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Eastern Conference Competition Breakdown: Starting from the Bottom

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Let’s separate the Eastern Conference pretenders from contenders and predict how the Raptors will fare against each.

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Last week in this space I broke down the Raptors’ main moves this offseason. Naturally Toronto wasn’t the only team to make changes! The Eastern Conference is going to be a different beast in the 2018-19 season, so let’s take a look at the competition and see what the Raptors are up against.

This week we’ll take a look at what we can expect from the, ahem, lower end of the conference, hitting each team in reverse order. Next week we’ll go a little deeper into the teams that will contend for top playoff seeding.

The non-contenders

It’s tough to write teams off before the season even begins, but for these guys, they didn’t have it last year, and I don’t think they have it this year either.

Atlanta Hawks

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 4-0
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-0

Toronto swept Atlanta last year and the worst team in the East hasn’t done much to improve its chances this year. They dumped Dennis Schroder after making the very curious move to trade Luka Doncic for Trae Young; I don’t know enough about either youngster to say whether or not that was a mistake but consensus on the move seemed to hover somewhere in the “WTF are the Hawks thinking!?” range. They also added veterans Jeremy Lin and Vince Carter (no, really) to help develop their young guys.

It all adds up to another rebuilding year in Atlanta, and I don’t think the new-look Raptors will have any trouble with the Hawks.

New York Knicks

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 3-1
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-1

Even with a new coach and a promising rookie in Kevin Knox, the Knicks are playing for the 2019-20 offseason here. Kristaps Porzingis won’t be back for a while, and the best result for the Knicks will be to get another draft pick and save money to make a splash next summer.

That said, Toronto always seems to play one stinker a year in New York. Last year’s loss featured possibly the worst quarter of basketball I’ve seen the Raptors play since the pre-Vince Carter years, a 41-10 third-quarter drubbing that included a 28-0 run and turned an 11-point Raptors halftime lead into a Knicks victory. Let’s hope we don’t see anything like that again.

Orlando Magic

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 3-0
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 4-0

The Magic have another new head coach (will poor Frank Vogel ever recover after leaving his bench in too long against Toronto in 2016?) but I don’t think it’ll make much difference. Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier can both play but this is an oddly constructed team that doesn’t have much of an identity, and I don’t know if Steve Clifford is the guy to install one.

Magic games the past two years have been mini Raptors reunions, with fan-faves and beloved former teammates Terrence Ross and Bismack Biyombo in Florida. Tuning in to see TRoss is about the only reason to pay close attention to a Raptors-Magic game.

Not contenders, but feisty

Two of these teams seem to be moving in the right direction... the third is going the other way, but, still has enough talent to stay out of the cellar.

Brooklyn Nets

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 4-0
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-1

Ed Davis has joined DeMarre Carroll and Quincy Acy as ex-Raptors in Brooklyn, and they also added longtime rumoured Raptors trade target Kenneth Faried! It’s been kinda neat to see the Nets slowly re-orient themselves and put their franchise back on the right track; they’re getting there, but they’re not there yet.

The Raptors obliterated the Nets by 33 in December last season, but the next three times they played were tougher—including an overtime battle in January. I think they can take one from Toronto this year.

Chicago Bulls

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 4-0
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-1

Much like Orlando, this is an oddly constructed team... but I kinda like their pieces! I haven’t given up on Jabari Parker yet, although I don’t know if playing for his hometown team is gonna help him take a leap. They paid Zach LaVine a heck of a lot of money, but I think that guy can ball and if Chicago can stabilize the roster around him, he might surprise people.

The Raptors had little trouble with Chicago last year, but I think the Bulls will be a little more feisty this season and I can see them stealing one in Chicago.

Charlotte Hornets

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 4-0
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 4-0

Charlotte has a new coach and possibly some “addition by subtraction” after the departure of Dwight Howard. But the franchise has been directionless for two years and constant trade rumours around Kemba Walker won’t help settle them down this year.

Walker always plays well against Toronto but with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and OG Anunoby helping out Kyle Lowry on the perimeter, I don’t see the Raps having any trouble with the Hornets.

Battling for a playoff berth

It might be a fun race for the final playoff spots in the East... you know, if you think a race to 40 wins is “fun”.

Cleveland Cavaliers

2017-18 Result: Cleveland won series 2-1
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 4-0

The King has flown the coop, but the Cavs are... not rebuilding?? I was surprised at Cleveland’s decision to extend Kevin Love, and I’m not sure a Love-George Hill led roster is gonna take them very far. Then again, the East is still weak overall, and without the pressure of expectations, “the Leftovers” as I call them might surprise people.

But not the Raptors. Not only is LeBron James gone, but Leonard and Green have no Cleveland monkeys on their backs. While I think the Cavs might be decent, I still think Toronto wins this series easily.

Miami Heat

2017-18 Result: Miami won season series 2-1
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-1

Is this the year Miami finally tanks? Erik Spoelstra has done an amazing job keeping a bizarro Heat roster in playoff contention the past two years, and Pat Riley is supposedly adamantly against tanking. But unless the Heat start dumping salaries, they’ll miss out on next summer’s free agency bonanza and get another middle-round draft pick, leaving them stuck here in no man’s land for a long time. They really should tank... but I think Riley is too competitive.

”Competitive” certainly describes the three games between Miami and Toronto last year. One game went to OT and the other two were decided by a combined four points. I think the Raps win the season series this time, but I still don’t think it’ll be easy.

Detroit Pistons

2017-18 Result: Toronto won season series 4-0
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-0

Perhaps you’ve heard of Detroit’s new coach, one Dwane Casey? Pistons management hopes Casey can turn their underachieving team into a contender, and he might—but I don’t think it’ll be this year. And honestly, I don’t know how they’ll get to the top of the conference paying Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin a combined $75 million per season (Jackson and Griffin staying healthy might help); it’s a flawed roster without much room for improvement. I think Casey will make the most of it, and I think between him and a full season of a hopefully healthy Griffin, this team has the potential to jump ahead of Miami and Cleveland. But not much farther.

As for the matchup with Toronto, if Detroit’s going to win one, it’s going to be on November 14, the first matchup and Casey’s only game in Toronto. That’s going to be weird, seeing him on the other sideline, and emotions will be high. Toronto’s revamped defense and their depth should be too much for Detroit, no matter the emotional stakes.

In the playoffs, but man...

You might call this group, which actually only features one team, the “SMH contenders.”

Washington Wizards

2017-18 Result: Teams split season series 2-2
2018-19 Prediction: Toronto wins season series 3-1

Boy, did I ever debate dropping Washington down a notch. This team is just sooo uninspiring and unlikeable... and that was before they added Dwight Howard. But the talent level is just too high, and I don’t see any way they drop below sixth place in this conference without an extended injury absence or unless Dwane Casey really does work magic in Detroit. If John Wall and Bradley Beal are both healthy and in shape, and Otto Porter Jr. continues to improve, the Wizards can compete with anyone.

The Raptors, of course, beat Washington in the playoffs, and despite typical Raptors postseason angst, it wasn’t really that close. And now the Raps have added high-level defensive talent on the perimeter, where Washington shines. Beal, Porter and Kelly Oubre Jr. are gonna have a lot more difficulty getting open looks against this Raptors team. And I will take great joy in seeing that. They’ll still pull one out and puff out their chests about how they’re the better team, but ultimately the Raps will take it to the Wizards.

Next week

Four Eastern Conference opponents left: The playoff locks and the top contenders. We’ll go in to a little more depth on each team’s roster and how the Raptors match up; see you then!