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Assessing the Eastern Conference landscape after the trade deadline

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Spoiler alert: It didn't change much, and the Raptors shouldn't be worried.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

When I pitched this article earlier in the week, I did so predicting that at least some of the zany rumours circulating the Eastern Conference teams would morph into ground-shaking deals. Boston seemed ready to finally cash in its stash of assets, Atlanta was contemplating blowing it all to bits, the Raptors were clearly probing for a power forward upgrade and the teams on the fringes of the playoffs could have either bought, or sold.

As we know now of course, nothing really changed all that drastically. Those teams clinging to playoff hopes - Charlotte, Detroit and Washington -- were the biggest movers of deadline week, with the litter of teams ahead of those squads opting for stasis.

First, a quick note on the Raptors not making a move on Thursday. Would it have been nice to see Masai Ujiri make a big upgrade to help bolster the team's odds of making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals? Sure. But after the Hawks ruled out trading Al Horford, there probably wasn't another name out there that would have raised the team's ceiling all that much. The Raptors have already comfortably staked their claim to the two-seed. The difference between the Raptors and the third-place Celtics is identical to the gap between Boston and ninth. Because of their top-10 efficiency on both ends of the court, their record against good teams, and the star level play of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors have to be the odds-on favourites to meet Cleveland in late May. That doesn't change because Ujiri didn't pull off a move.

A big reason you should have confidence in this team's Conference Final hopes - aside from the ones just listed - is the state the Eastern Conference finds itself in as the dust clears after the trade deadline.

From a competitive standpoint, yes, the Eastern Conference is better this year. There are fewer walk-through nights on the schedule thanks to strides made by the Pacers, Knicks, Magic, Hornets, Pistons and Heat. But when it comes to teams that strike fear in the hearts of opponents -- especially come playoff time -- the East is still sorely lacking.

Up and the down the Eastern Conference standings are flawed teams, all of which would be underdogs against the Raptors in a seven-game series if the playoffs started today.

There are multiple potential first-round opponents for Raptors fans to over-analyze over the next two months. The bottom of the East's playoff race is as muddled as it gets. Charlotte adding Courtney Lee, Washington picking up Markieff Morris and Detroit overhauling their bench and buying low on Tobias Harris are moves that should keep all those teams healthily in the mix for a playoff spot, but can any of those teams offer the Raptors much of a challenge in round one?

Concerns about facing the Wizards again can be understood. The memory of last year's sweep is still fresh and probably colouring a lot of fans' perspectives when it comes to this year's Raptors team. John Wall is certainly capable of dragging a team to a series win, and the Raptors saw first hand what Morris is capable of when he's not completely mailing it in when he put up 30 points and 11 rebounds against Toronto a few weeks ago. A two-seven rematch of last year probably isn't the ideal playoff-opening match-up for the Raptors.

That said, Toronto is a new team this year. It has a cohesive bench, a smarter defensive system and Lowry, DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas have all made marked improvements in their respective games since last April's collapse. The smart money would be on the Raptors to beat the Wizards and exact the kind of revenge that a regular season sweep doesn't quite yield.

Charlotte is still reeling from losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist once again. Courtney Lee's addition helps fill the Hornets' hole on the wings, but they can't match Toronto's talent level and they lag behind the Raptors on both ends of the floor. Regular season losses to Gerald Henderson-led rendition of the Hornets will strike doubt in heart of Raptors fans if this match-up comes to fruition, but Charlotte isn't a realistic threat over seven games without MKG or the advantage of home court.

Detroit's moves make them a far more interesting team in a year or two. Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a tantalizing collection of positionally ambiguous wings and forwards. Defensively, that group is going to be a monstrosity. The bench is better too. Marcus Thornton replaces Brandon Jennings as Stan Van Gundy's spark-providing reserve and if Donatas Motiejunas can get fully healthy, the Pistons' collection of front court options will rival anyone else's around the league. Detroit is going to be good, and Van Gundy's direction is clear. However, they shouldn't cause Raptors fans to lose sleep this season.

Detroit is 18th in both offense and defense, and is one of the most inaccurate three point shooting teams in the NBA. They rank 24th (33.7%), a problem on a four-out team that relies on the excellence of the Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll to create open looks for shooters. None of the new additions help that save for maybe the league-average stroke that Thornton brings. Detroit is well on its way to recreating the concept Van Gundy designed in Orlando, but some development is still needed from the young core there. They would be a fun team to come across in the playoffs - both because of their fun athleticism and the fact that they shouldn't really scare the Raptors in a series in 2016.

Also in that gaggle of teams hanging around the edges of the playoff picture are the dreaded Chicago Bulls -- the team people seem to be most terrified as a potential first-round foe.

Let's set the record straight now. While the playoff heartbreaks of the last two years still weigh on the mind, and the recent regular season track record against Chicago isn't pretty, observers of the Raptors needs to get the idea that the Bulls would have a good chance of beating the Raptors in a seven game series out of their minds.

These aren't the Bulls of Tom Thibodeau. Jimmy Butler is a damn superhero, but even immortals need help sometimes. The cast surrounding Butler is injured, declining or just plain bad. Ask a Bulls fan what they think of Derrick Rose, or Tony Snell, or Doug McDermott's defense, or Joakim Noah's future with the team, or Aaron Brooks as the security blanket behind the Bulls' former MVP point guard.

Fred Hoiberg's offense hasn't translated to the NBA. Chicago has the worst offense of any team currently sitting in a playoff position, better only than the Sixers, Lakers, Nets and Suns. The defense ranks 12th, which is fine, but a far cry from the stratosphere it has occupied throughout the first half of this decade. And, oh yeah, Jimmy Butler is still out with a knee injury, leaving the Bulls as maybe the least equipped of all of the teams mentioned here to even make the playoffs.

At full health, this edition of the Raptors should roll through this limping shell of a Bulls team, even if Butler returns at 100 percent and is able to win a game or two on his own. It's understandably hard to accept that things may be different before we get tangible proof that they are. Viewing the 2015-16 season as a stand-alone entity though, it's impossible not to view this Raptors team as superior to the Bulls, and frankly every other team they lead in the standings.

It's okay to be skeptical about the lack of deadline moves. It's also way more fun -- and in this case, realistic -- to be an optimist about the collection of players the Raptors have on hand right now. Winning a playoff series is never a foregone conclusion, but this April could produce the closest thing to a surefire series win that this franchise has ever seen.

The second round could bring tougher match-ups and less certainty (as I'll get to in some more posts later on), but even if the Raptors do flame out as a final eight team this year, it will still probably go down as the best season in franchise history.

Given that the trade deadline didn't bring a major tectonic shift to the make-up of the Raptors potential round one opponents, fans should rest easy, and gear up for the most fun ride we've seen in Toronto yet.