The Toronto Raptors are currently the hottest team in the NBA, but do they need to make a deal before the trade deadline to be considered a serious threat to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference?
The Raptors (31-15) have the second best record in the Eastern Conference, thanks in large part to their franchise record 10-game winning streak and are sitting two-and-a-half games behind the Cavs. Toronto, which is 20-8 since December 1, has taken advantage of its schedule as the Raps have played six games during the streak at home and has only played four teams with a winning record. The Raptors have won eight of their games during this stretch by double-digits, outscoring their opponents by an average of 13.3 points a game.
Toronto set a franchise record with 49 wins last season and has won the Atlantic Division crown the past two years, but the Raptors have not made it past the first round in the last two years, including a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards a year ago. The Raptors picked up several veteran free agents this offseason to take them to the next level but the team has been without Jonas Valanciunas for a large chunk of the season earlier and are currently without starting small forward DeMarre Carroll (knee).
The continued evolution of DeMar DeRozen and a new offseason commitment from point guard Kyle Lowry are the main reasons the Raptors have distinguished themselves from the rest of the conference this year. Both DeRozen and Lowry are having career seasons and are the third best scoring duo in the NBA, averaging 44.13 points a game.
DeRozan has scored in double-figures in each of his 46 contests, which includes eight 30-point games – all since December 1. The 6-foot-7 shooting guard is shooting the ball the best of his career as he has improved his accuracy from beyond the arc – making a career-high 32.2 percent from long range. He also has improved his efficiency as he has also improved his passing and cut down on his turnovers.
Lowry is also scoring at a career-pace, averaging 21.0 points a game as he has been more aggressive on that end of the floor. The 6-foot point guard has tallied double-figures in all 46 games and has recorded eight double-doubles. He has gotten to the free throw at a more frequent rate and is playing tough defense.
The Raptors are more than just DeRozan and Lowry. Toronto has four players averaging double-figures with Valanciunas and Carroll joining DeRozan and Lowry. The Raptors currently boasts the Eastern Conference’s second best offensive rating and the second-best net rating, 3-point percentage and point differential. Toronto is also one of the top-defensive teams, surrendering the fourth fewest points in the league (96.5 points a game) – the Raptors are 28-0 when holding their opponents under the century mark.
In addition, Valanciunas appears to finally be emerging after missing 17 games while being out about a month with a broken hand. The 7-footer has produced three double-doubles in his last five games and has recorded five overall this month. Valanciunas has been the most effective on the defensive end and is second the team in plus/minus rating.
So, do the Raptors need to make a deal before the trade deadline?
It all depends on Carroll’s knee injury. Carroll, one of the team’s key offseason acquisitions, has missed 11 straight and 20-of-the Raptors last 24 games. While he has struggled on the defensive end — some of that may be attributed to him not being healthy –, Carroll is an opportunistic wing who can slash, make plays, and shoot from distance.
The Raptors do have a strong bench with the addition of Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross have found their games after struggling last year and James Johnson has been productive in spurts.
If the Raptors do decide to go the trade rout, they do have a lot young of youngsters and a slew of draft picks to use as trade bait as pointed out by the Toronto Sun.
[Photo by David Zalubowski/Associated Press]