Can The Raptors Conquer The East?

Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)

The 2017-18 season for the Toronto Raptors carries many question marks with it. The depletion of the East as a result of many of the former key players within it taking their talents over to the Western Conference offers the Raptors - as well as other teams - the opportunity to take advantage and propel themselves up the standings. Teams such as the Bulls, the Pacers, the Magic, the Knicks, the Nets, and the Hawks have lost significant contributors that their respective organizations relied on to carry them into the playoffs for a chance to earn an appearance at the NBA Finals, thereby giving the remaining teams in a Conference a significantly better chance of attaining a playoff berth.

However, for teams like the Raptors, merely getting to the playoffs is no longer good enough. For the past 4 consecutive years, the Raptors have made it to the playoffs no lower than the fourth seed, and we as fans expect them to finish no lower than that again this year. Yet, with teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers being a consistent force and favorite to reclaim the Conference crown, as well as the Boston Celtics being (at least on paper) a much more robust squad, posing as a legitimate threat to Cleveland for Eastern supremacy, the Raptors will certainly have their work cut out for them if they want to make a realistic push to assert themselves as the number one seed. It certainly gets a bit more daunting when you factor in the aspect that both the Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks will either be just as good as they were last season or perhaps even better (I've been saying - don't sleep on the Bucks, man). In short, once they arrive to the dance, it won't be easy for the Raptors and fans shouldn't expect it to be.

With all of this taken into account, there's no reason to necessarily fear the notion of the Raptors coming up short of the playoffs. They certainly should make it and fans should feel confident that the team will maintain their grips on a playoff spot falling within the top 5 seeds, I would think. Given that the Raptors core of Ibaka, Lowry, and DeRozan has remained intact to lead this team, while also factoring in the expected growth of players like Norman Powell, Delon Wright, and Jakob Poeltl, and the addition of a veteran player that boosts the offensive side of the ball in C.J. Miles, the Raptors are in pretty good shape. As mentioned, the Eastern Conference has become so void of talent that it's almost impossible for the Raptors not to attain a high seed. It's almost to the point where after teams such as the Raptors, Cavaliers, Celtics, Wizards, and Bucks, we have to almost try and look for the teams that grab the remaining three spots to fill the bracket. It's almost comical when you think about it. 

Yet, since we as fans simply expect the Raptors to make the Playoffs, what we are really focused on is how deep they will end up going once they make it. This won't be as easy to predict, as the Raptors' path to the achieving the ultimate goal - an appearance in the NBA Finals - is rather disconcerting. With the likelihood of both the Cavs and Celtics being an extremely difficult task to overcome - at least on paper - the chances of the Raptors making it to the NBA Finals are, unfortunately, rather low. If we are to take a look at the Vegas odds, the numbers also reflect this.

It doesn't get much brighter if we take a look at what the guys over at have to say about the Raptors chances. They would seem to agree with where I stand as well. In fact, they outline their odds of the Raptors winning the NBA Title a bit less favorable than Vegas. To boot - 

Most Vegas futures have the Raptors at 100/1 to win the 2018 NBA Title, a number which carries a 1% implied probability. That's not a rosy outlook for fans, but the oddsmakers My Top Sportsbooks cannot offer any comfort, putting Toronto's chances at an even longer 115/1.

However, this may jumping the gun a bit, as the Raptors need to first get to the Finals in order to have any realistic shot of winning it. As mentioned, getting to the dance isn't really the issue for the Raptors. The first round should be rather easy for the Raptors to conquer, regardless of what seed they land. At worst, I would think they'd land at the 5th, depending on if my projections of both the Wizards and Bucks are correct. This would put them in line to face the 4th seed, which would probably end up being one of the aforementioned teams, and would probably lead to a Raptors' advancement much like last season. In terms of the odds, it looks as though the folks over at My Top Sports Books agree- 

In all likelihood, the Raptors will face a first-round series similar to last year, when they were pushed to six games by the sixth-seeded Bucks. Toronto will be favored, but not heavily, probably around 3/4 (57%). 

By no means do I think it will be easy for the team to advance to the second round of the Playoffs. Much like last year, the Raptors will be challenged and unless a significant upgrade on the defensive side of the floor is acquired, or one of the young players takes a significant step up and provide some defensive stability much like PJ Tucker did, they may become exposed. Things won't get any easier if/when the team advances, as the team will likely face one of the Celtics or Cavaliers. With the significant noteworthy upgrades and replacements that both teams have made, it's hard to not be more than just a little concerned with the Raptors' ability to overcome those two teams. My Top Sports Books factors the Wizards into the group of teams that the Raptors may face in the second round, adding in -

Then they would likely face the Cavs and either the Celtics or Wizards in the next two rounds. They'll be no better than a 5/2 underdog against the Cavaliers, and would also be a small 'dog against the other two: let's somewhat generously call it 11/10 (Here is a handy article that explains the state of the Eastern Conference futures.).
If you multiply the probabilities of those three series, the Raps are looking at just a 7% chance of even reaching the NBA finals. There, they would have to deal with the Warriors or a team good enough to beat the Warriors. We give this Toronto roster, as currently constructed, less than a 15% chance of beating Golden State in a seven-game series. The Raptors just don't have the truly elite superstars nor the depth to hang with the NBA's quote-unquote super-teams.

I don't mention any of this to bring down the spirits of those that dream of the Raptors holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy above their collective heads. It's certainly possible and is something that I would absolutely adore. I mean, could you imagine how much the city of Toronto would be rocking if the Raptors were able to overcome all of those obstacles? Could you imagine a Game 7 victory over the Warriors in the NBA Finals? Think about how much credibility this would grant not just the team, but the city of Toronto in general. It would be absolutely amazing! Yet, the reason I mention all of these odds is to sort of put things into perspective and to check our expectations a bit. The Raptors are going to be a very good team, to be sure. I'm not trying to take anything away from the talent that the team has on the team. I'm hopeful that the young stars will be able to take that next step forward in order to stabilize and strengthen the Raptors' bench; a luxury that they'd love to have so their core players in Ibaka, Lowry, and DeRozan aren't averaging 38-40 minutes a game thereby heightening the probability of injury. But relying on young stars is always a huge gamble, so it's best to keep our expectations low.

Sure, the preseason has shown us some things that we should be extremely encouraged with. The team is spreading the floor and moving the ball at a noteworthy pace, which is a sharp contrast from how they operated offensively in recent seasons under head coach Dwane Casey. They have also been encouraged to shoot from deep a lot more often, and they have done just that during the preseason. However, if there's one thing that I have learned it's that we should never translate what we see during the preseason and assume it's what we will see during the regular season. This rarely happens as teams are reluctant to show all of their cards during the preseason, and rightfully so. You don't want to expose yourself that early, but at the same time you want to get used to the type of flow that is being utilized. Therefore, you'll probably see more of a mish-mash of last year's offensive mentality and this year's new one. The high pick-and-roll is something that the Raptors have been predicated on for the past four years, and it's hard to see them fully remove themselves from that. However, I do think that this space-and-pace style of play on the offensive side of the ball will be seen from the jump, and it may serve the Raptors well. It's certainly something that is long overdue and if they want to have any chance of overcoming teams like Boston and Cleveland, they'll have to prioritize passing and scoring. Ball movement will be absolutely crucial for this team to succeed, and I think they're aware of this.

Regardless, the season is just about underway and absolutely anything could happen. The odds have changed mid-season before and they're an ever-evolving tool to gauge just where teams are. By no means is this gospel, and any odds-maker would agree. If they were, we would know from the get-go who would win any title, any season. I only reference the odds as a means to illustrate where the Raptors may want to improve, as well as show that their weaknesses are certainly seen by those that gauge their post-season probabilities. Time will tell. Just know, anything can happen and we, as Raptors fans, should do what we've been basically trained to do:

Expect the worst. Hope for the best.

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