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ESPN projects Raptors at 6th in the Eastern Conference

While the Raptors aren’t the same team they were last year, it’s perhaps worth interrogating where they’ll actually stand in the Eastern Conference for 2020-21.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s not nothing to note the Raptors have lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka for the coming season. We’ve mentioned it almost every time we’ve written about the team in advance of their first game on December 23rd. But there are two ways to think about that, and in those two ways of thinking we arrive at how the Raptors will play out the 2020-21 season. ESPN has clearly made their choice — which we’ll get to in a second — but let’s first unpack those two ways.

First, the negative: losing Gasol and Ibaka means the Raptors have lost two veteran frontcourt players who bring a lot of know-how to the team in terms of executing a gameplan on a nightly basis. With Gasol gone, Toronto has lost a significant play-making hub, a basketball genius, and a defensive stalwart — in all, a player who could organize a team. Replacing him with Aron Baynes and Alex Len is a tall order. Meanwhile, in the absence of Ibaka, Toronto will have to find scoring and ferocious size somewhere else. Few players are more reliable (even in their unreliability) than Ibaka. Again, replacing them can be done — but perhaps only in part.

But second, the positive: it’s possible to consider that both Gasol and Ibaka are, at least in their current iterations, not as significant to the successful day-to-day operations of the Raptors as they once were. That’s not to say Toronto won’t miss them in the playoffs, for example; but on that more play-by-play basis, much of what the remaining roster currently provides — versatility, playing-making, shooting, scoring, rebounding — should be enough to keep the Raptors at the level we’ve been used to over the past few years. Can Baynes defend like Gasol? Can Len or Chris Boucher score like Ibaka? Probably not quite, but the degree of difference is maybe not that significant. In this, Toronto’s ceiling could be said to be a bit lower, but, arguably: their floor is just fine.

Which is to say: ESPN’s win/loss projection for the Raptors seems way off to me. The link there is only viewable with an ESPN+ account, so I’ll just bring over the broad strokes for discussion here. Brace yourself, here’s how ESPN sees the Eastern Conference contenders going down:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks (50-22)
  2. Philadelphia 76ers (44-28)
  3. Miami Heat (44-28)
  4. Boston Celtics (44-28)
  5. Brooklyn Nets (43-29)
  6. Toronto Raptors (42-30)

(Who cares after that.)

Now there are some obvious issues here. It doesn’t seem nuts to assume the Bucks — even slowly fraying as they are — will once again be the top team in the conference. Giannis is still Giannis, and trading Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday is, in my books, a good thing. We can discuss the idea of the Bucks as purely a regular season team (e.g. a team that can’t go all the way in the playoffs), but on a nightly basis, they will once again be tough to beat. Their talent is still mostly there.

The 2-3-4 spots, however, seem to be completely out of whack. There’s little doubt that the Heat will be good this year — and perhaps even better than last season. So then why lump them with these other squads? They went to the Finals after a fifth place finish last year and kept all their main components, so it stands to reason they’re in the mix for a top-3 spot. They should be ahead of the other two, if nothing else.

The Sixers are the ultimate “Seeing is Believing” team right now. They have the talent to be world-beaters, and their roster makes more sense now than it did last season — but second place? I have yet to see Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons play together consistently enough to actually do that. And finally, the Celtics in at four seems like just a little too friendly a bounce. Losing Gordon Hayward makes them better, but Kemba Walker is not getting better this season — he is, in fact, likely only to get worse (without even Brad Wanamaker on hand to shore up the guard rotation). Tristan Thompson helps, but Boston has only gotten thinner this year.

The Nets are, of course, the ultimate wild card in the East. Tons of star power, but no actual on-court identity (and perhaps no real defensive ability either). It’s very hard to bet against Kevin Durant, even at, say, 80 percent of what he was; and same goes for Kyrie Irving. But how the rest of the team stacks in behind them — and how they stay healthy this year — will be the determining factor for Brooklyn.

Which brings us to Toronto, somehow listed here in sixth place. I think this projection underrates a few things. One, let’s assume Pascal Siakam resumes his regular season form from last season. Sure, it’s possible Bubble Siakam could still be around (or return in the playoffs), but that really discounts how solid Siakam has been in the regular season. He’s a difference maker there for Toronto. Two, OG Anunoby is about to blow up; sorry if this offends. Three, the Raptors have one of the best coaching units in the league (if not the best), and my feeling is this staff is about to find all kinds of funky ways to hide the team’s deficiences while maximizing their strengths. Again, this matters less in the playoffs when elite talent can still win out. But for a team with a strong identity and returning talent base (we haven’t even mentioned Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry yet), the pieces are there to build on last season’s 53-win season for Toronto.

And quite frankly, every year the Raptors have been underrated in this respect, and every year they’ve won more games than projected. At a certain point, you’d think people would keep this in mind!