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What is the ceiling of the new look Raptors?

Masai Ujiri clearly believes in this core, and believes in them enough to become buyers at the deadline. The ceiling of this team certainly elevates, but where is it at now?

Utah Jazz v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Well, there you have it. The NBA may have got their way. In 2021, the NBA officially introduced the play-in tournament as a part of their schedule, at an attempt to encourage more teams to compete as oppose to tank their season away.

Despite Masai Ujiri’s famous “play-in for what?” quote, the Toronto Raptors seemed to trend in the direction of finishing between 7-10 being a real option. The Raptors currently sit at 26-31, following a brutal late game collapse agains the Utah Jazz.

Considering this season has been a massive disappointment, and heading into the trade deadline, the top six in the East seemed an entire level above the rest, it seemed as if the Raptors ceiling was going to be somewhere in the play-in mix.

For the majority of the season, the play-in even seemed like a high-achieving goal. However, after their recent stretch, which has been their best of the season, Toronto finds themselves legitimately in the play-in mix.

The play-in tournament seems like it would be a good place for a young, up-and-coming team to land. A team that hopes to slowly inch towards title contention, with the play-in being a year or two in the making of that.

The play-in tournament typically should not be in the interest of a team who had playoff hopes, but hasn’t been able to get it to click. When the Raptors opted to become buyers at the trade deadline by dealing a nearly unprotected first, two seconds and Khem Birch to the San Antonio Spurs for Jakob Poeltl, is the play-in tournament where they set their sites?

I know everyone in the organization would always preach that the championship is the goal. But, if you attached the front office to a polygraph test, and truthfully wanted to find out what they thought about this team, would they concede that the play-in is an extremely likely scenario?

Like I said earlier, the top six teams in the East seemed a level above the rest. Those teams being the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets and despite not having the record to back it up, I think many would agree that the Miami Heat fall into that mix as well.

Fast forward to just days before the deadline, and one of those teams completely blows up. I won’t analyze what happened there, but I think by now, every NBA fan is aware that the Brooklyn Nets parted with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Essentially punting their title chances this year, and separating them from the roller coaster ride they’ve been on since the two of them signed with the team initially in 2019.

This widened the eyes of play-in and potential play-in teams in the East. One more contender out the door, and one spot in that top six likely opening up. Is this what ultimately gave the Raptors the desire to push-in on this year?

It does seem that they were open to offers that would push them in the direction of selling, even after acquiring Poeltl, so the Nets’ decision to offload may have not fully pushed the Raptors to compete to win. I do agree with not selling for the sake of selling, if the Raptors didn’t get a return that seemed worthwhile, why make an undervalued trade?

Putting that aside, do the Raptors have what it takes to finish in the top six in the East? Assuming that Brooklyn is the team that is going to fall out, Toronto still sits 8 games behind them. With just 25 games remaining, Toronto would have to be substantially better than Brooklyn to catch them.

Brooklyn did get worse and Toronto did get better, but enough to close that gap? Nevertheless, there are also five teams between the Raptors and the Nets. So, Toronto would have to jump five teams en route to a playoff position.

Now, the difference between finishing 6th and 7th, is just a matter of one win in the play-in tournament, so it isn’t the end of the world finishing seven instead of six. It does provide that extra level of comfortability, though.

Let’s say the Raptors regular season ceiling is finishing in the bottom half of the playoff bracket. Whether that includes getting there via the play-in, or finishing sixth and in the absolute best case, fifth.

Let’s move onto what really matters now, what is their playoff ceiling? Considering the Raptors’ contract situation, and their clear willingness to part with future picks, their belief in this core is stronger than most fans. Even Masai Ujiri in his post-deadline press conference expressed his confidence in this current core.

I truthfully believe that Toronto can beat any East team in the playoffs aside from Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. I wouldn’t even say Philadelphia is 100% a loss. Keep in mind, I am talking absolute peak. I am not saying that I would bet on the Raptors to beat any of the other teams, I am just saying that there is a real route to that, and the regular season outcomes would prove me right.

Finishing 6, 7, or 8, would pin you against one of those three previously mentioned teams in the first round. Finishing anywhere below 5th almost secures you a first round exit. In order to secure a first round matchup where I truly believe the Raptors have a chance, they would have to jump six teams in the standings, the furthest ahead being Brooklyn.

After they win that hypothetical dream scenario first round matchup, which also is likely the Cavaliers. What happens now? They run into Boston in the second round? I’m not saying Toronto has a 0% chance in that series, but they certainly aren’t even close to being favoured.

I don’t know if Toronto can win against either of their potential second round opponents, and even the first round is difficult.

To even get in a situation where that is possible, they would have to likely win close to 18 to 20 of their remaining 26 games. Putting their post-All Star break record at either 20-5 or 18-7. I won’t say it’s impossible because last year’s Raptors finished the season 25-9, so that is a very similar winning percentage. That is a crazy difficult task though.

Ultimately, I would conclude that the Raptors absolute peak ceiling is a 5th place finish, and a first round win. Their more realistic, yet still high-achieving ceiling is finishing in the bottom half of the playoff bracket and losing in a competitive first round series.

I am excited to watch. Do I think they handled the deadline amazingly? No. This roster however, is a fun one, and they plugged a huge hole by acquiring a true big man who can protect the rim, roll to the net, and rebound against opposing bigs.

Let me end this by posing you a question. Does that ceiling seem good enough considering the difficult situation that they placed themselves in for this upcoming off-season?