The Toronto Raptors have somehow already played 39 games, more than all but two other teams, and with just a single game over eight days, now seems a more logical time for mid-season evaluation. Sure, they won’t hit the exact mid-way point until next week, but shoehorning analysis in when the schedule tightens back up seems kind of silly. So here we go.
In those 39 games, the Raptors have gone 24-15, good for third in a very tight Eastern Conference. That’s a 50.5-win pace, one that would almost surely see them earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs once again. The bigger question is whether they’re well-suited to win a playoff series, and while the East will be matchup-dependent, there’s enough information to at least get a feel for where the Raptors stack up. They play well on the road (13-9), they’ve been fine against the West (8-7), they’ve beaten good teams (10-8 against teams .500 or better), and they own a +3.5 point differential, behind only Cleveland and Indiana in the conference. They’ve played an easier than average strength of schedule that’s mitigated some by playing more road games than all but two teams. They’ve also gotten it done at both ends of the floor, ranking seventh in offense and ninth in defense, one of just five teams to rank in the top 10 for both. And all of this, despite missing Jonas Valanciunas for 17 games and missing DeMarre Carroll for three stretches totaling 16 games.
So there’s what’s happened. Here are our takes on how the season’s played out so far.
1. The Raptors are (24-15) despite some pretty major injuries and a front-heavy schedule. Are you happy with the team’s performance so far?
Blake Murphy: Most definitely. They’re safely on pace to beat my preseason expectation, despite a fair amount of adversity. They meshed together more quickly than I expected, particularly on defense, and they’ve shown a mental toughness against good teams that can’t be understated. I still have my concerns, and I’ve been consistent in saying the regular season doesn’t mean much to me beyond an extended opportunity to gather information on what this team is and can be, but I’m more than pleased with where they stand right now.
Zarar Siddiqi: Of course I’m happy. We’re a historically crap franchise that is well above .500, that alone is cause to celebrate. The DeMar DeRozan contract situation hasn’t been a distraction and Kyle Lowry’s been amazing enough to have my babies. Our record against Chicago and Cleveland tells us that we’re not “for real”, and that the win total is inflated by beating up on Philly three times, but who ever said that this is a team that’s good enough to come out of the East? A playoff win and a competitive second round is progress, so I’m good, though I yearn for more.
Nick Reynoldson: Happy is too much. I am a curmudgeon. Lost too many games we should have won. With that being said I am satisfied with the season so far.
Michael Holian: Considering the obstacles they’ve encountered, I can’t help but feel satisfied. After all, sitting just 3.5 games behind a team that’s already been pegged to win the East while being without the services of two core pieces for extended amounts of time should be deemed as a commendable achievement. However, the overall optics do have plenty of loose ends. And until letdown games and the bad habit of playing to the level of their competition are erased from expectations, props that are handed out will always come with an asterisk. The club’s recent run does suggest they might be ready to finally make it happen, though.
Tim Chisholm: I think you’d have to be happy with where the team was at even if they had had a more balanced schedule with fewer injuries, so the fact that they’ve managed what they have with the setbacks that they’ve had is kind of remarkable. After all, it was DeMarre Carroll that was supposed to anchor the improved defence and the improvement of Jonas Valanciunas was meant to anchor the team’s internal growth, so the fact that the team has succeeded largely without those two is remarkable. Add on the schedule, the inconsistencies of Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson and rewriting the offence and defence and their record is an even more noteworthy achievement.
Kiyan Sobhani: I’m impressed, thoroughly. There have been a lot of blips en route, but despite – if the standings are a measuring stick – not being where they were at this point last season, the Raptors are a better team, and have rediscovered their defense. The pre-season concerns surrounding the offense have proved to be legitimate, but DeRozan has taken another leap this year to help compensate for this, and Lowry has been phenomenal. Last year, if Lou or Vasquez struggled offensively, they wouldn’t bring much else to the table. This season, while we expect Carroll and Joseph to have off-nights on offense, they bring plenty else to the table to make up for it – namely really sound defense. Patterson and Ross started slow – and by slow, I mean there were nights I thought they wouldn’t make the cut in the 905 squad – but have since improved three-fold and have added a lot off the bench. It’s an exciting season, but I don’t think this team has peaked, nor will it truly peak until a year or two from now.
Tamberlyn Richardson: In our preseason round table I noted if we made it past that heinous schedule start at or over .500 the Raptors would be poised for 50 wins. Further I ducked for cover when I suggested Terrence Ross might still show us something. Given both things occurred while Valanciunas and Carroll missed significant chunks of the schedule I’d have to answer a resounding yes to this question. The most impressive factor of the Raptors performance this season has been their consistency regardless of where they play, who their opponent is or who they have available. In a season where the majority of teams have been consistently inconsistent that may be their greatest achievement to date.
Gavin MacPherson: Considering the injuries and the trouble integrating some of the new pieces I’m very impressed by where the Raptors are in the standings right now, especially because they had a pretty short bench even before the injuries. The team has an entirely different identity this year, one that is willing to bang and hustle for victories. It may not be as visually appealing but I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t lead to a few more victories at the end of the season.
Shyam Baskaran: Definitely. Despite the disappointing losses that have been sprinkled in with the impressive victories, the Raps are clearly through the toughest part of the season well above 500, and home court advantage in the playoffs seems achievable. Coach Casey has had to deal with a few unfortunate injuries and a lot of lineup changes, but thanks to a stellar all-star backcourt in Lowry and DeRozan, and timely contributions from guys like Scola, Biyombo and Joseph, the team is in pretty good shape at the halfway point. With an easier schedule coming up and hopefully DeMarre back soon, I see a top 3 seed being achievable once again. And yes, another division title (whatever that means anymore) seems likely.
2. The primary offseason changes focused on the defensive side of the ball, and the Raptors have improved from 23rd to ninth in defensive efficiency. How would you evaluate the defense so far this season?
Blake Murphy: It’s been good, and I think it has the potential to be great. The switch to a more conservative pick-and-roll scheme with improved perimeter defenders has really helped keep the ball out of the restricted area, which is, you know, a really good place to keep teams away from. Jonas Valanciunas looks much more comfortable in the hew system and has improved on that end, Bismack Biyombo seals off the entire baseline with his help defense, and the Raptors haven’t had to over-help nearly as much as a result, tightening up the frequency with which they allow corner threes. They’ve also surprised by rebounding much better than anticipated. Considering DeMarre Carroll hasn’t been remotely himself yet, there might be even more upside on this end.
Michael Holian: While their efficiency might not represent a 9th-best rating on a nightly basis, faith has definitely been restored. So far, the offseason mission to change a damaged defensive culture can only be viewed as a success, despite the remaining cracks in the consistency and discipline departments. It will be difficult to remain in the top 10 with DeMarre Carroll on the shelf for so long, not to mention being below average in Opponent Turnovers Per Game (20th) and near the bottom in Opponent 3-Point Percentage (26th). Registering a 5th-place tie in lowest free-throw attempts allowed per game does help counter those faults, however.
Tamberlyn Richardson: Again the fact the team has been so consistent is fascinating to me especially given the main addition (DeMarre Carroll) has been virtually unavailable or less than 100% for the majority of the season. Getting him back for the final 4 to 6 weeks of the season feels like the Raptors will benefit just as if they had added a player at the trade deadline except he already knows all the schemes. The primary area that needs additional tweaking is perimeter defense, and I believe the key to that improvement is tied to Carroll’s return. I’m most impressed by how rapidly the Raptors improved on the boards ranking top 10 in both offense and defense rebound percentage. And, I’m also stoked at how improved the team has been at the intangibles (generating steals and blocking shots).
Shyam Baskaran: Still not as consistent as Casey would probably like, but effective overall. The Raps have won 17 straight games when holding opponents under 100 points (22-3 overall). While that stat is impressive in showing that good defense wins for the Raptors, it’s also impressive that the Raptors have held opponents to under 100 points 25 times, in their 39 games so far this year (64% of games). And that’s without DeMarre Carroll healthy for a large part of the year – with DeMarre back, and Bismack anchoring the defensive unit off of the bench, I think the Raptors have the capability to be a top 5 defensive team in the league. While defending at the point of attack and on pick-and-rolls continues to be a challenge, the numbers have improved from last season and team defense tends to keep the Raptors in games against tougher opponents.
Gavin MacPherson: The defense is still a bit inconsistent but on the whole I think it’s been really good. Their interior defense has been solid – they’re third in restricted area FGs allowed and even though they allow a fair amount of non-restricted area FGs in the paint they contest well and opponents are only making 40% of those shots. They’re slightly above average in FTA’s and eFG% allowed and are currently 5th in defensive rebound percentage. It’s a pretty big change from what we saw last year.
Kiyan Sobhani: The team gets an A defensively. Lots of people will say that the 4-0 humiliation against the Wizards last season was a blessing, and this year you can somewhat justify that statement, because Masai reacted by thoroughly reinforcing the defense. Again, Carroll and Joseph have been huge, and Biyombo thoroughly protects the rim. Now the concern is how much James Johnson can compensate for Carroll’s absence on D. His man-to-man defense has been solid, but he still gets lost in defensive sets.
Zarar Siddiqi: Very hard to pass judgement on a defense in the regular season because most teams aren’t locked in, but given what we’ve seen, it’s an improvement. The addition of Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll (when he plays) has overshadowed the defensive improvement DeMar DeRozan has made, which is key. I don’t have any meaningless advanced stats on me, but the guy plays a ton of minutes and is much more ball-aware than last year. He’s not drifting off his man, isn’t getting blown-by on every other possession, and when he funnels opponents, it’s been to Bismack Biyombo who can also have my babies. Most importantly, when the Raptors need a stop, they’ve shown they have the ability to dig down and get one. Hasn’t happened with the consistency you’d like, and that’s what the regular season is for: to develop that consistency by the time the games start meaning something.
Tim Chisholm: I’d say the turnaround is pretty impressive. Again, considering that they a) haven’t head Carroll for most of the season, b) that Biyombo, as good as he’s been, hasn’t juiced the DefEff numbers much himself and c) that the rest of the roster is largely unchanged from last year, the fact that they’ve improved so much is worth much attention and praise. It owes a lot to the work of the coaching staff and dedication of the players on hand to simply be better. They’ve gutted out many wins because their defence kept them in games, and that simply wasn’t happening a year ago.
Nick Reynoldson: The improved defence is great when we play it for a full game. Carroll missing so much time hurts us. If we keep fighting for consistency. We’ll be fine.
3. Conversely, the offense has slipped from third to seventh, with many of the same concerns, justified or otherwise, existing about the style of play. How would you evaluate the offense so far this season?
Blake Murphy: It’s been fine. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been excellent, which is kind of the start and end of the conversation – if they continue to be this good, there are few matchups I’d really fear the offense dying against, and concerns over the team’s late-game play or whistles being swallowed in the playoffs rank somewhere between overstated and demonstrably false. The ball is moving more, and while that hasn’t resulted in assists yet, some of that has to do with cold shooting stretches, a lack of confidence from the shooters, and the fact that a more dynamic offense was always going to take time to produce results. The Raptors have a two-headed attack with a great pick-and-roll center to help initiate simple sets, players who move well off the ball and pass well on the move, they get to the line a ton, and they produce a pretty efficient shot mix. Talk to me if Lowry and DeRozan hit a wall at all, though.
Tim Chisholm: The offensive drop off was to be expected given the roster changeover (losing Williams, Vasquez and Johnson), and I expected the team to fall out of the top-ten, so being top seven is a win in my book. The difficulty that the team has in scoring against pressure is nonetheless a concern, though, because it arrested them in the Playoffs last year, and I worry that, even when healthy, they may not have the firepower necessary to win a Playoff series. Lowry and DeRozan have been spectacular all season, but the fact that there hasn’t been a consistent third contributor night-to-night is worrisome. The Raptors desperately need Valanciunas to round into form on that end to give the offence some other dimension.
Kiyan Sobhani: B+. Keep in mind that a huge reason for the offensive slip – apart from parting with Lou and Greivis – was that both Patterson and Ross were contributing nothing for large chunks of the season. Once they start putting points on the board consistently – which they pretty well have been for the past month – the Raptors are an entirely different team. Another factor: Valanciunas brings 12+ points on a nightly basis and he’s missed quite a large chunk too. It’s true that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Raptors have dipped offensively given the changes to this season’s roster, but at the same time, the Raptors are better offensively than the numbers currently show if they are consistently healthy.
Tamberlyn Richardson: Remaining a top 10 ranked offense is humorous to me since the Raptors still haven’t found their groove there. The recent improved chemistry and flow of the bench is paying dividends with Ross and Patterson’s ability to hit from the perimeter adding versatility to the team. While the 4 free agent additions were selected due to their defensive prowess, it’s interesting they all come from pass oriented teams. This in itself should translate into growth over time. Ultimately, though I find multiple, sharp passes beautiful to watch I’m happy if the Raptors continue to place their priority on defense. With one caveat: the addition of a few tailor made non iso end of quarter plays.
Gavin MacPherson: The offense is very inconsistent and as long as it’s dependent on free throws and one on one play that won’t change. There is a significant downgrade in offensive talent from last year but they’re keeping pace with the rest of the league because they’ve improved a few key things, most notably getting DeRozan the ball in positions where it’s easier for him to catch and attack right away or where he gets to attack big men with straight line drives.
Nick Reynoldson: Considering injuries, I’ve liked the offence. Feels much more fluid than last year. With a full lineup it should also improve.
Shyam Baskaran: While showing occasional glimpses of brilliance at times, the offense is still too reliant on DeMar and Kyle. They together account for about 44 points of the Raptors scoring average of 100 points per game, which ranks 19th in the league. From an efficiency standpoint, at 7th in the league, the Raptors average just about 104 points per 100 possessions. While that number is somewhat impressive in itself, the over-reliance on DeMar and Kyle sometimes means the team reverts to iso-mode (shades of last year), and reduces confidence for bench players, namely Ross and Patterson whose individual and collective performances decide the bench scoring output on most nights. A good example would be against the Bulls in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, when the bench scoring stank it up and got owned by Tony Snell and company. While the ranking is still decent, the imbalance in scoring (especially in fourth quarter situations), still seems concerning.
Michael Holian: Coming into the season, the idea of the offense taking a dip was a welcome one if it meant the defense had a chance to get its act together. But I don’t think ranking one spot above dead last in Assists Per Game (18.2) was part of the plan. Every player has had to battle through inconsistencies, though fortunately, they haven’t occurred at the same time. Picking up the slack has become a bit of a theme as the year has progressed. Still, it has led to questioning the team’s Isolation Frequency once again. And when not built to reap its benefits, remains a concern when it sits in the league’s top five at 9.1 percent. Yet it is encouraging when 17 percent of those situations result in going to the line; a 2nd overall clip. Which coincides with their 4th overall mark in trips to the stripe (25.8).
Zarar Siddiqi: Doesn’t matter. Last year’s offense was 4th in the regular season and didn’t mean a thing. These rankings are pretty shady overall and probably need to be deleted off the internet so they’re never referenced ever again. We’re not ball-sharing the way you’d like to see (as the simple assists numbers tell us), and in the clutch we tend to freeze up when chasing a game. On the other hand, we’ve gotten very inconsistent production from Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson, which has driven the assist numbers down and put more pressure on DeRozan and Lowry. If Ross and Patterson just hit the shots they’re “supposed to make,” you’ll see the offense maintain enough equilibrium to be a threat beyond the regular season.
I reached out to a couple people outside of Toronto to get a more high-level feel for where the Raptors stack up.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 7, 2016
Jared Dubin: I think on balance I’m slightly higher on them for the regular season but I’m still concerned about the frontcourt D. I know they’re hovering around the top 10 in defensive efficiency, but I want to see that hold when Jonas is back for more than just 5-6 games. But the way Lowry and DeRozan and even guys like Joseph, Scola, and Bismack are playing has me a bit higher on them than I was before the year.
Nate Duncan: (Asked what’s keeping the Raptors from being No. 2 in the East)I guess they could be the #2 seed in the East, although the Carroll injury hurts. Limitations: Carroll’s health situation would be one. Lowry wearing down. JVal not being good enough defensively, or Biyombo offensively. Defense at the 3 if Carroll can’t give them enough. I think they were my pick to be #2 in the East (though I didn’t feel great about any of them at the time) about a month ago. Now I think I’d say the Bulls. The Raptors have the feel of basically what they were the last couple years to me. High 40s in wins, maybe 2nd round depending on matchup.
Blake Murphy: I’ve been a bit of a devil’s advocate when it comes to potential Raptors trades, not because I don’t think they could use one, but because they’re very oddly structured for the purposes of making smaller deals. Still, I’m not against using one of the excess picks to secure an upgrade (there’s no chance the Raptors are adding four more rookies over the next two years), but I’d be shocked if Masai Ujiri does so for a rental. That would rule out a Ryan Anderson type, and I don’t think an organization that values personality so highly would roll the dice on a Markieff Morris. If they make a move, a small forward with the ability to play some four in smaller lineups would be my preferred player type (a James Johnson with a better jumper that will actually get used, if you will).
Tim Chisholm: I definitely think this team needs one more trade. The power forward spot is an obvious place to look since Patterson is having so many issues with consistency this year, but more generally they either need someone who can jolt the starters at the top of the game or someone that can provide a consistent spark off of the bench. I think that the problem this team has had in its last four playoff outings was a problem dealing with opponents cutting off their first options and I worry that the team is set up for the same failure this spring.
Shyam Baskaran: The team as it’s currently constructed can be a first-round winner, and nothing is clear past that. What is clear though, is that the Raps still lack at least 2 things to advance any further than the second round – a starting 4-man and a reliable bench scorer. With all due respect to Luis Scola (who’s been fantastic for many stretches of the season), he’s not the long-term and playoff solution at the 4-spot. While Patrick Patterson seemed like a logical choice to assume the role at the beginning of the season, his quick regression and Scola’s consistent performances have left Casey opting for Scola, but still needing more on a nightly basis. As for the bench, it’s been the recurring story of the season, as the lack of output from the bench on many nights has done the Raptors in. A strong bench, in turn, provides rest for the starters (Kyle and DeMar namely). Thaddeus Young, Zach Randolph, Isaiah Thomas and Jamal Crawford are some targets I’d at least try to pursue – but they’d all cost Masai.
Michael Holian: If their ultimate goal is to advance into the second round, then I would say the needed pieces are already in place. If it’s to achieve an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, a move to bolster the frontcourt is highly recommended. To zero in on a trade target, Ryan Anderson already is what we’re all waiting on Patterson to become (at least on offense). I’d be hesitant to deal any of the club’s coveted draft picks unless a marquee name is involved, but seeing that any trade the Raps make would most likely include Patman, they may not have to.
Zarar Siddiqi: Depends on where DeMarre Carroll is after he comes back. As insurance, I’d say we need some three-point shooting, and rebounding. Ryan Anderson as a rent-a-player obviously pops into mind, and his acquisition depends on if Masai Ujiri feels that this team is “one piece away” from making a deep playoff run. If he does think so, try to ship the pick and Patterson to get something now. If he’s of the mind that that would just lose us an asset without advancing our playoff chances, then stay put and hope Patterson figures out how to walk without tripping. I say make a trade, then again, I love trades.
Nick Reynoldson: Love the man but Luis Scola can’t be our starting 4. I’m not sure there is a quick fix for this via trade. But I’m also pretty sure we aren’t winning a championship this year. However, this team as constructed gets out of the first round.
Tamberlyn Richardson: I’m going to take a broad approach and assume the ‘ultimate’ goal is three-fold: A) Win the first round, B) Develop talent, draft well and position the Raptors for long term success, C) win a championship. My thoughts are we can continue to achieve goals the first 2 goals this season, but barring LeBron James suffering a season ending injury prior to the trade deadline the Raptors shouldn’t attempt to accomplish their final goal unless it happens organically. In other words, don’t blow up the team by giving away draft picks/talent for a short term rental. Adding a 3-point specialist who can defend would be awesome, but every team wants that type of player. Arguably the greatest hole is at power forward, but again the only options available will be a short term rental
Kiyan Sobhani: I’m not sure there’s any reason to mess with the team now unless its to upgrade the power forward position or to bring in another scorer off the second unit. Someone like Kevin Martin is a good option, but realistically, I doubt Masai (rightfully) gives away assets for a 33 year old player. I have an unpopular opinion, but I would like to make a play for Markieff Morris. He’s the type of player you could take a gamble on and potentially reap the benefits. Oddly enough, to counter this idea, I’m not bothered if the Raptors don’t do this, given that Scola has surprised me this season and that Patterson is starting to heat up. Also, it goes without saying, but Morris comes with baggage. Still, it’s an interesting gamble, but maybe you wait until next season to pull the trigger on something like that.
Gavin MacPherson: I think they have moves to make but I don’t think they matter as long as the team is set on playing this current style – bringing in more talent to stand on the perimeter and wait for a kick out seems like a waste of resources. The obvious areas of opportunity seem to be depth at shooting guard and a starting power forward: the Raptors could really use a wing who can both shoot and defend and while I like what Scola and Patterson bring to the table neither one should be an NBA starter at this point. My short wishlist is Nic Batum, Taj Gibson, Ryan Anderson and Terrence Jones, in no particular order.
Blake Murphy: My confidence is probably slightly higher. The defense came together more quickly than I expected, even with Carroll struggling and missing time, and the fact that they’ve won a few tough games solely on their defense is encouraging. Being able to play both ends makes them a little bit more matchup-proof (though the East is probably still going to come down to matchups). I probably would have put their odds of making the second round a shade below 50 percent before the season, and now I’d probably go a shade above. That might seem too negative still, but there’s still a lot to prove in a jumbled conference.
Zarar Siddiqi: No. That needle hasn’t shifted. I can’t pick a single playoff team in the conference right now where you’d, without hesitation, say the Raptors would win that series.
Gavin MacPherson: My confidence in them may have shifted a little bit but I’m still not convinced they can get it done. Casey seems improved this year but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the was badly outcoached in consecutive first round upsets. The offensive strategy is still exactly what a quality defense wants to go up against and the mental toughness of players like Ross and Patterson is still very much in question. Right now I don’t think anyone will sweep them but I don’t think they stand a chance against the Cavs, Bulls, Heat or Hawks in a 7 game series and would struggle with the Pacers or Pistons.
Kiyan Sobhani: The Raptors are more equipped as a team to get to the second round this season, but so is the rest of the East, which somewhat counteracts that. If the Raptors face someone like Miami, I have huge doubts if they can overcome a 7-game series with an experienced and rejuvenated Heat team. Will Carroll be not only back, but back to his best? That’s a huge factor.
Tamberlyn Richardson: Honestly one recent response increased my belief exponentially. The sarcasm and commitment to why he performed the way he did spoke volumes for me. The other night during the broadcast I found a fact they dropped very telling: Only 3 teams have remained above .500 every day for the past 2 seasons (Golden State, Chicago, and Toronto). I would have bet money the Spurs were one of the 3, but that speaks to the franchises commitment to improve. The fact the past two post seasons get lumped together annoys me because we were ONE PLAY from making the second round in 2014 which is a far cry from being swept. I’d rather the years were reversed, but I do feel more confident this team is headed in the right direction than I did last season.
Michael Holian: I predicted a playoff series win in the Roundtable before the season started and my confidence has not wavered. We’ve yet to see this squad operate with their optimal lineup in place for a prolonged period of time. Only time will tell whether that ultimately proves worthy of advancing into Round 2 but now is not the time to change my beliefs. Even if a move is not made to improve the roster, the eventual return of DeMarre Carroll can essentially be viewed as a trade acquisition. Their track record makes it easy to have doubts, but the first half of the year has provided a sufficient amount of reasons to think they’ll get over the hump.
Shyam Baskaran: Hasn’t changed much. The Raptors lost in 2014 because it was their first experience in a long time, and they just fell short to a Nets squad with a wealth of playoff experience. And last year, the sheer exhaustion of Lowry late in the season and lack of offensive ball movement killed the Raptors, against a Wizards team that peaked at the right moment with John Wall playing some of the best ball of his career. This year, the east is much improved and while the Raptors seem better on paper, only time will tell if a) the Raptors can improve their standing in the conference for better seeding and home court advantage, and b) if they match up well against the opponent they end up paired with. At the beginning of the season and now, I still feel that we’ve got a slightly better chance this year at a first-round win than the in past 2 years. But that can change quickly.
Nick Reynoldson: If we have a fully healthy squad. We got this. If not, depending on the injured party…The brooms could come out again.
Tim Chisholm: No. I expected them to have a shot to win a series at the start of the season and I think that they have a shot now, but the team’s toughness comes and goes, and that is a big concern and a reason why it’s hard to peg them as a shoo-in for the second round. They may well win a series as constructed if they get the right matchup, but at this point you’d like to feel more certain considering where they are meant to be on their growth curve. You don’t mortgage the farm to get a slight bump this year, but you can’t let the inaction of a season ago repeat itself, either, with the east looking improved and the stakes involved for many being so high in this upcoming postseason.