Keeping An Eye On Contenders: Raptors Becoming Credible Threat in East?

The All-Star festivities were a nice celebration and break for the Toronto Raptors, but now it’s time to get back to the regular season grind. It’s time to address all the expectations and questions that have followed the Raptors to this point. The parity in the East has made it difficult to pinpoint a contender to the throne of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Raptors have put together a run worthy of consideration.

They’ve shown glimpses of their potential with their 35-16 record and some are even talking Eastern Conference Finals, but, have they done enough to be considered contenders? For an organization that hasn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2001, the expectations could either propel them to new heights or crush their dreams before they even start.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

The nucleus of the Raptors lies in the hands of their two All-Stars Lowry and DeRozan. Lowry is having a tremendous year, averaging 21 points (career-high), 6.3 assists, and 4.9 rebounds  (career-high) per game. His 39.2 percent three-point shooting and 85.7 percent free-throw shooting percentages just speak to his complete offensive game and development over the years. Lowry’s improved defense has been evident with a career-high 2.2 steals per game.

The second star in the Raptors’ tandem – DeRozan – has been strong on the wing all season. DeRozan lives inside the three-point line, so his average of 23.4 points on 44.7 percent field goal shooting is pretty impressive in today’s three-point shooting obsessed game. Regardless of the fact that he scores two-points more out of necessity than choice, because of his poor long-range shooting abilities, he can make defenses pay by getting to the free-throw line at will. He is finding himself at the charity stripe about 8 times a game and knocking those freebies down at 82.1 percent per game.

Big Men

After Lowry and DeRozan, it can get a little sketchy as far as production goes, especially in the realm of big men. The Raptors have yet to be able to get what they paid for in DeMarre Carroll, who won’t return to the roster until March due to Arthroscopic knee surgery. Bismack Biyombo and Jonas Valanciunas have been solid in most of their appearances, but their youth puts them in question for pressure playoff scenarios and Valanciunas has been battling injuries (only played 20 games).

The two combined are averaging 17.7 points and 17.5 rebounds per game. While they could be good pieces to continue to build for the future, they may also be optional pieces as the trade deadline approaches.

Luis Scola has been an offseason addition that has paid some dividends on offense at times. He’s an older player, but his experience and reliability have seemed to center the Raptors’ offense when some of their younger talent goes off script.

Bench

Former San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph has been just what the Raptors needed in dependable relief for Lowry. His 8.8 points and 3.1 assists per game keep Toronto’s offense going while the biggest piece of the offense is off the floor.

Joseph has even been a great complimentary piece alongside Lowry when both are on the floor together, as well. Lowry’s third favorite target is Joseph, with 11.2 percent of Lowry’s passes being aimed at Joseph. And it just so happens that Lowry is the third favorite target of Joseph’s with 18 percent of his passes being received by Lowry.

Storylines

The Raptors are having an outstanding season. They’ve won 14 out of their last 16 and sit only four games back of Cleveland. With that being said, it would be pretty ambitious to think they are ready to compete with the likes of the Cavaliers for seven games or even any Western Conference opponent in the Finals. After Lowry, DeRozan, and Joseph, the Raptors don’t have too much going for them.

There may be an opportunity for a trade to make a push for the playoffs; assuming Toronto’s general manager Masai Ujiri is going for the kill this season. DeRozan has a player option on his contract this summer, so he could choose to enter the free agent market. With the change in cap space this summer looming, this may be the Raptors’ only chance to make a run for the big one in the scenario they feel DeRozan might get lured away to bigger markets or legit contenders, if he opted out of his deal.

Players like Terrence Ross and DeMarre Carroll (injury) have been a bust so far, so a trade for a consistently productive big man like Atlanta Hawks’ Al Horford for example, could be just the extra security the Raptors need to solidify a run this year and show Lowry and DeRozan the organization is building towards a championship future.

Whether or not the Raptors do make a move before the trade deadline, they are likely to be bounced out of the playoffs no later than the second round just based off of the mere fact that Lowry and DeRozan won’t be able to produce in a seven game series like they’ve been doing all season long. The Raptors are a good team, but they are still a few moves and a few years away from being legitimate contenders in the East – at least as long as the Cavaliers are intact.

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