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Who Are the Keepers: Toronto Raptors

Nate Duncan breaks down the Toronto Raptors’ roster and figures out who their keepers are in the wake of their unexpected success this year.

Nate Duncan

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The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams in a clear rebuilding mode. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.

The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.

Today we look at perhaps the most intriguing team in the league approaching the trade deadline, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors appeared to have few long-term pieces coming into the season. Deposed general manager Bryan Colangelo had bequeathed little long-term flexibility on replacement Masai Ujiri. After the Raptors started the year looking like an also-ran even in the terrible Eastern Conference, Ujiri traded small forward Rudy Gay, center Aaron Gray and power forward Quincy Acy to Sacramento for point guard Greivis Vasquez, power forward Patrick Patterson, small forward John Salmons and center Chuck Hayes. The plan appeared to be to let Toronto’s younger players grow into larger roles while shopping Toronto’s remaining veterans and gleaning a top 2014 draft pick.

But a funny thing happened after the trade: the Raptors started playing really well. Since the Gay trade on December 8, the Raptors have a plus 5.1 point differential and a 23-12 record. In that time frame, Toronto ranks ninth in offense, fifth in defense and fourth in overall scoring margin per 100 possessions. Sporting a 28-24 overall record, they are the clear favorite for the third seed in the East. One would think a first-year general manager would be ecstatic at turning a lottery team into the third seed in the conference while simultaneously dumping long-term salary. Clearly, Ujiri is to be lauded for doing so. But on the other hand, the team’s success may well have made his long-term mission far more complicated. Fans of Toronto’s perpetually downtrodden franchise would likely bristle at any moves that hurt a team on track for a long-awaited playoff berth—and they might be right to bristle, given the way the team has played the last two months. There is some possibility that this performance could be real, and the Raptors should be looking to add to this core.

Yet despite their statistical success, it is hard to see this core competing for a championship sans superstar.* What’s worse, the Raptors’ success this year hurt their chances of acquiring such a player in the draft. In this context, identifying the keepers on the Raptors is especially difficult. Despite their success this year, they are in some ways closer to a lottery team in terms of the timeline for the keepers on their roster. Indeed, there are few three seeds in history that one would even write this analysis for.

*Toronto may be more likely than some teams to underperform their regular season results in the playoffs due to the fact that their bench has been a key to their post-Gay success, an advantage that is mitigated in the playoff crucible as starters play more minutes for opposing teams.

That said, being fourth in the league in net rating with a team that is young enough to provide internal growth in the coming years is no joke. While retaining free agent point guard Kyle Lowry is a risk because he may bolt after the season, it is also a risk to trade him and not find out what this team may become. This is especially so since Lowry is unlikely to return much in trade due to his free agent status. After much thought, I believe the best course of action is to keep this team together through the playoffs and find out how good it actually is. While the answer to that question is likely “a distant third in the East,” there are enough indicators to make it worthwhile to explore the possibility that the upside may be higher. It will be much easier to determine how to approach the offseason armed with more information than the 35 games since the Gay trade.

Buy His Jersey:

DeMar DeRozan
Age: 24
Contract: 4 years, $38,000,000, includes player option for 2016-17

DeRozan’s rookie extension, which kicked in this year, was initially panned by most analysts. But he has lived up to that contract so far this year. While he still has a slightly below average .522 True Shooting Percentage, he is still a valuable player because he soaks up 28 percent of Toronto’s possessions with a low 9.1 percent turnover rate. The Raptors have outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions in DeRozan’s minutes since the Gay trade, and he has amassed an 18.2 PER on the year that ranks fifth among shooting guards. With that position in particular experiencing a dearth of star players, DeRozan is even more valuable. While he was lumped in with Toronto’s albatross contracts when Ujiri took office, DeRozan has proved worth his salary so far in 2013-14. He is just beginning his prime and has proved very durable so far in his career. He should be around for the long haul.

Jonas Valanciunas
Age: 21
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

Much was expected of the Lithuanian after a dominant Summer League, but he has been a mild disappointment in nearly all areas. His 14.7 PER is a little below average, and his league-average True Shooting percentage is also below expectations. He has not been particularly effective defending the rim either, a disappointment considering his enormous size and reasonable quickness for his position. Overall, the Raptors have been 6.4 points/100 worse defensively in Valanciunas’ minutes since the Gay trade, although the offense has ticked up by 3.1 points/100 when he plays.

That said, Valanciunas is clearly a keeper. He has two more years on his rookie deal and is only 21. Given his physical profile and tools, he should develop into an upper-echelon center. If he does not appear on that path in two years, the Raptors will have an interesting decision to make on how much to pay him. But all indications right now is that he is part of the plan for the future, and rightly so despite the somewhat disappointing results this year.

Maybe, It Depends

Amir Johnson
Age: 26
Contract: 2 years, $13,500,000, last year $5 million guaranteed.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $7-11 million AAV

Despite a slight decline in his box score statistics (mostly his rebounding rate), Johnson may be having his best season. He has been a key to the Raptors’ excellent post-Gay defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 46.1 percent on the 7.4 field goals per game he contests around the basket. He has also started to flash three-point range this season; although he shoots only 26 percent from out there on 1.2 attempts per game his 43.7 percent midrange shooting makes one believe he could eventually be a threat out there. His shooting has also allowed him to play with Valanciunas as a power forward, and he is mobile enough to stay with most fours defensively. The only question regarding Johnson’s long-term future in Toronto is the fact that his contract expires at the end of next season.

Kyle Lowry
Age: 27
Contract: $6,210,000.
New Contract: 2-4 years, $7-11 Million AAV

Lowry really is the fulcrum of the Raptors’ team-building conundrum. He is a free agent this summer, and his ultimate fate in Toronto will be the bellwether for the direction of the franchise. The bulldog point guard out of Villanova is having a career year and absolutely should have made the All-Star team, but there are major questions about whether he can sustain this performance going forward and how much he will cost to retain.

A long-term deal in Toronto at over $10 million per year could kill any cap flexibility the Raptors may have in the future after Ujiri did such great work to remove the millstones on the roster. Plus, he could be just good enough to prevent them from obtaining a superstar in the draft, but exiting his prime and well overpaid once players like DeRozan, Valanciunas and Ross enter theirs (and the latter two require extensions).

Lowry could also leave in free agency, although it seems unlikely any of the teams with cap space would pay him eight figures over a four-year deal. Perhaps the ultimate outcome will be a Paul Millsap-type two-year, $20 million or so deal that would enable the Raptors to lock two more years at a fair price without killing their future. Much of course depends on how the Raptors do in the playoffs and whether it appears this team could potentially contend with internal improvement alone. If, as is likely, that is not the case, then Ujiri may have to swallow hard and let Lowry go.

Patrick Patterson
Age: 24
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 3-4 years, $3-7 Million AAV.

Patterson has been excellent with Toronto in advance of restricted free agency, sporting a 58 TS% and hitting 43.9 percent of his threes on the way to an 18.5 PER. He too has been a key for Toronto’s bench success, with a 9.5 net rating. His floor spacing clearly opens up the offense, as the Raptors score at a rate that would rank fourth best in the league with him on the floor. Meanwhile, they have also defended at a top three rate in his minutes.

Patterson has clearly been a big part of the team’s success since his arrival, but as a restricted free agent could easily be overpaid. Some team may really value his shooting and passable defense and rebounding at the four as he enters his prime and decide to overpay, in which case the Raptors will have a very difficult decision to make. One thought for keeping Patterson is that he can play big minutes as a third big man alongside either Johnson or Valanciunas, both of whom can play center while he stretches the floor at power forward. His free agency will certainly be an interesting litmus test of how much the new breed of NBA general managers really values shooting.

Terrence Ross
Age: 22
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2016.

As a former dunk champion and owner of a 51-point game, Ross might have one of the louder 11.5 PERs in league history. That said, not much has changed for Ross in his second year. He shoots a few more threes and is up to almost 40 percent on those, but he still never gets to the basket or the line in the halfcourt. He has by far the worst net rating (+2.8 points/100) of any of the Raptors’ main players since the Gay trade, and the worst defensive rating as well.

That said, Ross can shoot and can jump, and is only 22. The question is whether his ceiling is Gerald Green, or something more. He is under his rookie contract through 2016, so the Raptors have plenty of time to find out. But thus far is appears that stardom may not be in the cards, and he could certainly be traded if a deal for a better-defending veteran on the wing opens up in the next couple years.

Coach Dwane Casey

Casey is in the last year of his contract, but the way he has coached a team with average defensive talent to a number four league ranking in defense since the Gay trade is very impressive. If the Raptors had won all year at their post-Gay pace, he would be a leading candidate for Coach of the Year. He got a raw deal in Minnesota once upon a time, coaching one of the last Kevin Garnett teams to a .500 record and solid defensive showing before being fired. The team promptly went 12-30 under Randy Wittman after he was axed.

Casey has shown enough this season to prove he is an asset to the organization. One would think he would be retained, but Lionel Hollins can tell you that success in the last year of a contract is no guarantee of a return when new management is in place.

Don’t Get Too Attached

John Salmons
Age: 34
Contract: 2 years, $14,583,000, last year $1 million non-guaranteed.

Salmons is finally reaching the end of his horrendous contract signed with Milwaukee in the summer of 2010 after the much-loved Fear the Deer campaign. Considering his 9 PER this year, Toronto will surely cut him this summer to save approximately $6 million.

Landry Fields

Age: 25
Contract: 2 years, $12,500,000.

Fields’ three-year, $21 million contract signed in the summer of 2012 might be the absolute worst in the NBA right now. He has played only 274 minutes on the year with a 7.6 PER. His solid rookie year is looking like one of the great fluke seasons in NBA history.

Chuck Hayes

Age: 30
Contract: 2 years, $11,681,250.

Hayes is wildly overpaid under the full mid-level deal he was given by Sacramento immediately post-lockout in 2011, but he remains a player who is more than the sum of his box score parts. At the very least, he will forever star in every video tutorial graduate assistants compile for undersized post defenders.

Steve Novak
Age: 30
Contract: 3 years, $10,945,948.

Novak was the cost of doing business for getting Andrea Bargnani off Toronto’s books (and inexplicably picking up a first-round pick in the process from New York). He can shoot like crazy, but with a 5.8 percent total rebound percentage and three blocked shots on the season really doesn’t do the “four” part of the stretch four position. He is barely in the rotation and it only figures to get worse from here.

Tyler Hansbrough
Age: 28
Contract: 2 years, $6,509,235, last year non-guaranteed.

The story for Psycho-T has been much different this year than last, when he was part of the Pacers’ bench unit that single- (or perhaps five-) handedly lost the Eastern Conference Finals. In contrast to his terrible on/off numbers last year, since the Gay trade he has a better net rating than all but one Toronto starter. His True Shooting percentage is a career high by four points, as he has lowered his usage rate and increased his efficiency. Hansbrough’s activity has been much better defensively to the tune of the best post-Gay defensive rating on the team at 90.6 points/100. The next (and last) year of Hansbrough’s contract is only guaranteed for $1 million. While he might be worth the extra $2.3 million it would take to keep him in a vacuum, the Raptors have three superior free agents in Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez. With Hayes also under contract, paying so much for a fourth or fifth big man likely is not the most efficient use of that money. Whether he stays next year or not, the one-time college player of the year is not part of the Raptors’ long-term plans.

Greivis Vasquez

Age: 27
Contract: Rookie Contract, expires 2014.
Projected New Contract: 1-3 years, $2-3 Million AAV

General Greivis has now started at point guard for two NBA teams, and both could not trade him out of that role fast enough. While he runs the offense and has excellent vision, he is so bad defensively that he cannot really be a full-time starter. But he is a reasonable option as a higher-end backup who can step in and start in a pinch, and has been valuable in Toronto after D.J. Augustin, Julyan Stone and Dwight Buycks proved unable to provide competent backup point guard play. Vasquez may not be in Toronto for long, however, as he is a restricted free agent this summer and the money for his potential new contract may be needed elsewhere.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through

The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.

Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.

Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?

“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”

The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.

“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”

Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.

The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.

Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.

First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).

Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.

“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”

Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.

In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.

Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.

“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.

“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”

If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.

When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.

“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”

Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.

“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”

You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.

With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.

That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?

“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”

Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.

Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.

One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.

“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”

Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.

When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.

“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”

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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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