The Cleveland Cavaliers have made the past three finals, and LeBron James has made the previous seven finals. The Cavaliers finally looked vulnerable this season to not make the finals until they made several moves at the NBA trade deadline. Cleveland acquired Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Rodney Hood, and George Hill at the deadline. Their first game together was a success, as they crushed the Celtics in Boston.
Now everyone assumes they will make it back to the finals to play the Golden State Warriors. I am here to say that the Toronto Raptors should still be the favorites to make the NBA Finals.
People still doubt the Raptors because of previous playoff failures, but these are not the same Toronto Raptors. The Raptors are hitting their stride at the right time and have won five straight. They are now first in the Eastern Conference with a 39-16 record. According to ESPN’s playoff odds, the Raptors are projected to get the one seed in the East with a 59-23 record.
That means the East will run through Toronto. Boston is struggling right now and likely will fall to the two seed. Cleveland is six games behind, and even though they are better now, they probably won’t have enough time to catch the Raptors, especially with the Raptors playing so well. Point differential is the best indicator of how a team is playing, and the Raptors are outscoring teams by 8.3 points per game, which is the second-best mark in the league and by far the best mark in the league.
There are a few reasons the Raptors have been so dominant this season. First, All-Star DeMar DeRozan has taken his game to new levels and has rounded out his game. DeRozan is averaging a career-high 5.2 assists per game and is shooting a career-high 34 percent from three. Those were his two most significant weakness before that got exposed in the playoffs, that won’t be the case this season. He is doing that while averaging 24 points per game on 46 percent shooting.
Then there is Jonas Valancuinias. Valancuinias used to get exposed all the time, and the Raptors wanted to trade him, but now he is playing better than ever. Valancunias is averaging 12 points and eight rebounds on 56 percent shooting. More importantly, he has added the three ball to his game this season. He is shooting 48 percent from deep so far this season. Now that will go down a little as his attempts go up, but he can shoot it, and that will help in the playoffs. He will still have some defensive issues in the playoffs, but his new shooting ability will help spread the floor for the Raptors.
Finally, their new secret weapon is their bench, which is better than some teams starting units. It starts with their two back up point guards Delon Wright and Fred Van Fleet. Van Fleet is a great shooter, passer, and defender. Wright can guard multiple positions and is also a terrific passer. If they need shooting, they bring in C.J. Miles who can play some small ball power forward for them and space the floor.
Up front, they have Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. Siakam is an excellent defender and energy guy. Poeltl can protect the rim and finish around the basket. If they need more scoring, they can bring in Norman Powell, who can play both wing spots and fill it up. They are as deep and versatile as any team in the league. Plus, they can mix and match their starters with their bench guys and create all kinds of deadly lineups.
They are still finding out what works best, and that is the scary part. By the time the playoffs come around, they will be even better. Their bench, versatility, and the improvement from Valancunias and DeRozan makes this a different Raptors team from years past. Also, they have homecourt advantage, and it can get loud in Toronto.
They are by no means the favorite to win it all. The favorite is still the Golden State Warriors. However, the Raptors have been the best team in the East all season for a reason. They are only going to get better as well. Taking down LeBron James is no easy task, but these Raptors can do it.