Are the Toronto Raptors Legitimate NBA Title Contenders?

Kyle Lowry leads the break, Toronto Raptors while DeMar Derozan is out

With the first quarter of the 2014-15 NBA season in the books, the Eastern Conference has surprise leaders.

The Toronto Raptors, Canada’s only NBA franchise, have only ever won one playoff series since their debut season in 1995-96. They have reached the playoffs six times in those 19 seasons, but last season’s appearance was their first since 2008.

They qualified as the third seed in the East, but the Brooklyn Nets engineered a final-day defeat in an apparent attempt to drop to the sixth seed and face Toronto in the first round. The move nearly backfired, as a dramatic series went back and forth and was only decided in the final seconds of Game 7 in Toronto, with Paul Pierce blocking Kyle Lowry’s last attempt.

Miami eliminated Brooklyn in the next round, but the offseason broke nicely for the Raptors as they watched the two teams above them suffer significant losses: LeBron James left Miami, while Paul George’s horrific leg-break set the Indiana Pacers back.

And while James is finding his feet at his new team, and the Chicago Bulls work out the kinks in their roster, Toronto will happily fill the void and take front-runner status in the race for the play offs.

Addition By Subtraction

The turning point on the team’s current upswing came in December 2013, when Toronto’s new general manager Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger and moved on from the team’s highest-paid player, Rudy Gay.

Gay wasn’t even with the team for a full year, but his presence on the Team USA squad that won FIBA World Cup gold in the summer of 2014 is testament to the level he can play at. However, it wasn’t working out north of the border, so Ujiri traded him for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes.

At the time, the Raptors were 6-12 and discussing potential trades for Lowry too. But the structure of the team settled down after Gay left, and the squad went on to win 42 of the remaining 64 games of the season.

The experienced Salmons has since been flipped to recruit talented scorer Lou Williams to the team, and explosive wing James Johnson was also added in free agency.

DeRozan The Star, Lowry The Leader

Gay’s departure has allowed for more defined roles to emerge on the squad. DeMar DeRozan was the team’s top-scorer last season, and his form earned him a call-up for his All-Star Game debut.

But Lowry was desperately unlucky to miss out, with the coaches opting for a wing player over his playmaking skills. Alongside forward Amir Johnson, Lowry is clearly the heart and soul of the team, and his tenacious leadership has spurred the side to greater heights.

With Lowry coming up huge now that DeRozan has gone down for a month with a tear in his groin, it will be a major surprise if he is overlooked for the All-Star Game this time around. The point guard has averaged 20.7 points, 6.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds through the first 20 games of the season.

Building For The Future

With an average age of 25, the regular starting line-up features the two star guards alongside Amir Johnson and promising talents on the wing (Terrence Ross) and in the middle (Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas). Veteran forward Hayes is still good for banging some bodies in the paint on the defensive end, and he is the only member of the squad who is over 30 years old.

Their bench has earned a solid reputation, with Vasquez a steady hand in the backup playmaker role and Williams looking to have recovered his scoring spark, on the back of a slow 2013-14 season during which he was coming back from major knee surgery.

A mark of their strength is that their third-highest paid player, Landry Fields, does not get much court-time. The Fields signing was almost immediately seen as an expensive mistake, and it will be interesting to see what Ujiri can do with the salary cap room that will be freed when Fields’ contract finishes at the end of the season.

This Year’s Chances

It’s rare that a team elevates quickly from “first-round loser” to “genuine contender”. But there is a real hope of adding to that solitary playoff series victory from the glory days of Vince Carter.

It’s almost inevitable that a painful Eastern Conference semi-finals or finals loss awaits the Raptors as a mark of their progress. Toronto’s rich vein of form in November saw them rip off 11 wins from 12 games, including one crushing of Cleveland on the road.

But the only loss in that sequence came to Chicago in a primetime TV match, and the Cavs came to Canada this week to pay back Toronto for that earlier loss, running out convincing 105-91 victors – although the Raptors are still missing DeRozan.

Toronto are clearly here to stay though, and led by Lowry, they will be a tough opponent for anyone with their eyes set on glory in the East.

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