Heading into this season, the list of potential title contenders was limited to a handful of teams in terms of public opinion: the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics.
Now roughly one third of the way through the season, that list is exactly the same, but one other team might have also emerged.
At 20-8, the Toronto Raptors have gone 9-1 over their last 10 games, 11-1 in front of their home fans (the best home record in the entire NBA) and is riding a three-game winning streak.
Although the 26-7 Celtics and 23-8 Cavaliers have also gotten off to outstanding starts in the East, there are a number of reasons why the Raptors should be taken seriously.
Here are four of them.
Since seemingly every dangerous team in the league has at least two legitimate stars, the Raptors fit the mold. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (who both played on the gold medal-winning U.S. National Team at the last Olympic Games as well as on last year’s Eastern Conference All-Star Team) have continued their stellar play into this season.
DeRozan is averaging 23.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists over 34.3 minutes per game. Shooting 48.4 percent from the floor on 17.4 shots per game, he has one of the best mid-range shooting strokes in the entire NBA and is the team’s clear go-to scorer.
Lowry is averaging 16.0 points, 6.3 boards and 7.2 assists over 33.0 minutes per contest and fills the stat sheet on a nightly basis. Shooting 39.2 percent from deep on 7.6 three-point attempts per contest, Lowry takes the majority of his shots from beyond the arc, but has been very efficient while doing so. He’s considered as one of the best two-way point guards in the league.
Recently starting Lowry, DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and rookie OG Anunoby, coach Dwane Casey has turned to a number of viable options off the bench including Norman Powell, CJ Miles, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Lucas Nogueira.
If the opposing team decides to play big or play small, the Raptors have more than enough options to turn to off the bench. Excluding Lowry and DeRozan, the other pieces are somewhat interchangeable. Not only is that significant in terms of rotational value, but also if an injury occurs at some point.
Since both the Cavaliers and the Celtics have the personnel to play with or without a traditional center or power forward on the court, Toronto will be able to mix and match appropriately.
Toronto ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring, averaging 110.9 points per game, trailing the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers. They also rank fourth in the Association in field goal percentage, at 48.1 percent, trailing the Warriors, Pelicans and Cavs. Perhaps most importantly, their efficiency has been coupled with an ability to take care of the basketball.
The Raptors have averaged 13.8 turnovers per contest, which ranks 5th-best in the league.
With a total plus-minus of plus-8.5, Toronto ranks third in the league behind only the Rockets and Warriors, proving that they're consistently effective and are generally able to avoid huge losses. Their offense is the main reason for that, as they can never be counted out of any contest, no matter what the score is.
The Raptors have almost been two different teams when on the road versus when they’re at home.
Going 9-7 away from Toronto, they’ve averaged 107.3 points, 40.4 rebounds, 21.9 assists and 13.9 turnovers per contest.
At home, they’ve averaged 115.8 points, 44.0 rebounds, 24.4 assists and 12.1 turnovers per game.
While it would obviously be optimal if they performed like they do at home at all other times, this type of clear home-court advantage could prove to be extremely beneficial in the playoffs. The Warriors, for example, absolutely dominated at home over the last few seasons and proved to be extremely comfortable in the postseason as a result.
The Toronto fans have an ability to create a lot of noise and make things uncomfortable for opposing teams, as we have seen in recent playoff series.
The Raptors will likely be overshadowed by the Celtics and Cavaliers in the East, but it would be foolish to ignore them or dismiss them from the conversation at this time of the year.