As we head into the final stretch of the regular season, the Raptors HQ staff got together to share their thoughts, answer some questions and make a few predictions for Toronto's final 29 games.
Walder: I projected a 51-31 record at the start of the season, which was risky considering the franchise had never reached that mark before. They're on pace for 54, so I'm in the ballpark at least. The schedule is tough for the rest of February and April is littered with road games, but that shouldn't keep Toronto from snagging 50 W's. *knocks on wood*
Park: I don't think anyone can honestly say they expected the Raptors to have as strong of a start to the year as they did. Using 50 wins as a benchmark for a dominant season, I thought that we'd have to wait one more year to get there; I was wrong. With 29 games to go, the Raptors would only need to win 11 of their remaining 29 games to match my initial prediction of 47-35, and even going one game below .500 would still result in a 50-win season. The impressive record aside, I still see the Raptors finishing in 3rd, sandwiched between Cleveland and Washington (depending on the severity of Bradley Beal's injury).
Walder: I'm hovering around the 2 or 3 mark. Terrence Ross isn't a bust, but he's certainly not where a lot of folks thought he'd be in his development after three seasons. Patience isn't a virtue around these parts. Fans want results and they want them now. He's regressed on defense, continued his infatuation with the three-pointer on offense and become as inconsistent as ever. With James Johnson breathing down his neck for minutes, you have to think Dwane Casey will keep cutting into Ross' PT as his stock continues to dip.
Park: Terrence Ross may very well get his act together, but come playoff time with the tightened rotation, I just don't see the Raptors having minutes for him. The team is better when James Johnson starts. DeMar DeRozan is going to get his minutes, and despite their stretches of cold streaks, both Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez are more consistent and capable of offensive explosions.
Robson: 3. I'm almost completely out the door on Terrence Ross, as even the flashes we used to see that left us optimistic that he can turn into a decent starter are all but gone. The degree to which he's regressed on defense is unbelievable, and his offense has dropped off along with it.
Santos: Eh... Terrence Ross... I'm not a fan right now. What frustrates me the most is that Ross is in his third season and has yet to show any real growth this year. Sure, he has potential as the 51-point game against the Los Angeles Clippers shows, but Ross needs to be consistent and average well above 10 points per game. Until then, I'm becoming doubtful of his time in Toronto. On a scale of 1-10, I'm at a 3.
Gaudes: 7. Terrence Ross has been an enigma, but not one I'm ready to give up on. The young man is just 23 years old, and many players at that age are susceptible to confidence struggles. I also don't believe Dwane Casey is ready to give up on Ross and ultimately, this team is at it's best when Ross is at the 3, spreading the floor, making shots and keeping the opposing defense off balance.
Peddle: At this point, it's hard to give anything higher than a 5. I had very high hopes for Ross going into this season and thought that he might be capable of a Klay Thompson-like leap someday, but that may have been a little naive. It's starting to seem like he won't become the elite three-and-D guy we were all hoping for, so now I just hope he can become a productive NBA player. I'm rooting for the kid, but a noticeable regression in year three after a semi-promising year two is troubling. His ceiling is starting to look a little lower, sadly.
Walder: With the trade for Goran Dragic and the emergence of Hassan Whiteside at the 5 spot, the Miami Heat have a core that's capable of upsetting the elite of the East. I'm sure Chris Bosh would get joy out of sending the Raptors home early. Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng would give Toronto's swingmen fits on the wing. There are far too many red flags for me to feel entirely confident in the Raptors emerging victorious. At least they wouldn't have LeBron.
Park: These Raptors are capable of playing with anyone in the Eastern Conference this season. That said, Toronto needs to avoid falling into the No. 4 seed for a 4 vs. 5 matchup. The only bottom-4 scenario that concerns me is Miami. Their playoff experience and the addition of Goran Dragic scares me. I think the best-case scenario for Toronto is Charlotte. With the exception of All Jefferson, the Raptors arguably win every other matchup, and should be able to dictate the pace of the series.
Robson: Without a doubt, the Miami Heat are now the biggest villain the Raptors could face in the first round. A starting five of Dragic-Wade-Deng-Bosh-Whiteside is arguably better than the Raps' starting unit. With their added playoff experience, they could be a real challenge.
Santos: The Raptors need to stay away from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The playoffs is where action goes from 0 to 100 real quick (reference intended). LeBron James and his squad will be able to dismantle Toronto in a six-game series, figuring them out. He's a veteran, having been in the playoffs numerous times. They must stay away from him.
Gaudes: As I explained in a recent piece for the site, I feel strongly that the Raptors need a top-three seed in the East to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Chicago, Cleveland and Washington (who played inside-out in the playoffs last year, a style that would hurt Toronto) are all must-avoids for me. Outside of those teams, the Raptors should have the talent to win a first round series against other comers.
Peddle: I think the Miami Heat could be a scary first-round matchup if healthy. The Raptors fell to the Brooklyn Nets last year and playoff experience seemed to play a large role in that, so Miami could present a similar problem. When the Raptors played Miami at the start of the year, they came out looking rather helpless against them. I'll be watching the games on March 13 and April 11 closely to see if they can find a way to solve the Heat.
The Milwaukee Bucks are a surprising 30-23 and recently handed the Raps an embarrassing loss, but I still think the Raptors could take care of business there. For the lack of playoff experience the Raptors have, they still have more than the Bucks. Both teams are built in the "we have no true superstar but we're all kind of good" mould, but the Raps simply have stronger pieces that fit better together.
Walder: The Larry O'Brien trophy doesn't go to the team with the most wins at the end of the regular season. With the team winning to the degree they are, fans are starting to expect more positive results in April, May and (one day) June. Progress only comes when you improve on what you've previously done. Anything less than a second round appearance would be looked at as a failure, regardless if they crack 50 wins.
Park: Come playoff time, no one remembers the regular season. The only time that the 2007 Dallas Mavericks' 67-win season is mentioned is right before a reminder of their first round collapse against the Golden State Warriors. Fifty wins is a great achievement, and would set the bar high for future Raptors teams. That said, if the Raptors don't advance past the first round, Masai Ujiri will be facing a lot of pressure to make some moves.
Robson: Not at all. A 50-win season is nice to look at, but a playoff series win has been the goal from the opening tip of this season.
Santos: The season will not be a success if the Raptors don't make it to the second round. I, for one, don't care about the regular season schedule. When it comes to the playoffs, regular season accolades don't mean anything.
Gaudes: Simply, no. Media around the Raptors will continue to play up 50 wins, and that would be a significant accomplishment for the team's history. In the moment, though, the Raptors ultimate success will be judged on whether they get into the second round or not.
Peddle: Absolutely not. No one believes in the Raptors as contenders because they've never won a seven-game series and no one will take them seriously until they do. If they go into the playoffs with homecourt advantage in the first round for the second year in a row and can't advance, the good times associated with #WeTheNorth and this team as currently constructed will almost certainly require a shakeup.
Walder: Terrence Ross will be back chucking up three-pointers as the starting small forward before the season is up. I wouldn't be opposed to James Johnson keeping his current spot for the foreseeable future, but I don't think Dwane Casey is thinking along those lines. Opposing teams will put more of an emphasis on Ross around the perimeter than they would Johnson. No one would complain if Ross got his job back, but Johnson wound up with more minutes and more playing time near the end of games.
Park: Lowry, DeRozan, James Johnson and Valanciunas should be locked in the starting lineup for the rest of the season. Lowry and DeRozan are the stars, Jonas provides the size and inside presence that no one else on the roster can bring, and James has carved out a niche as the conventional energy guy with upgrades. He's versatile on defense, must be accounted for on offense, and makes sure that his presence is felt whenever he is on the court. As for Amir Johnson, I give credence to the fact that everyone in the locker room vouches for his importance. That said, Patrick Patterson is another player who will never get accused of not playing hard and if the Raptors face a team that clogs the paint and need more spacing, don't be surprised if 2 Pat gets the starting nod.
Robson: I'm very much a fan of this starting-unit. The only potential problem that could present itself is the lack of a second three-point threat, where Terrence Ross would fill the void. But we all know that's not going to happen.
Santos: The starting lineup looks fine. That's it. Dwane Casey has been preaching continuity throughout the season in terms of progression, so I don't see him making a big lineup change. He doesn't want to disrupt that again. Now, in all honestly, I think they need to make a big change at power forward. Toronto's defense is not where it needs to be. They could reach that next step if they make the change, but I don't see it coming over the offseason.
Gaudes: I don't see the spacing here working long term, but the lineup was inserted to shore up defense at the beginning of games. For this purpose, it will work. I truly believe the team clicks best on both ends, though, with Terrence Ross at small forward, engaged and confident on both ends of the floor. James Johnson should continue to start, but if Ross improves, JJ should really spend more time as a backup 4.
Peddle: I definitely believe in this lineup with James Johnson playing the three more than iterations with Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez, or Landry Fields, so I think this one sticks. JJ brings the right balance of effort on defense and ability to finish at the rim. That makes him a good fit as someone who can guard the opposing team's best wing, while not stealing touches from Lowry, DeMar and JV on the offensive end. We still need to see this version play out a little more, but I have a good feeling about the fit. I was among those clamouring for this to happen all season.
6) Using a Drake song title or lyric, describe how you feel about the Raptors chances moving forward and how they'll fare in the playoffs.
I'm not the biggest Drake fan, so bear with me. In the song, he's celebrating his accomplishments, remembering where he came from. I think the same goes for the Raptors. The team went from being a losing franchise to a team that will win over 50 games and have a shot at the second round of the playoffs.
"Own It." The Raptors aren't the most talented team in the league and shouldn't believe for a second that they are. This team has been at its best when backed into the corner, and if they can own that underdog mentality, even as they flirt with the East's elite, they can play with the energy needed to reach their season's goals.