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Who’s the Best Team in the Atlantic?

Did the 2013-14 Raptors catch lightening in a bottle? Or are they a team that is here to stay?

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Word has it that this past offseason, the suits at the NBA’s League Office put serious consideration into changing the name of the Atlantic Division.

The “Titanic Division,” it was thought, would have been a more appropriate name, considering the depths to which the division sank last season. In case you’ve forgotten, the Titanic Division was the only one in the entire league to be conquered by a team winning less than 50 games.

For the Toronto Raptors, their 48-34 record was enough to get it done.

Now, entering this season, they are poised to follow up the franchise’s best-ever regular season with another run toward the top of the Titanic Division, though both Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams may have a thing or two to say about it.

In all seriousness, as the NBA season is set to tip off, it is those Raptors that have captured the imagination of the Eastern Conference; now it is time to see if they have fully captured the essence of what it takes to remain a top team.

Life in the NBA in this Post-Decision era has become marked by fans wearing “what have you done for me lately?” goggles. For most, gone is the clear-as-day and proven theory that teams deserve an opportunity to fight and suffer together en route to improving.

Natural Progression—as I call it—is an underrated catalyst for teams often toiling through the dawn and, together, emerging in the light. That natural progression is what helped Lionel Hollins’ Memphis Grizzlies become a contender in the Western Conference and it’s what made the Los Angeles Clippers my pick to win the West this year.

It is also what should help the Raptors win back-to-back division championships for the first time in their franchise’s 20-year history.

As a tandem, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry form a backcourt capable of shock-and-awe. DeRozan’s frightening athleticism is entwined with the skill set of an improving perimeter scorer whose midrange game makes him an amazing challenge to guard for a great many defenders.

Lowry has proven to have the ability to not only hit clutch shots, but to make the correct plays when the game is on the line and hanging in the balance. Most importantly, last season, he showed the ability to remain healthy.

The Lithuanian-born Jonas Valanciunas is a special player in his own right who has begun showing signs over the past year. With the prodding of his head coach, Dwane Casey, Valanciunas will have the opportunity to be even a more agile version of Zydrunas Ilgauskas or—if he learns to read defenses like Peyton Manning—Vlade Divac.

Without the guillotine hanging over Casey’s head as it did last season when he was in the final year of his deal, and without the distracting trade speculation that surrounded Lowry and DeRozan, from day one the Raptors will have an advantage that neither Anthony and his Knicks nor Williams and his Nets can boast: a core whose major players have spent significant time in the trenches and have experienced both success and heartbreak together.

Natural progression, for sure, is aided by teams who have won division titles together and, conversely, lost a Game 7 together on their home floor.

Amid a whirlwind of an offseason that saw President and General Manager Masai Ujiri re-sign Casey and Lowry and bring back Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, he also managed to trade John Salmons to the Hawks in exchange for Lou Williams. The 34-year-old Salmons had an uneventful tenure as a member of the Raptors, to say the least. In exchange, Ujiri corralled a 27-year-old Williams who has made a name for himself by being one of the league’s top reserve guards over the course of his nine-year career.

Williams is still ascending toward being 100 percent after tearing his ACL in a contest against the Nets back in January 2013, but by December 2013, after missing about 60 regular season games, Williams was able to net a season-high 28 points in a 118-116 win over Charlotte.

Salmons, on the other hand, hasn’t scored as many as 25 points in a game since 2011.

As Williams continues to progress, he will have an opportunity to provide the Raptors with another perimeter scoring punch. With his ability to play both guard positions, with health and their continued dedication to playing hard-nosed, tough-minded basketball, the Raptors will prove to be no fluke.

What will make this race interesting to watch, however, is the question of whether Lowry’s career-best season last year was simply the motivation of a player seeking to secure a long-term payday or whether it was the coming of age and the fruition of a player who has long underplayed his potential.

In Brooklyn, the Nets are now serving under their fourth head coach in less than two years. The departed Paul Pierce will leave a gap at small forward while the newly installed Lionel Hollins will certainly spend an appreciable amount of time trying to figure out how best to marry the skills of Williams and Brook Lopez.

About five miles away, at Madison Square Garden, Derek Fisher will certainly face some challenges in teaching his team—many of whom are used to playing under the loose and free-flowing systems of Mike D’Antoni and Mike Woodson—about the discipline, reading, reacting and patience that an effective triangle offense requires.

As usual, the collective attention of the NBA will focus on the skyscrapers and media cauldron that is New York City. But North of the Border, in Toronto, awaits the defending division champion and a team that is both familiar with one another and capable of building upon the achievements of last season.

The NBA season is upon us. In the words of Phil Jackson, the current president of the New York Knicks, LeBron James’ departure from Miami has opened up and flattened out the playing field across the conference.

With the continuous turnover in New York City and the rebuilding projects that are already underway in both Philadelphia and Boston, in the end, it is easy to imagine the Raptors walking away atop the division.

There is something to be said of their continuity, and if you were a betting man, the wise choice would be to wager on their continued progression.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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