We can now see the finish line.
With just 21 games to go, we’re entering the last quarter of a long 82 game season, and it’s time to start looking ahead to the playoffs and beyond.
With Chicago beating Oklahoma City, last night, giving them sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors now sit in a virtual tie for third with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s come down to a three team race for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th seed between Toronto, Cleveland and Chicago. Barring a complete collapse, Atlanta is too far ahead to be caught, and Washington is struggling too much and have too tough a schedule the rest of the way to try and grab home court advantage.
At this point, it appears Cleveland is the favourite for the second seed. They do have a tougher schedule than either the Raptors or Bulls, but they also have the best record in the league, since January 15th, and appear to have finally gelled. Plus, they have that LeBron guy, and as Raptor fans saw in the game on Wednesday night, he’s not a bad card to have in your hand.
So that means it’s down to Toronto and Chicago.
Toronto has 21 games left, including 9 at home and 13 games against sub-.500 teams. Chicago also has 21 games left and 9 at home, but have one less game against sub-.500 teams. Toronto has games against New York, the Lakers and Minnesota twice, while Chicago has games against New York and Philadelphia twice (all sub-.300 teams). Their roads ahead are very similar and it may come down to the last game to see who gets the 3rd seed and who gets the 4th.
Which spot they end up getting may not seem all that important, but there’s a shadow looming that may cause big problems come playoff time.
The Indiana Pacers.
Right now, the Pacers are half a game out of the 8th seed (and just one game out of the 7th seed) and for most of the season have looked nothing like the team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals the last two seasons. Well, that is until recently. They’re 9 and 2 in their last 11 games and have beaten Golden State and Cleveland twice during that streak. While they lost Lance Stephenson to Charlotte, most of the roster that helped the team win 56 games last year is still intact. Plus, Paul George, who endured a devastating injury over the summer with Team USA, is close to returning.
Indiana is probably not the contender they used to be, but they are the team that nobody wants to play in the first round. They’re the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Eastern Conference.
The question is what seed will they end up with and who will they face?
While the Wizards are 6-14 in their last 20, they’re still 7 and a half games ahead of the Pacers and it’s highly unlikely the Pacers will be able to close the gap in just 22 games.
The Pacers have a tough schedule ahead of them, with 12 games at home, but only 10 against sub-.500 teams. If they continue to play as well as they have, it’s conceivable that the Pacers go 12-10 over their final 22 games. This would not put them in reach of the Wizards, but the Bucks have a very tough schedule ahead of them and are just 2-6 since trading away their most productive player, Brandon Knight.
If the Pacers jump up to the 6th seed, then that would mean whoever grabs the 3rd seed (Toronto or Chicago) will have to face them in the first round.
It’s true the Raptors have beaten the Pacers in both games they’ve played them this year, but a healthy Pacers is not a team anyone will want to play over a seven game series in the playoffs.
The best scenario for the Raptors is for the Pacers to finish with the 7th seed, and face Cleveland in the first round, although it’s probably not something LeBron would be excited about. The Raptors are 3-0 against Washington and 2-1 against the Bucks, and neither of them are finishing the season strong.
For the Raptors, getting the 4th seed might actually be the best scenario. It would pretty much guarantee they don’t face the Pacers in the first round, and it would allow them to avoid Cleveland in the second round. The Hawks may have the best record in the league, right now, but I don’t think anyone would argue they’re a more dangerous playoff team than the Cavs. The chance of the Raptors beating either team over a seven game series is slim, but given a choice the Hawks are probably the preferred opponent.
PAST THE FINISH LINE
While the Raptors are on pace to break the franchise record for wins, even with them sputtering at the end, and have a good chance to make the second round of the playoffs, there looms the question of what would constitute a successful season for the Raptors? And, more importantly for Dwane Casey, what would allow him to keep his job?
With their schedule, it’s probable the Raptors will win somewhere between 10 and 14 games over their final 21. That would give them between 48 and 52 wins to end the season. Considering where they were just two months ago, anything below 50 wins would have to be a disappointment. It’s the playoffs, though, that will probably decide Casey as well as the rest of the roster’s fate.
A lacklustre showing in the second round (or a first round exit), could mean some changes are coming. Although Masai Ujiri is taking the long, slow approach for this team, it’s apparent, over the last couple of months, that there are some serious issues with this roster. A coaching change may be all that is needed, but don’t be surprised to see some roster changes, as well. Especially since this team’s ceiling is looking more and more like Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks.
Amir Johnson, Lou Williams, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes and Landry Fields are all unrestricted free agents this summer, and it’s conceivable none of them will return, especially if Ujiri decides changes need to be made.
It could be far more tempting for Ujiri to use the cap room to go after the star player the team needs to try and get over the hump than re-sign Amir and Lou, eating up their cap space, and return with relatively the same team next season. This summer has a number of tempting free agents available, like LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap and Draymond Green, all of whom would be great fits on the Raptors.
Of course, these are all questions that will have to wait until the season’s over the answer. Just keep them in the back of your mind, for now.
While JaVale McGee was not able to reach an agreement with the Celtics, can we stop suggesting the Raptors should go after him, please? Unless you’re trying to tank (and I’m going to guess they don’t want to), adding an inconsistent and low I.Q. player to a team that struggles with consistency and making good decisions, is probably not something you want to do. Plus, his defense actually isn’t all that good, despite his shotblocking.
JaVale McGee is like the defensive version of Andrea Bargnani. Yes, they’ve both got many of the tools to be very good players on defense or offence, respectively, but having the tools and knowing how to use them are two very different things. Plus, while both players are not nearly as good on their “speciality” end of the court as they should be, they can be downright hideous on the other end of the court.
On a side note, something about teaming up McGee with Bargnani seems like too perfect an idea. On paper, pairing these two would seem like a match made in heaven – Bargnani is offense, McGee is defense – but the fact that their strengths are vastly overrated and their penchant for comically bad plays would be a team killer. And it’s exactly this reason that McGee MUST sign with the Knicks. They’re desperately trying to lose, but would still love to get fans out to watch, and if you’re going to be bad, why not be a trainwreck?