John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors Looking at Tough Road Back to Playoffs

The Toronto Raptors’ path back to the playoffs got a lot harder this week.

The massive shift in power for the Eastern Conference is undoubtedly LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Early predictions have the Cavs in the mid 50’s for wins and if they bring in Kevin Love that number is likely to grow. Right off the bat there’s a team that missed the playoffs last year that’s all but guaranteed to be a top playoff contender this coming season.

While James caused the splash, the next big ripple the Raps will have to deal with is Chris Bosh staying put in Miami. For awhile it looked likely that the Heat would lose all three members of the ‘big three’ and cease to matter in the East, but with Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and strong role players like Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem, the Heat still have the pieces to compete at the top of the East.

The Chicago Bulls finished with the same record as the Raptors last year, but with Pau Gasol in the mix look to be better than before. If Derrick Rose can return to peak form, with Joakim Noah and the other regulars contributing, the Bulls could be one of the favourites in the East.

Washington Wizards’ Paul Pierce will be looking to move on from his time with the Nets and when you put him together with John Wall, Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat you have a team unlikely to miss Trevor Ariza much.

So the Raptors will be hard-pressed to play with the big boys of the East. While other teams like the Indian Pacers and Brooklyn Nets got worse this off-season, they are still playoff contenders for sure. Not to mention the Knicks, Hornets and Hawks are all still hanging around.

The Raptors don’t have the big name stars of other Eastern teams. They don’t have a LeBron, a Bosh, a Wade, Pierce or Kevin Garnett, but they do have a solid team game and more experience than they had last year.

A division win still guarantees home court in the first round of the playoffs, and with the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics afterthoughts, all the Raptors need to do is stay above a mediocre New York Knicks team and the Brooklyn Nets, who lost both Pierce and their coach, Jason Kidd, this off-season.

The key is likely their home record. Last year only four teams (Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana and Chicago) had better records at home than the Raps (26-15). The Raptors tied Miami and Washington with the best road record, 22-19, in the East last year. If they can stay one of the better road teams and improve their home record, you can expect the Raptors to lock down another division title and return to the playoffs a little older and a lot wiser.

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Tags: Chris Andersen Chris Bosh Derrick Rose Dwyane Wade Jason Kidd Joakim Noah John Wall Kevin Garnett Kevin Love LeBron James Luol Deng Marcin Gortat Nene Hilario Pau Gasol Paul Pierce Toronto Raptors Trevor Ariza Udonis Haslem

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