Eastern Conference Review: Evaluating the Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO, ON - MARCH 1 - Serge Ibaka (9) of the Toronto Raptors after hitting a 3 point shot during the 2nd half of NBA action as the Washington Wizards defeat the Toronto Raptors 105-96 at the Air Canada Centre on March 1, 2017. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of the greatest stretch of success in franchise history, finishing top-five in the Eastern Conference the past four regular seasons. Masai Ujiri successfully retained Toronto’s second and third scoring options, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, re-signing both to three-year deals that will keep them, along with DeMar DeRozan, under team control until 2020. In this Eastern Conference review, it will be deduced whether the Raptors are poised to take the next step towards an NBA title.

For Toronto, the extensions indicate that the team will continue its ‘win-now’ approach. However, some would argue that with LeBron James still running the East, and the juggernaut Golden State Warriors waiting out West, trying to win a title could be a fool’s errand. Getting past both Cleveland and Golden State is not an easy feat for any of the other 28 NBA teams. However, recent off-season transactions have paved the Raptors’ path towards a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.

The only question is, how high can they finish in the East?

Replacing DeMarre Carroll with the sharp-shooting C.J. Miles was a solid move by Ujiri, but may not be enough to close the gap on Boston or Cleveland. The biggest positive of ridding Carroll’s salary is the resulting uptick in minutes for Norman Powell. The 3-and-D Powell could be due for a massive payday in the off-season. Expect the former second-rounder to consistently crack Dwane Casey’s rotation this season, after years of bouncing in and out of it.

Delon Wright is now tasked with backup point guard duties, given the departure of Cory Joseph. Wright has shown flashes of potential as a two-way guard but hasn’t quite developed enough consistency. It will be interesting to see whether increased minutes help him in that regard.

Expect the Raptors to finish a spot or two lower in the standings this coming season, especially given the losses of P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, and Joseph, all of whom were key contributors.

Toronto’s potential all comes down to its backcourt, Lowry, and DeRozan. As ball-dominant players, Lowry and DeRozan must look to their teammates to contribute when the defense adjusts or they are having an off-night. Improved ball movement is critical for the Raptors heading into next season.

Ujiri spoke about the Raptors need to revamp the team’s culture after getting swept out of the second round by the Cavaliers. He was likely alluding to Toronto’s dead-last assist percentage total last season. With the moves he’s made this offseason, it’s unclear as to how the team will vastly improve in that aspect of the offense.

Teams Poised for Improvement

The Celtics got their off-season prize in Gordon Hayward after the former Utah Jazz small forward agreed to sign a five-year deal in Beantown. Hayward should slide in as a secondary scoring option next to Isaiah Thomas, and will instantly become the team’s best option from behind the arc. Given how the Cavaliers tend to coast through the regular season, a second-straight top record in the Eastern Conference is attainable. Make no mistake, though, the Cavs are still the team to beat out East come playoff time.

After a hard-fought playoff series against the Raptors, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are ready to take the next step. Along with Antetokounmpo, rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker, and Khris Middleton are poised to improve this coming season. Having Jabari Parker back should help, too, if he’s able to successfully recover from a second ACL tear. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Bucks close in on, or jump over, the Raptors in playoff positioning. Consistency is key for the Deer.

The Wizards are trotting back essentially the same team as last season. Another year under Scott Brooks should help John Wall, Bradley Beal, and co. find more consistency. Locking down a three- or four-seed next season are fair expectations.

East Teams Bound to Regress

The biggest blockbuster of the summer saw Indiana trade Paul George to Oklahoma City. The Pacers — who finished as the seven-seed last season — did get Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo in return, but losing a top-15 caliber player in George should trigger the Pacers regression into a lottery team. George’s shift to the West also widened the conference imbalance gap, as only one of the 14 top-ranked NBA players last season now play in the East, according to ESPN.

The Chicago Bulls, the team that finished a seed behind the Pacers, followed suit by sending Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick (Justin Patton) to Minnesota for an underwhelming package of Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and the 7th overall pick (Lauri Markkanen). Like the Pacers, the Bulls are going to drop down the standings after trading away their franchise player and letting point guard Rajon Rondo walk.

Eastern Conference Review: Dark Horses

For further Eastern Conference review, both Indiana and Chicago’s transactions open up two playoff spots for teams like Philadelphia and Miami to try and snag. The 76ers are drawing particular interest after drafting Markelle Fultz first overall in June. With Fultz, Ben Simmons set to debut, Joel Embiid hopefully healthy for a full season, and recently-acquired sharpshooter J.J. Redick, Philly’s chances at a playoff spot have significantly increased.

Miami played at nearly a 60-win pace in the second half of last season. Seeing whether they’re able to sustain that momentum over 82-games will be intriguing. The Heat didn’t make huge splashes in free agency, re-signing James Johnson and acquiring Canadian Kelly Olynyk, who quickly became a Celtics folk hero after his Game 7 postseason heroics against the Washington Wizards.

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