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ESPN Ranks the Eastern Conference Again, Predicts Raptors in Third

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For what are the dog days of summer, if we don’t let a little rankings-based anger off the leash?

NBA: Preseason-Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

There is a time for love in basketball, a time to marvel at the spectacle of a sport played well. When it happens, you know. It’s there when LeBron makes a spectacular title-saving block, or when Mike Breen yells out “bang” after a deciding play. It’s a beautiful thing and the world is better for it.

But it is late in August. There is nothing but a grand stretch of non-basketball time before us. Now, my friends, is the time for hate.

Earlier this week, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton went in on yet another (Insider) set of win projections and subsequent ranking of NBA teams. He based his efforts on Real Plus-Minus or RPM. It’s a nifty little stat that, as Pelton points out, correctly predicted the success of teams like the Trail Blazers and Celtics, as well as the relative failure of a team like the Bucks last season. (It failed to forecast the Raptors successful year, but that is because hahahahaha of course.)

For the Raptors this season, Pelton has this to say:

3. Toronto Raptors

Projected wins: 48.8

After getting career years from guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors are likely to regress to the pack this year, but fans can take solace in Toronto having outperformed its RPM projection each of the past three seasons.

Soak that information in. Toronto. Just shy of 49 wins. DeRozan and Lowry good. Outperform. Third place. Third.

Let’s take a trip shall we? Let’s travel from the bottom of the Eastern Conference, straight up to the top, addressing each team’s fatal flaw. Can a team have more than one flaw? Sure, but some of these issues can be masked, dealt with, adjusted to. Not so with the fatal flaw, it says so right in the name. We’re talking fatal as in death.

So, here we go. Based on ESPN’s RPM ranking of the East, the list and fatal flaw of every team in the conference as compared to the Raptors.

15. Philadelphia 76ers

The Raptors have won a whopping 12 games in a row against the Sixers. Can you believe that? Well sure, of course you can. The Sixers have been historically terrible for multiple years now. Even with the incoming Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and possibly Joel Embiid, this will still be a very bad basketball team. The Raptors basically just have to show up and play their game to push this streak up to 16 games.

Fatal Flaw: Hello, yes, this team has five noteworthy players and they demonstrably do not all fit on this roster at the same time. Good luck!

14. Brooklyn Nets

This team remains a stirring example of what happens when an organization writes a cheque its players can’t cash. Now two years removed from their one playoff series win (over the Raptors) and hopelessly mired in a rebuild that literally can’t happen any faster than it is, the Nets are a blackhole personified. Not even good guy signing moves like bringing in Luis Scola and Jeremy Lin can undo the damage (partly because they also signed antagonist Greivis Vasquez and sad-machine Anthony Bennett, but I digress.) It would be nice for the Raptors to have a real rival, built on some long brewing hatred, but this team is not the answer.

Fatal Flaw: As if things weren’t bad enough, the Nets also have to ward off the spectre of Andrea Bargnani. The all-encompassing malaise is real.

13. New York Knicks

For most of the summer since signing in New York, Derrick Rose has been making increasingly deranged statements. First, he claimed the Knicks were a “super team,” mentioning them in the same breath as the Warriors. Then, he said the Knicks could “win every game,” which, depending on how you read it, means Rose is either confident his team will compete every night, or he’s just straight-up delusional. Anyway, this man is the Knicks starting point guard. Kyle Lowry is already licking his chops.

Fatal Flaw: The Knicks’ plans of time travelling back to 2010 have not worked. This team will implode before the end of the year.

12. Orlando Magic

The Island of Misfit Toys got even more misfit-ier (it’s a word) with the additions of Bismack Biyombo (much love) and Serge Ibaka. The Magic have transitioned from having a weird logjam at the guard positions to a strange pile-up at the forward/centre spots (I mean, how would you play Biz, Serge, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon?) My money is on Biyombo inadvertently distracting Ibaka with all his Toronto talk, leading to easy Raps’ wins, and then Serge fleeing Florida for Canada. It could happen.

Fatal Flaw: When’s the last time a team splurged on any player it could get its hands on, regardless of fit, for a wanton push into the playoffs and have that short term thinking actually pay off?

11. Chicago Bulls

This ranking warms the cockles of my heart. That’s right, I said cockles. The Bulls are clearly on the decline at this very moment. Let’s celebrate. They’re going to attempt to play Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler at the same time. Their forward rotation involves whatever is left of Taj Gibson. There is a delightfully good chance (re: this will definitely happen) Rondo turns on coach Fred Hoiberg. Not even the shooting onslaught of Doug McDermott will be able to slow down a the healthy frontcourt mix the Raps will be able to bring to bear on this listing wreck of a team.

Fatal Flaw: I refuse to accept a universe where the remains of Rondo and Wade can play with Butler to form an effective NBA offense in 2016-17. I refuse!

10. Miami Heat

This team just does not have any dudes anymore. They had dudes, and now they don’t. Goran Dragic’s dude status is gradually slipping. Chris Bosh, sadly, may never be a dude again. Hassan Whiteside’s problem is that he thinks he’s a dude, but he’s not. Likewise Dion Waiters; he’s peak non-dude but decidedly does not know it yet. Justise Winslow is a dude, I will concede that point. This is not a great ratio of dudes to non-dudes. The Raptors have a lot of dudes. You do the math.

Fatal Flaw: Here’s the thing when you make a team with non-dudes: They all think they’re due! There’s only one basketball on the court, guys.

9. Atlanta Hawks

Ah yes, the Hawks. You remember them don’t you? Once darlings of the league, a starting lineup that won the “Player of the Month” award that one time, a roster of blue collar underrated guys who worked together to elevate basketball to a higher plane. It was a nice story. Operative word here being was. This team plans on running out there now with Jarrett Jack, Dwight Howard, and the Mensa-stylings of Kris Humphries. Even DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, not the most heady of players, are chortling at this turn of events.

Fatal Flaw: You are the Atlanta Hawks and you went from employing Al Horford to paying Dwight Howard. Feel good? No. No, you do not.

8. Indiana Pacers

I’m going to tiptoe around this one because Paul George is a legitimate destroyer of worlds the likes of which we just do not see elsewhere in the Eastern Conference (outside of LeBron). George can’t be stopped, and he can lock down whichever Raptor he decides to zero in on — DeRozan, Carroll, even Lowry, are already on notice. Unfortunately, as has been rightly pointed out, Indiana has now quintuple (that’s five) doubled-down on guards who are decidedly not Paul George. The Raptors will gladly welcome Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Monta Ellis, Ty Lawson and Jeff Teague to take all of the shots. Please, go ahead, it’s fine.

Fatal Flaw: Read those names again. Paul George is a fantastic basketball player, but man, you just know he’s somewhere right now shaking his head going “I have to play with who?”

7. Milwaukee Bucks

I don’t want to get into civil engineering here, but allow me this midpoint digression. There’s this thing in soil mechanics, a graph explaining the optimum moisture content of soil for ideal consolidation; too dry and the molecules won’t compact, too wet and the water takes up more space than the load bearing soil. That, in a bizarre sense, is the Milwaukee Bucks’ relationship to the most tantalizing of NBA qualities: wingspan. They have miles and miles of long arms but still haven’t found that premium spot on the curve. The Raptors, a low-assist team generally, are impervious to all those attempts to get a limb into this, that or the other passing lane anyway.

Fatal Flaw: While the unholy alliance of coach Jason Kidd and Matthew Dellavedova is cause for concern, this team still counts on a Plumlee and the aimless wanderings of Greg Monroe.

6. Charlotte Hornets

There was once a time when just mentioning the Hornets’ name would cause a shiver to run through any Raptors fan. I don’t what it was about them then (Gerald Henderson?) but they could put the fear into Toronto. Now I suppose they’re still a good team — Nic Batum, Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, etc. represent a union of something — but, and this is going to sound faintly heretical, I don’t care. It feels very likely this team will finish exactly 6th and be exactly as threatening as you’d expect. They may even split the series with the Raptors. But you know what: none of it will matter.

Fatal Flaw: Is there some sort of team mandate that says Charlotte must always have at least one slow-footed big man on the roster? Adding Roy Hibbert to this team’s inexplicable frontline rotation of Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller and, good god, Jason Maxiell, feels like a mistake.

5. Washington Wizards

The Nets, the Bulls and then the Wizards. Now the troika of hate is complete. I hope the Washington fans enjoyed that 4-0 sweep a couple years ago; I hope the good feelings at the time were worth it. I hope it is still fun to watch John Wall run and hustle and work so as to produce shots for Bradley Beal, who — let me see here — doesn’t like him. You know which two backcourt players do like each other? The Raptors’ Lowry and DeRozan. This ranking is a reach and I am very much here for the season-long implosion.

Fatal Flaw: Maybe I should repeat this: Their two best players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, do not like each other. This will not end well.

4. Detroit Pistons

I don’t know if it starts with Stan Van Gundy, or if Reggie Jackson is to blame, but this Pistons team exudes a lack of composure. Oh they can get fired up, they can run and jump and dunk the holy hell out of the ball (having Andre Drummond on your team helps in that department), but this is a team of zero chill. This piece is heading towards 2,000 words and we’ve gotten to the “zero chill” zone. The Raptors should just let the Pistons punch themselves out, is my point.

Fatal Flaw: The obvious one-liner here is to just foul Drummond whenever he touches the ball. Problem solved. The less obvious one-liner is to ask how exactly this team plans on fitting Drummond with Boban and Aron Baynes.

3. Toronto Raptors

A perfect specimen. We will brook no argument here.

Fatal Flaw: Does one point out the brush strokes on the Mona Lisa? No, one does not.

2. Boston Celtics

Look, I get why this is now the sexy pick for the two-seed. The Celtics have a storied pedigree, and they signed a big name free agent. They have a baby-faced (alleged) genius of a coach, and a roster full of guys who play hard for him, producing results often over and above their individual talent levels. As insufferable as Boston sports fans tend to be, the NBA will always regard the Celtics as an important team (definitely more significant than Toronto) that should be good. But please allow me to add on behalf of the true two-seed Raptors: fuck that noise.

Fatal Flaw: There is still — still! — no one player on this team (besides tiny Isaiah Thomas) who inspires much fear when the ball in his hands. Horford helps, but not enough in the way the Celtics need.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers

You know what? Let’s just let Cleveland enjoy this for awhile. They need something. They have LeBron. Godspeed.

Fatal Flaw: No man can be perfect forever.