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Is it time to admit the Raptors are now the real favourites in the East?

With the Cavaliers reeling, the Celtics showing weakness, and Washington’s season feeling “pointless,” is now the Raptors’ time?

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Toronto Raptors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

It happened again.

Last week at The Ringer, Jonathan Tjarks wrote a piece about why the time is now for the Wizards to go all and win the East. While Tjarks (whose work I really like) briefly mentions the Raps early in the article, when it’s time to run down the reasons the main contenders in the East can be had, our hometown hoopsters are completely ignored.

Fine. That’s nothing new. It’s the price you pay for being North of the border, being seen as a team that has a post-season ceiling, and, honestly being sort of boring. But, with the Cavaliers reeling, the Celtics starting to show how much they miss Gordon Hayward, and the Wiz themselves wasting time — is it time to anoint the Raptors as not just contenders in the East, but as the favourites?

Our own Daniel Reynolds briefly touched on this, but let’s dive deeper with a little FOR and AGAINST.

FOR: The Raptors’ most dangerous rivals are in disarray

When the Boston Celtics went on that early 16-game winning streak it obscured their clear weakness — Boston isn’t really good at scoring the basketball. Even with Kyrie Irving balling out, the C’s sit 18th in offensive efficiency, and while they dropped 113 last Wednesday in L.A., they have been second last in offensive efficiency since the start of 2018. Boston has also been incredibly fortunate in close games — 11-6 in contests decided by five or less. Some of that is expected — they have a legitimately great D, and Kyrie Irving is one of the best late-game bucket getters in the league, but there is a fair argument to be made that the Celtics have significantly overachieved.

We know what the issue is in the Land. The Cleveland Cavaliers can’t guard anyone, and that’s not going to change dramatically. LeBron and co. will dial it up in the playoffs, but it’s hard to see this creaky team as more than average defensively — even if the DeAndre Jordan rumours are true.

The Wizards Wizards are dangerous... I guess. They have two legit All-Star calibre players in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and there is a worrisome small-ball line-up lurking on their roster (with Otto Porter Jr.). But they’re also kind of trash. Marcin Gortat is openly talking retirement, their bench, minus Kelly Oubre Jr., is awful, and for the nine-thousandth consecutive year a John Wall ”led” team finds itself with chemistry problems.

Hell, even the dark-horse Milwaukee Bucks are reeling. Giannis is ‘uncomfortable’, and while they’ll be welcoming Jabari Parker back soon, ask the Raps how easy it is to integrate a key piece late in the season (and it’s not like he’s going to help their defense anyway).

AGAINST: The Raptors are secretly not that good

This comes down to a look at their overall record, 33-15 and then contrasting that with their record against teams better than .500 (13-13). Sure, you should be worse against good teams, but that much worse?

There’s a case to be made the Raps have become like the San Antonio Spurs, but in a less exciting way — their consistency and continuity means that middling teams have almost no chance, but they don’t have the “next gear” needed to thrive against the best of the best. Put it another way, are the Raps the ’14-’15 Atlanta Hawks?

FOR: The Raptors are that good, fool — don’t overthink it!

Then again, Toronto does sit third in net rating (6.8), the mark of an elite team, and they’re are the only other team (along with the juggernaut Warriors) rank in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency (5th in O-RTG, 3rd in D-RTG). They are deep, balanced, and do have another gear because they’ve rarely had to give opponents the full KLOE and DeMar show.

Also: As Dwane Casey suggests, the Raptors are definitely on the hunt for the number one seed. Watch out.

AGAINST: Toronto has clear and exploitable weaknesses

Michael Grange touched on this just the other day, as did Eric Koreen. The Raptors vaunted offensive still bogs down in the last five minutes of close games — slipping all the way to 22nd in efficiency as the ball-stopping iso-style game pops back up. This is a tough one to deal with. Your best players want the ball in their hands late, and while it’s easy to say that Kyle or DeMar should always find OG Anunoby open in the corner, in a two-point game in the playoffs, when OG is 0-for-3 from beyond, that’s a harder thing to do.

Just as concerning is the fact that good teams are going to force the Raps into that decision over and over again in the post-season. Pascal Siakam, Anunoby, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, and probably to a lesser extent, Fred VanVleet will be the poison opponents pick. Even if the Raps big guns “play the right way,” can those guys stick enough open threes to beat the best? If not, prepare to have the brown acid version of Patrick Patterson flashbacks.

FOR: The best is ahead for the Raptors

The Raptors have played .700 ball this season. Do you know how many of last year’s top-10 guys in minute’s played are there this season? Four.

Why shouldn’t Toronto, playing a new style, with six major new rotation pieces keep improving? Why can’t they figure out the end of game issues — at least to the level of an average offense? They don’t travel west of Chicago for the rest of the season, they’re 7-9 in games decided by five or less, a number that we know is heavily influenced by luck, and — based on his reductions in minutes — Kyle Lowry is going to play the equivalent of eleven fewer games this year, those don’t all sound like a recipe for a better post-season record?

AGAINST: The East can still get better

In Boston, Gordon Hayward is progressing much faster than expected, with some talk he could be back for the playoffs. Brad Stevens is a wizard masquerading as a basketball coach, so if anyone could come up with a plan to fit a limited Hayward into the Celtics’ overall scheme, it’d be him. And, in a year where the East does feel as open as ever in LeBron’s tenure, are we so sure the Celtics won’t be the one surrendering assets for an improvement? Wouldn’t Kemba Walker’s vicious offensive game and team friendly contract make him the perfect fit in Boston?

For Cleveland, what if the Jordan rumours are true? What if they add George Hill to give them some defensive backbone? What if, none of that happens, and Isaiah Thomas, given more time to recover from his major hip injury, finds his groove and the Cavs do what they did last year — blitz the East so completely on offense that it doesn’t matter what their D looks like? Sure, that’d have to be some “we’re just going to take Belgium now” levels of blitzing, but it’s LBJ — are we sure he’s not a tank commander in his spare time?

Washington is totally in win now mode — as Tjarks said, they have no reason not to flip their first and any asset not named, Wall, Porter, Oubre, Beal, and Morris to get another wing. If they do — maybe a nasty, physical, cocky Wizards team, run by a motivated John Wall bully past Toronto again.

Milwaukee’s defensive has to get better right? Jabari Parker provides a huge dose of what the Bucks need, a post game to counterbalance their slashing and shooting, and Giannis, one year farther into his learning curve is simply too good for anyone in Toronto to stop.

Hell, even the 8th seed Philadelphia 76ers represent a potential nightmare. Sure, Toronto went 3-1 against them, but they ran up two huge leads with Joel Embid on the floor — and physically they’re a match for anything the Raps can throw out there. A loss to Philly would confirm Toronto as a snake-bitten franchise — at least as far as the post-season is concerned.

The Final Verdict:

So then, here we are. As far as the Raptors go this post-season, are you:

FOR:

Toronto fans, stop looking for boogey-men under the bed. This Raptors team is the best in franchise history, and the team to beat in the East, even with LeBron. Get ready for a long post-season run.

or AGAINST:

The Raptors reputation for fragility is well-earned, and our hopes and prayers that this will finally be the year Kyle and DeMar “get right” are just that, hopes and prayers. The team’s good role-players will show they are, simply, good role-players, and Toronto won’t make it out of the East, getting upset in Rounds 1 or 2, by either the Sixers, Bucks or, ugh, Wizards, and prompting another painful round of talk of “blowing it up.”

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So HQ, which outcome is right?

You tell me.