Before getting into this article, I have to make a bit of a disclaimer. I’m a huge Toronto Raptors fan. Die hard. Have been since I became a fan of the NBA years ago. It was to my great delight then, that the Raptors destroyed/embarrassed/dominated the Cavaliers on Thursday night, in what was the first nationally televised game of the season for the Raptors. In a lot of ways, this was the Raptors sticking up the middle finger to whoever schedules these things. Side note: when the hell are we going to play a Christmas game? Anyways, the Raptors won 133–99 in a game in which Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were sidelined and undrafted point guard Fred VanVleet was the team’s leading scorer. Boom.
In a lot of ways, this shows how far the Toronto Raptors have come as a franchise. They do not have one top 10 player in the NBA (although I would argue DeMar Derozan is now officially the second best SG in the NBA), and yet, they’ve been the best team in the East since trading Rudy Gay years ago. They have enjoyed a lot of success this year due to the play of their bench, as was certainly the case on Thursday night. This bench doesn’t have an Andre Iguodala or Lou Williams either, which just goes to show what happens when a team (or unit) buys in. If any non-Raptors fan can name me the Raptors main bench unit this season without looking, I’ll be shocked. This might just sound like a huge homer rant, but seriously, the in-house growth and success the Toronto Raptors have had over the past 4+ years without bringing in any superstar talent is only comparable to the San Antonio Spurs.
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This will naturally lead to the next question: why haven’t they succeeded in the playoffs? The simple answer, at least for the last two seasons, is the Cleveland Cavaliers. More specifically, the answer is LeBron James. What I am about to argue, however, is that this is the worst LeBron James-led team since before “The Decision”, and that this season’s Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are as good as any competition he’s faced in the East since then. There is a case for the Paul George-David West-Roy Hibbert led Pacers teams, but if they were any better than either of the two listed above, it’s not by much. There is a noticeable drop in talent between this Cavs team and any team LeBron has been on in the last seven years, though.
Let these stats sink in. There is only one team that has a worse defensive rating than the Cavs so far this season: the lowly Sacramento Kings. The Cavs’ net rating this season is lower than the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers, and they are currently ranked 11th. On the other hand, the Raptors and Celtics are each ranked within the top four in each of these statistics. The Cavs are ranked 26th in defensive rebounding percentage so far this season, and 23rd in overall rebounding percentage. You might be thinking “So what? They are much better than the Raptors and Celtics offensively.” Not quite. While they do have the fifth-highest offensive rating in the NBA this season, the Raptors are above them at third. Boston, on the other hand, is 14th. If you believe the idea that a team needs to be a top 10 offensive and defensive team to win an NBA championship, then the Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards are currently the only teams in the Eastern conference that have a chance. Quite notably, the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors are the only two teams in the NBA to be in the top four in both.
The Cavaliers have won three games in their last 11, with their win against the Portland Trail Blazers being the only one that was convincing. They are currently 26–16, only 1.5 games ahead of the Miami Heat, four games behind the Raptors, and seven games behind the Celtics.
Where am I going with all this? This Cavs team is good, no question, but they are currently far from great. You would be hard pressed to think of a team that has ever made an NBA championship while going through similar struggles this far into the season (the Cavs have now played 42 games). Yes, the Miami Heat struggled a bit in LeBron’s first season there, but they get the benefit of the doubt for being a newly constructed team. Yes, there was some change in personnel for the Cavs this offseason, but by this point, they should have figured each other out. I know Isaiah Thomas is still getting back into form, but I highly doubt that he is the key to the Cavaliers’ defensive struggles. In fact, I highly doubt that there has ever been an NBA team to make the finals while being a bottom five defensive team. Yes, this team is great offensively and can potentially get better along with Thomas, but they are not that great. If somebody was to tell you that they would be sandwiched between the three-less Minnesota Timberwolves and small-forward-less New Orleans Pelicans in offensive rating halfway through the season, you would laugh at them. Well, they are.
This leads me to the next point, which is possibly more important. The Raptors and Celtics this season are both great, even if you don’t think so. Brad Stevens is officially a top three coach in the NBA, and I honestly think there’s a case for Dwane Casey to be mentioned in the top five. It sickens me that the Raptors are not mentioned in the same breath as teams like the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics, when they have a better net rating than both, good for second in the NBA. It’s also important to note that this has come with a very road-heavy schedule to start the season–before this current homestand, 23 of their 38 games were on the road. Sure, they’ve struggled in the playoffs the last few years, but the same can be said for every Eastern conference team that hasn’t had LeBron James. The Boston Celtics, on the other hand, are flying. They have already left the Cleveland Cavaliers in the dust, and have a definite chance to have home court advantage throughout the playoffs this postseason (assuming they make the Finals).
To relate this to fantasy sports, neither the Celtics or the Raptors have a first round player on their team, as per Basketball Monster (although Kyrie Irving is currently ranked 13th). Instead, they have shown that team basketball can trump individual superstardom, at least in the regular season. DeMar DeRozan has continued to get better every single season, even if his haters fail to acknowledge it. He’s gone from being a two-category player to being the 25th best player in fantasy basketball so far this season, while shooting a respectable .478 from the field and .372 from three. Having seen his progression as a player, I would not be surprised to see him average over two threes a game next season.
Are the Cleveland Cavaliers still the favourite to come out of this East this year? Probably. Will it matter? Probably not, as I think that the only thing that could stand between the Golden State Warriors and a championship are injuries. More so than any other season, however, it feels that this year could be the year that the Cavs slip. Sure, it’s only regular season, and they could trade for a true center like DeAndre Jordan, but their struggles so far this season have to be seen as troubling. LeBron will still probably do LeBron things in the playoffs, but unless there is a significant change, this might be the season where it’s not enough.
Has there been a power shift in the East? Not officially, but this season has shown that the other candidates have more to say than ever before.