If you go back and look at the preseason predictions for the Toronto Raptors (not excluding the ones for this savant-ish website), you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who picked the team to win the Eastern Conference. That glory was rightfully reserved for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were fresh off winning two games in the NBA Finals without two of their stars and looked primed to dominate a weak conference.
Make no mistake, Cleveland has done that and more. At 50-20, they're 30 games above .500 and by objective measurement, having an excellent season. Don't let the off-court drama fool you, either -- regardless of who LeBron James is or isn't following on Twitter, this is the East's best chance at supplanting the Warriors in the Finals. They have three blue chip players, one of the league's best bench bigs in Tristan Thompson, and a supporting cast that can light up the three-point line when they're on. Believe what you will as far as chemistry goes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a great team on the court. We expected that this year and we got it.
What we didn't expect, though, is that the Raptors would be this damn good at chasing them. As of today, the Raptors are 48-21 and just a game back of the Cavs in the loss column, 1.5 back overall. After Kyle Lowry's dramatic game-winner last month, they hold the tiebreaker over Cleveland -- a pocket ace that looks to be more and more important as the days go by. For a team that was expected to finish in the East's middle ranks, the fact that I'm here writing a column about the chances at a top seed is a shock in itself.
That said, what's the realistic chance they end the season as the East's best team? Can they do the unthinkable and end a franchise-best season with their first Eastern Conference title? To get the answer, let's look at how the rest of the season plays out for both teams.
How can the Raptors get the top seed?
Cleveland has 12 games remaining, against teams with a winning percentage of 47%. Those games are:
Mar 23 vs. Milwaukee
Mar 24 @ Brooklyn
Mar 26 @ Knicks
Mar 29 vs. Houston
Mar 31 vs. Brooklyn
Apr 1 @ Atlanta
Apr 3 @ Charlotte
Apr 5 @ Milwaukee
Apr 6 @ Indiana
Apr 9 @ Chicago
Apr 11 @ Atlanta
Apr 13 @ Detroit
Before getting deep into analytics here: Holy Hannah, that schedule is a cupcake. The Cavs play just one Western Conference opponent, and it's a team that recently got in hot water over using a sticky substance to grab rebounds. Of the 11 other games against Eastern opponents, six are against teams well out of the playoff picture and three are against teams fighting for the seven and eight seeds (Pacers, Bulls, Pistons). The games are spread out too -- only two back-to-backs, with the second games against Brooklyn and Indiana.
Yes, nine of 12 games are on the road, but looking at competition alone, it's easy to see the Cavaliers going 12-0 over this stretch -- 10-2 if we're being conservative. For the sake of argument, let's say they go 9-3. That would put them at 59-23 for the season - which, hello world criticizing the Cavaliers, is six games better than they finished last year.
Now let's look at the Raptors, who have 13 games remaining against teams with a winning percentage of 52%.
Mar 23 @ Boston
Mar 25 @ Houston
Mar 26 @ New Orleans
Mar 28 @ Oklahoma City
Mar 30 @ Atlanta
Apr 1 @ Memphis
Apr 2 @ San Antonio
Apr 5 vs. Charlotte
Apr 7 @ Atlanta
Apr 8 vs. Indiana
Apr 10 @ NY Knicks
Apr 12 vs. Philadelphia
Apr 13 @ Brooklyn
A more difficult schedule, to be sure, especially in the immediate future. Boston, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Memphis and San Antonio will all be motivated road opponents. Additionally, before the second week of April, you'll likely see Dwane Casey continue to stagger the rest of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. He'll also be tasked with working starters back into the equation, both from short-term (Jonas Valanciunas) and long-term injuries (DeMarre Carroll).
That makes the next two weeks the pivotal stretch for chasing the top seed. If the Raptors continue to win and stay within a game or two of the Cavs on this seven-game road trip lasting to April 2, that'll likely dictate whether Casey shuts down his stars in tandem down the stretch. After the Spurs, the Raptors will play three Eastern playoff teams and three Atlantic Division opponents -- all winnable games and a stretch they could conceivably go 5-1 if the team is still in distance and gunning for the top seed.
A safe estimate for the final 13 games? 8-5, bringing the Raptors to 56-26. They would need to go 11-2 to match Cleveland's safe estimate of 9-3. Regardless of how things look now, it's still an uphill climb.
Should the Raptors chase the top seed?
Some people will look at the standings, see Chicago waiting in the 8-seed, and ask the inevitable question in bold above.
The answer: unequivocally, absolutely yes. While the Raptors have a season series belt against the Cavaliers, the only shot they have of beating them in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup is home court advantage. Getting one or both of the first two games will be absolutely critical to pulling off an upset. It's the task Atlanta couldn't pull off last year, and one Toronto would have to do this year.
The bottom of the East is fluid too -- two games separate Indiana in seventh from Washington in tenth. While the Bulls might have the Raptors number (which, as history tells us, means nothing come playoff time), there's no guarantee they'll finish in the eight-seed.
It's not too early to discuss chasing the top seed, but it is too early to fear potential first-round opponents. Let's cross that bridge of doom when it comes.
What are your thoughts on the top seed? Do you think Toronto will get there, and should they chase that dream in the first place?