look very similar to last season's Magic.

DeRozan can simply make plays within the system and let his veteran teammates carry the tougher work until he evolves into the quality starter he seems destined to become.

It's hard not to get excited after reading comments like these and if he CAN be a Courtney Lee type boost, then with a few more pieces added over the next few weeks, I can't see why a healthy Raptors team wouldn't be a top 5 or 6 squad.

However to rise above that, I think a lot would have to go right.

7.  Miami Heat - Just like last year, I think from about six or seventh in the conference on down to about 10 or 11 is going to be an extremely tight race.  I've slotted the Heat at 7 as while they didn't do much in terms of bringing in new talent this off-season, the club still has Dwyane Wade.  If Jermaine O'Neal can stay healthy and the club gets a solid sophomore year from K State alum Michael Beasley, then this team should be right around where they were last year, battling it out in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack.

Again this could completely change if a Boozer or Odom lands in Miami.  Suddenly then this team would vault up into the conference's upper echelon.

8.  Philadelphia 76ers - After a disappointing start last year and an injury to Elton Brand, the club rebounded nicely to grab the seventh seed in the playoffs.  However even with Brand back this season, and an ever-improving young core, on paper I think this team has major problems if they don't keep Andre Miller.

And with each passing day, it's looking more and more like Miller is not coming back.

So if Philly loses him, who runs the show? 

Louis Williams?

JRue Holiday?

Willy Green?

Yikes.

If the 76ers have to rely on any of these names I'm not sure how the team can even get back to last season's final spot in the standings.

 

The Rest of the East:

9.  Chicago Bulls - There's no question Rose is a beast but without Gordon can the supporting cast provide enough offense to get Derrick back to the playoffs?

10.  Detroit Pistons - One step forward, two steps back?  I like Villanueva and Gordon can score, but on paper does this team look to be anything more than a team fighting for eighth?

11.  Indiana Pacers - Pacers point guard situation looks a bit shaky now with Jack gone, but this team could be a sleeper if their youth keeps developping and Dunleavy Jr plays at his 2007-08 level again.

12.  Charlotte Bobcats - Bobcats look to be destined to finish just outside of the playoffs again this year unless Henderson, Ajinca and Augustin make big jumps.

13.  Milwaukee Bucks - Even if Sessions returns (which doesn't look likely) this club on paper just doesn't appear to have enough talent to get the job done.  However with Skiles leading the charge there won't be many nights when this team looks like an easy W for opponents.

14.  New York Knicks - Without Lee and Robinson this season could be a real eye-sore for Knicks fans.  However even if both return the club doesn't look to have done enough to address some of their major issues last year on defense and at the point guard position.

15.  New Jersey Nets - Although the Nets missed the playoffs last year they were a pleasant surprise.  After moving Carter though in the offseason along with bright prospect Ryan Anderson, next year doesn't look so promising.  There's some nice young talent here in CDR, Terrence Williams, Harris, Lopez and the newly acquired Courtney Lee...but I think it's going to take some time for that to show up in the wins column.

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