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Are the Raptors a title longshot or a good darkhorse bet?

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It’s a fine distinction, but it’s worth asking: are the Raptors just straight-up longshots at the 2020 NBA title or are they an underrated pick to go all the way again?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re even tangentially involved in sports media — as I am — you end up on gambling email lists. Don’t ask me how this happens, it just does. One day, you awake for a day of pontificating about sports online and there they are: messages from the likes of Jimmy Shapiro (a particularly relentless source of updates) and various other oddsmaking organizations, hellbent on giving you the latest information. It would all be quite annoying if it also wasn’t so darkly compelling.

We wrote about this not long ago, thanks to one batch of information. And now we’re here again thanks to a new source, Oddschecker. It’s these kinds of outfits that make these types of determinations, this latest one putting the Raptors at +2400 to win it all, behind the Lakers, Bucks, Clippers, Rockets, and Celtics, in exactly that order.

Now, I understand the avid interest and concern here. The window for the 2020 NBA championship gets narrower by the day. Teams are flying into Florida, new NBA-based cases of COVID-19 are being reported (to say nothing of the state-wide numbers), and at least one team is already scouring the free agent scrap heap just to field a team. (Sorry fellas, Brooklyn’s recent signings of Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley is nothing but desperate.) And of course, there is money at stake here, no matter your angle of approach.

So then, here’s the question as it relates to betting and these 2020 Toronto Raptors. Is the team a longshot to win the title or are they, in fact, an actual darkhorse candidate?

The Longshot Case

The oddsmakers really do favour the Lakers, thanks to the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, their West-leading record, and their top five-ranked offense and defense. Obviously, it’s a nightmare to bet against LeBron in the playoffs — even though he has lost before — as any Raptors fan can attest. Putting Los Angeles and Milwaukee, the top team in the league record-wise, atop the leader board makes sense.

For the Raptors to beat both these squads in a seven-game series, things would have to go very right for a long stretch of time. Last season, when Toronto could break out one of the top three players in the league in Kawhi Leonard to, say, slow down someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo, it was much easier to envision the Raptors’ steady climb to the top. But even then, it didn’t entirely seem like it would happen at various points along the way. (The Raptors may say they were calm and collected after going down 0-2 in the East Finals, but we all certainly were not.) Now they’d have to stop Giannis, LeBron, and/or perhaps Kawhi himself without a player of such calibre. That’s the first stumbling block, and it’s a big one, even with Toronto’s strong sense of team identity and second-ranked defense.

Before we even get to those matchups, however, the Raptors would also have to get by their mirror image in Boston, another team with a young cadre of players with perhaps more talent right now than Toronto’s squad. I hate to say it, but the Celtics — with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker — would have just as much of a chance at beating the Raptors as the other way around. They too could emerge as a darkhorse candidate, powered by a strong defense (ranked 4th in the league) and a considerably better offense (fifth). I’d discuss the Rockets here too, but quite frankly, I don’t see them pulling it out (and I hope they fall apart in dramatic fashion if only to spite owner Tilman Fertitta).

This is where we could also discuss the relative merits of homecourt advantage in each team’s case, but that’s entirely out the window now thanks to the restarted league’s Disney World bubble conditions. It’s this component that actually favours the Raptors, which I’ll explain in...

The Darkhorse Case

This is probably my own bias speaking, but it really does feel like the Raptors have are the most close-knit team in the NBA. This spirit of unity and solidarity goes back through to last season as the team marched onto their title victory, and continues on even now. That’s not to say that the Celtics players don’t like each other, or that everyone isn’t constantly hugging each other on the Bucks or whatever; Toronto just appears to be on another level with it.

Part of this comes from their newly earned championship pedigree. The Raptors’ identity is shaped in large part by its oldest players (Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka), but also its “young” vets like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell. That combination of players allows the rest of the squad to fill their roles with comfort and confidence. Nary a word of protest has been heard from anyone on the team about how this has all come together because, well, it’s come together quite well — literally everyone in Toronto wins. When you couple this with coach Nick Nurse’s bold and player-friendly approach, it becomes harder to bet against the Raptors.

So then, how do the Raptors get from here to another championship? Well, there’s a scenario in which they claw past the Celtics and once again make it into a showdown with the Bucks. In this universe, the same problems that hit Milwaukee last season come to the fore once again (e.g. betting on Eric Bledsoe, an inability to solve Toronto’s defense, etc.), and the Raptors pull off the upset. As for the favourite Lakers, while there is no question that team’s two best players are better than anyone on Toronto, the rest of the roster is just as imbalanced and creaky as it ever was. The Raptors are built on a stronger foundation overall, one designed to propel them past a top heavy team like L.A. (Note: it did happen already in the regular season, a time that feels a long time ago now, but still.)

Will this actually come to pass? Again, the odds appear to be against the Raptors, and I admit I struggle to see how it will all work — especially since everything about the situation right now is unprecedented. Still, Toronto has proven themselves over the past 393 days (and counting) to be a resilient bunch. What’s one more challenge?