Jan 19, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) goes to dunk the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors Eastern Conference Preview: A Look at the Toronto Raptors

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Sizing Up the 2014-15 Eastern Conference’s Potential

Who is the favourite to win the Eastern Conference next season? Many experts can’t answer this question. Where do the Toronto Raptors fit into everything? It’s hard to answer this question, too.

Everybody has a chance. Well, mostly everyone does… perhaps omitting Milwaukee from the conversation, but even they must be more excited than last year (but everything is relative, right?). But “mostly everybody” has a strong case for their team. Maybe we should review every team starting with how they finished last year?

This column will be a regular feature, looking at the NBA’s Eastern Conference and projecting where each contending team will finish. It begins at the top of the standings from 2013-14 and looks at the conference from the perspective of the Raptors.

toronto logo

Toronto: Well, who wants to say the reigning feel-good team of 2013-14 doesn’t have a chance? I’m not going to do that. But, it’s hard to replicate such a surprise…

The potential good: Chemistry! How the heck did a team burning salary also acquire four players who perfectly fit in the Raptors mold they didn’t even know they had? Dumb luck? Well that’s possible… but when the stars align (or the pieces fit), who can argue? You couldn’t put the brakes on all-star DeMar DeRozan, should’ve been all-star Kyle Lowry, and the entire team suddenly were contenders in the Eastern Conference rather than tankers.

And this year? The core group is intact – Derozan, the Raps re-signed Lowry, the always dependable Amir Johnson, the emerging star Jonas Valanciunas (TNT’s Charles Barkley will learn his name this season! Bold prediction?), slam-dunk phenom Terrence Ross, and the entire bench returns! Except for John Salmons, which sucks for Toronto, but in losing him, they added Louis Williams, a guard more capable of running the floor. The fit should be the strong point of the team…

Apr 9, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) reacts after dunking the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Philadelphia 125-114. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The potential bad: The Raptors were such a great story last season. A few salary dumps later and even a possible tanking attempt, somehow the Raps emerged and came together to become the Atlantic Division champs.

However, it won’t be a surprise this year – the Raptors won’t be able to sneak up on anyone anymore. So teams will be more ready and braced to face them. Teams will have more of a sample of them and may be able to solve them and what made them so great last year (clear-out for Lowry last play of the game – pictured right – has already been found out… sorry Duane Casey. At least put DeMar on the wing, available, if the drive is stoned).

May 4, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (7) is stopped by Brooklyn Nets forward Paul Pierce (34) on the final play of the game in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. The Nets beat the Raptors 104-103. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

More potential bad: Lowry re-signing is a great thing… but does anyone remember when he wasn’t in a contract year? Reports had him as coming in as “fat and out-of-shape” and his numbers were lacking. Consistency was an issue that spread through the team. And the year Lowry (pictured right, getting “blocked” by Paul Pierce) was set to become a free agent, none of this prior paragraph was evident (he played nine more minutes average, 11 more games total, averaged six more points per game, as well as shot better from the field, three-point land, and the line). Now that Lowry got the money, will he come back to be the player he was in 2012 or will he be the premier point guard in the division of 2013-14? Raps fans are planning on the latter, but the potential looms for both.

Last year’s Eastern Conference regular season rank: 3rd place

This year’s potential pre-season FS rank: 3rd place

Where do you think Toronto will finish this season?

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Dec 21, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; The Raptors logo shaved in the head of Toronto Raptors center Amir Johnson (15) during their game against the Orlando Magic at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Magic 93-90. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 21, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; The Raptors logo shaved in the head of Toronto Raptors center Amir Johnson (15) during their game against the Orlando Magic at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Magic 93-90. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, so maybe a bit of a “Push” pick here, and Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of Pardon the Interruption like to condemn such pushes, but picking the Raps third just makes sense. Look at their division. Boston: not ready. New York: trying, but not there. Philadelphia: a year away from being a year away. That leaves Brooklyn, who Masai Ujiri addressed before Game 1 in Toronto, who tanked to face Toronto. While still possible, Brooklyn is getting old fast… some say their window is already closed, but other than Brook Lopez returning from injury, I don’t see much improvement. Toronto almost wins the division by elimination… unless we have a big surprise (calling Phil Jackson…).

However, the door is wide open for any Eastern Conference team to step-up, and why can’t it be the Raptors? Clearly, they were the best team in the East (stats prove so after the Rudy Gay trade), so they could do it. With their chemistry, why can’t they be the team to do it? With everything in flux, Toronto may very well emerge out of the Eastern Conference. They may not be “the favourite” but no one should be as surprised as they were last year if they are.

Click here to return to the intro page, which includes links to the rest of the preview series.

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