There’s no getting around it: the Eastern Conference is putrid this year. So putrid, in fact, that its fiercest debate concentrates not on which team reigns supreme, but instead which unfortunate aspect of the conference is more striking—its dreadful win-loss record, or the befuddling, mercurial performance of the several clubs flailing for relevance—and struggling to achieve it—against listless and complacent competition.
Teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, and Cleveland Cavaliers are treading water furiously, desperate for wins and yet dreadfully incapable of stringing them together.
Each franchise has its fatal flaws: for Atlanta, cupboard-clearing injuries and an undersized roster; Detroit, poor spacing on offense and a dearth of quickness on ‘D’; New York, a gaping hole at point guard and a broken scheme on defense; Cleveland, a front office dumpster fire, a glut of power forwards and scoring guards, and no apparent guiding principles on either side of the ball.
The end result is a logjam in the standings, with none of these clubs demonstrating the wherewithal to seize the playoff seed they covet, despite their good chances in a floundering conference. As of March 11, this is how the bottom half of the Eastern Conference shakes out:
The teams in spots eight through twelve are clustered so tightly—and performing so erratically—that whoever “wins” the race for the final seed will ultimately amount to a crapshoot. Whoopee.
But before we despair, let us look at the top half of the conference and pay homage to a more promising story emerging in the northern reaches of the NBA landscape:
After a shaky 6-12 start, the Toronto Raptors are 29-15 since the Rudy Gay trade, and have quietly vaulted themselves all the way to the third seed in the East! This position in the tables essentially amounts to the catbird seat among the also-rans of the Eastern Conference (that is to say, all teams not based in Miami or Indianapolis).
To everyone outside the Raptors’ locker room, Toronto’s ascent to the upper echelon of the East comes as a surprise, but the facts are indisputable. Coach Dwane Casey has tweaked his schemes and motivated his squad all the way to a top-10 defensive rating (per NBA.com), while also designing a number of funky offensive sets that take advantage of DeMar DeRozan’s potent midrange game and Kyle Lowry’s prowess on the pick and roll. The team has established an identity and discovered a style of play that takes advantage of its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses, and played this gambit to great effect. Strange as it may seem, the Toronto Raptors appear to have molded themselves into the third best club in the East.
So, What Are The Implications?
If Toronto manages to retain its spot in the standings, it will reap a few significant advantages come playoff time. First and foremost among them: the all-important right to not play the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in round one. Delaying the inevitable clash with Goliath might not yield any long-term benefits for Toronto—since when and if they meet Miami or Indiana they will remain massive underdogs—but capturing a high seed and squaring off against a flawed, mediocre opponent in round one would offer the Raptors a chance at their first playoff series victory since the Vince Carter Era.
For a franchise long mired in mediocrity, a first round series win would be a triumph not even a quick second round exit could dampen. It would rejuvenate the fan base, injecting passion and optimism back into a market that once buzzed with excitement.
Moreover, a taste of postseason victory would instill in Toronto’s young core the confidence necessary to achieve greater success in the future.
Clinching the third seed would also, at least for the first round, grant Toronto the luxury of home court advantage. The benefits of this should not be underestimated, particularly for a young team like the Raptors with minimal postseason experience.
While Lowry and DeRozan have elevated their play in the regular season, adjusting to the rigors of playoff basketball will prove a significant challenge. Playoff opponents are more physical, their defenses are sharper, their scouting reports are more detailed, and the stakes for each game rise exponentially higher. Establishing a rhythm in this new environment requires a cool head and a bit of a trial and error, so for both players, comfortable surroundings and a familiar routine would prove invaluable safety nets as they negotiate the rigors of postseason play for the first time.
What To Look Out For
Fortunately for the Raptors, as the season draws to a close, all signs point toward their continued success. Toronto is 7-3 in its last 10 games, and aside from dates with the Oklahoma City Thunder (home), Miami (away), Houston Rockets (home), and Indiana (home), its schedule is littered with cupcake contests, including games against the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, and Boston Celtics.
If the wins start to pile up, Toronto may begin to molt its juvenile coat in earnest and emerge as a genuinely worrisome thorn in the side of the top-seeded juggernauts. The team seems to enjoy playing together, and when they take the court they ooze tenacity and confidence. At this juncture, momentum abounds in Canada, unfettered by the injury bug or intra-team strife, and the horizon of the Raptors looks bright indeed.