At the halfway point of the NBA season, the Toronto Raptors lead the NBA with 31 wins in 43 games. So far, big and risky offseason changes have paid off. Kawhi Leonard is playing some of the best basketball of his career, while first-year coach Nick Nurse has got the offense clicking. But is this retooled version of the Raptors ready to take the next step and win the Eastern Conference? Or is this more or less the same team that’s been bounced from the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion for three straight seasons?
Trading the best player in franchise history was a tough sell for the organization, but team president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster upgraded the Raptors in all facets by dealing DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Leonard. The 27-year old is the NBA’s best one-on-one defender, capable of changing the game with his length. Leonard’s offense has been the biggest surprise this season. The upgraded role on offense as resulted in Leonard taking the most shots of his career and averaging a career-best 27.3 points per game. Funnily enough, he’s averaging more than five more points per game than DeRozan, and is the closer Toronto’s been missing. Playing at an MVP level, his championship experience will surely be huge come playoff time.
Leonard aside, the rest of Toronto’s starting five is also top tier.
Point guard Kyle Lowry remains a bulldog, and is a pain to play against. Lowry’s quick, tough, can both score and facilitate, and does a lot of the little things right. The Raptors are 24-8 in the 32 games he’s started, and they’re a significantly better team with him in the lineup. Meanwhile, 24-year old power forward Pascal Siakam might be the NBA’s most improved player, as the 2016 first-round pick is averaging career-bests (by a wide margin) across the board. Siakam is a lengthy, uber-quick defender who’s also crafty around the rim.
Rounding out the starting five are a rejuvenated Serge Ibaka and sharpshooter Danny Green. The only thing slowing Raptors starters down have been injuries to Lowry and spot-starter center Jonas Valanciunas. With a fully healthy unit, Toronto is the best team in the conference.
What hasn’t been a huge plus for Toronto this season is their bench. The Raptors got plenty of attention last season for their “bench mob,” but elevating Siakam to the starting lineup and losing center Jakob Poetl in the Leonard deal slowed down the second unit from great to just capable. Point guard Fred VanVleet is still an elite backup, but Nurse has gotten inconsistent minutes from guards Normal Powell, OG Anunoby, and Delon Wright. Getting healthier, more consistent performances, and/or adding a shooter via trade would improve the bench going forward.
However, the Raptors don’t have an easy road to come out of the East, even with LeBron James bolting for the West.
The Eastern Conference is top-heavy, with four other teams fighting with the Raptors for the top spot. Right now, Toronto’s biggest challenger is the Milwaukee Bucks. New coach Mike Budenholzer has been a godsend for the club, getting the most out his squad and supremely talented MVP-candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo while also turning Milwaukee into an offensive juggernaut. The 29-11 Bucks rank first in the NBA (by a wide margin) with a +9.5 point differential. Staying healthy has been key, because there is a dramatic drop off from starters to the bench. The Bucks rank 26th in bench scoring, but their backups can hang with most teams defensively. Despite that weakness, they’re still a massive threat to Toronto.
Elsewhere, the Indiana Pacers have been great all season with a 27-14 record. Armed with a deep rotation and a great mix of vets, the Pacers are a low-key, consistent threat. You also can’t count out the 27-15 Philadelphia 76ers. Even with some mid-season turbulence, the 76ers have one of the NBA’s best starting lineups and feature the young star forward duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Finally, the Boston Celtics, who many experts picked to come out of the East heading into the season, are starting to hit their stride and will be a tough out come playoff time. They’re a deep team, featuring superstar point guard Kyrie Irving and wing Jayson Tatum, and can’t be ignored.
On paper, the Toronto Raptors are the best team in the East and should sit atop the season standings when the regular season is over. However, they only have a razor-thin lead on the surging Bucks. Last week, Toronto beat the Bucks and Pacers without Lowry for both games and Leonard for the latter game. There’s no question they’re talented, but in order to come out on top, both Leonard and Lowry need to be healthy. Adding some three-point shooting and another big off the bench wouldn’t hurt either. Struck with a bad case of the playoff yips after dominant regular seasons, Leonard is exactly the guy who could lead Toronto to the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals. The Raptors can win out of the East, but it won’t be easy.