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Life in the Leastern Conference

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27 and 55. Nope, not pretty folks.

-Included in this record, streaks of one win in 15 games to start the season and one win in 12 games to finish the season.

-The league's worst defensive team percentage-wise allowing their opponents to shoot almost 50 percent (49.07) from the field.

-And as fans know, quite a few heartbreaking losses making up for one long and bad season.

These were just some of the sticking points included in the Raptors' 2005-06 season. A tough season indeed by all accounts regardless of how much "upside" this off-season seems to offer. Of course the "upside" angle has been done to death and until we see what this summer brings, I'm not about to re-vacuum the same piece of carpet. Yes it looks like Bosh will be back, the team has cap room, a couple more draft picks yada yada yada. However the true upside as of now I believe lies simply in the fact that...

...the Raptors are in the Eastern Conference.

Think about this for a second. Teams five to eight got into the playoffs after winning between 42 and 40 games and in fact the last three teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs entered without winning records. With the terrible season Toronto had record-wise, it would be tough to argue that they've got anywhere to go but up.

So can the Raptors get the 13 to 15 more wins next season which would put them into playoff contention? If they can even close out a few of those games that got away this past season that would give them at least another seven or eight wins. And undoubtedly one could argue that a solid draft, some free agent help, an offseason of training and a year of experience under some of the young players' belts will also result in a few more wins. Combined, those two key points may get the Raps another 10 to 12 wins putting them right in the running.

However the main reason I think that Toronto will be in competition for that last spot, is simply that the teams ahead of them, aren't that much better as of now.

Let's look at this year's Eastern Conference playoff teams.

And at the top, the Detroit Pistons. Deeeeeeeeeeeeeetroit Basketbaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall. As long as Ben Wallace does re-sign this offseason, the Pistons' should be in title contention for years to come. No, the Raptors won't be challenging them anytime soon. But starting with the number two team, the Miami Heat, things get more shaky.

The Heat revamped their roster this year after falling short last post-season in their championship run. However this year's squad in fact looks less strong in this year's playoffs after having a very tough time getting past the Chicago Bulls in the first round and getting lambasted by the New Jersey Nets in their first Eastern Conference semi-finals match. With Shaq probably only having a few good years left, besides Dwyane Wade, the Heat are going to soon need a serious youth injection and their window of opportunity is closing quickly.

The window might not be closing as quickly for the next team in the standings, the New Jersey Nets, but their situation is hardly rock-solid either. The Nets experienced a rebirth of sorts at the expense of the Raptors when Toronto dealt their former franchise player to New Jersey and paired with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson, the Nets have taken off. The development of big man Nenad Kristic has also helped the Nets cause but they still lack a bench and a solid low post presence to get to that next level. Additionally, Vince Carter's contract is up in a year, Jason Kidd seems to be slowing down and the Nets will have some tough financial questions to deal with. No, I don't think the Nets are really light years ahead of the rest of the conference.

The same can be said for the following two teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards. Both have superstars in Lebron James and Gilbert Arenas but are missing pieces to get to that elusive next level. In Washington's case, the team desperately needs help up front and an improved defensive presence to challenge the elite of the league. Cleveland in contrast has some nice frontcourt players however is in danger of losing their top rebounder, Drew Gooden, to the lures of free agency. Last off-season the Cavs ended up overpaying for several role players thereby preventing them from making any signficant upgrades THIS off-season without making some trades. Ironically the Cavs and Wizards locked horns in the most even series of the first round and both showed major weaknesses. In fact as I type this, Detroit is once again pounding the Cavs into the ground in the second game of their Eastern Conference semi-finals match-up. If either of these teams (the Wizards and Cavs) were in the Western Conference, would they have even made the post-season dance?

While that last point may be debatable, the following teams, given the seasons' they had, definitely would not be in the Western Conference playoff race. The Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks made up this year's final three playoff teams and no one would mistake these three for Dallas, San Antonio or even Sacramento anytime soon.

Let's start with the Pacers. There is no denying Indiana has talent, but the chemistry just does not seem to be there and now everyone from Stephen Jackson to franchise cornerstone Jermaine O'Neal seems to want out. Yes the team was decimated by injuries but when your third-string point-guard becomes your best and most consistent player, you know there are major issues. It now sounds more and more like GM Larry Bird is going to make some major change this off-season and who knows how far this sets the team back. Remember, prior to Ron Artest's rap career this was the one team which seemed to be a major threat to the Pistons title chances. And now? Well, this squad is simply a shell of its former self.

The Chicago Bulls lie on the opposite end of the spectrum. Even though the team lost its major post-presence by trading Eddy Curry to the Knicks, coach Scott Skiles' tough defensive system got the Bulls back into the playoffs and with oodles of cap room, and the well documented two first round picks from the New York Knicks, defintely have the brightest future this side of Detroit. This is one team which could definitely make a leap in the standings depending on their offseason moves. But therein lies the rub. Yes the Bulls currently are a better on-court squad than the Raptors, but depending on the choices they make this summer in regards to free-agency and the draft, who knows if they actually will be that much better next season.

And finally in the playoff department, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks have an interesting assortment of talent, from second-round gem-to-all-star Michael Redd to last year's first overall pick in big man Andrew Bogut. The Bucks made a nice improvement on last season's 2004-05 record of 30 wins but wouldn't you still say this team was a disappointment? After landing the top choice in last year's draft, trading for an established big in Jaamal Magloire, attracting and signing vaunted free-agent guard Bobby Simmons and getting prospect TJ Ford back from injury, most expected this Bucks team to post a better record than 40 and 42 which in the end resulted in an easy first round playoff exit. In fact if the NBA season was even two or three games longer, it's tough to see how Milwaukee would even have grabbed the last playoff spot thanks to the tremendous charge the Orlando Magic put on at season's end. As a result it now sounds like there will be some major off-season changes coming from Milwaukee among them perhaps seeing Magloire shipped out of town to free up some playing time for the Bucks other young big men. With Milwaukee basically capped out at this current level, it's tough to imagine this team being that much better next season without pulling off some major trades.

So who's left?

Off the non-playoff teams, the Orlando Magic probably have the brightest future. With Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson as cornerstones, upcoming financial flexibility and some good young talent, the Magic appear to be a team on the rise.

The others? Well...with the exception of the Bobcats who are saving their ducats for offseason 2007, the rest of the teams don't look to be going in any direction let alone up.

-The Knicks struggles have been well documented and with Isiah Thomas at the helm it isn't a reach to say that Bonzi Wells, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans will all somehow be on the Knicks payroll next season. Whether Larry Brown is their coach or the team wins 10 games is another story...

-The Atlanta Hawks are finally assembling some interesting talent...but can a team of small forwards make the leap? And can they fill in the rest of their roster when they've given up two of their upcoming first-round picks to Phoenix in the infamous Joe Johnson trade and have about as much luck at luring free agents as Charles Barkley apparently does gambling?

-The Boston Celtics looked like a young squad on the rise a year ago but never saw many of their youngters (ie Kendrick Perkins, All Jefferson and Tony Allen) develop the way they expected this past season. Neither Paul Pierce or Wally Szczerbiak are spring chickens and with most of the Celtic's cap space tied into these two players, next year may mean some tough choices for GM Danny Ainge.

-And speaking of players tying up cap room, how about the 76ers? Philly has most of its money going into All-Stars Allen Iverson and Chris Webber's pockets yet somehow the team failed to make the playoffs this season. Both contracts will be tough to move and this is yet another team in the Eastern Conference seemingly caught between a rock and a hard place.

So where does this leave the Raptors?

Well if I were to rank the conference strictly on upside in the next few years considering each team's salary cap situation, talent, management and future prospects, my top five would look like this:

1. Detroit
2. Chicago
3. Orlando
4. Toronto
5. Charlotte

Laughable? At first glance yes but take even Charlotte for example. The team came to play each night with arguably the least amount of talent in the league. With another solid draft, and money to spend on the banner free agent crop of next summer, couldn't this team be a move or two away from playoff contention in the East? Look at the Bucks this year! Adding a top pick, and making only a few trades and signings resulted in a 10 win increase good enough for eighth place. And of course, since this is the Eastern Conference, getting the eighth spot this year really only meant a two win difference from having the fifth playoff seed! So is this really so unrealistic?

And this is my point. I'm positive the Raptors will improve next year and simply based on the conference they reside in, have a chance to make the playoffs. Besides an improving Orlando and Chicago and of course Detroit (who should stay at their current "well oiled machine" level of play) can you pick any other teams in the East right now which you feel will make serious improvements on their past year's records? Seems to me that teams like the Cavs, Wizards and Nets have basically hit the height of their team's growth and if anything, we may see teams like Miami, Milwaukee and Indiana suffer big dips depending on off-season moves.

But perhaps I'll leave the Eastern Conference final analysis to ex-Raptor Jalen Rose, who once offered up this classic quote: "If you're in the Eastern Conference and you wake up in the morning, you're in the playoff hunt. If you have a pulse (you're in the hunt.)"

Truer words have perhaps never been spoken.

FRANCHISE