As the old saying goes, ‘the ceiling is the roof’ for the Toronto Raptors. This may seem like a statement that means nothing, and you’d be right to think that. But either way, it gives us a place to start when discussing where the Raptors can reasonably hope to finish the season.
Having already staked their claim to a playoff spot, the Raptors currently find themselves clearly in the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, with it being easy to assume a home court advantage is soon to follow.
What seed the finish with exactly is the big mystery at this point. Cleveland, Boston, Washington, and Toronto are currently separated by just 3 games as the season winds to a close. While the Raptors are theoretically still in striking distance of finishing first in the East for the first time ever, it’s reasonable to assume this might be too lofty a goal with only 7 games remaining.
But with only one game separating Toronto and Washington for the third seed, there is still plenty of opportunity to move up.
This time of year it’s common to scoreboard watch in an attempt to discern possible playoff match-ups, and even for teams to try and create their ideal match-ups by strategically winning/losing games. We as fans do it ourselves. For example, I’m openly routing for the Raptors to end up in a 3-6 series with Atlanta.
The bigger goal is then naturally to try and avoid the worst possible match-ups for as long as possible. For Toronto this means staying in the opposite bracket to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The chaos of the current playoff picture makes it impossible to predict anything though, as Cleveland, Washington, Boston, and Toronto could finish in almost any order for the top four seeds.
The bottom of the East playoff picture is even messier, as five teams (Atlanta, Milwaukee, Miami, Indiana, and Chicago) are separated by a mere 3 games. Every Eastern playoff seed could realistically be decided on the very last day of the season.
It’s a complete crapshoot.
This brings us back to the Raptors ceiling. Seeding in effect doesn’t matter. Toronto has entered the playoffs the last three years as a top seed and as a favourite over their opponent. Instead, the Raptors first got bounced by Brooklyn in seven games, got embarrassed by Washington in a sweep, and barely escaped the first round last year when faced with Indiana.
Seeding can only get you so far. The team’s ultimate ceiling will only be determined in the playoffs. That’s just how professional sports go.
So what is a reasonable hope/ceiling/roof for the Raptors this season? The answer likely comes down to something as small as a wrist.
We all know it already, but the Raptors were expected to struggle mightily once news came out of Kyle Lowry’s wrist surgery upon returning from the All Star Game. While debates can be made about who the Raptors’ best player is, no debate can be made that Lowry isn’t at least top two on the team.
Instead of struggling, the Raptors have a record of 12-6 since losing Lowry, giving them a slightly higher winning percentage after All Star (.667) then they did before (.579).
With All Star weekend immediately preceding the trade deadline, the Raptors season has basically been split into two groups. The first team heavily featured Kyle Lowry with a makeshift starting power forward, while the second has Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker providing the Raptors with a stable big-man rotation.
The two teams could hardly be winning more differently considering almost the entire team remains the same. One was an offensive juggernaut who was among the league’s top scoring groups, while the other struggles to score at times but wins games with one of the league’s best offenses.
With Lowry, the Raptors were able to build one of the league’s best offenses despite having a well below average (to put it kindly for the still developing Pascal Siakam, and the broken Jared Sullinger) starting power forwards. With Ibaka and Tucker the Raptors have brought a strong defensive mentality to each game.
It’s easy to start dreaming big for what the Raptors could become.
Lowry has started to shoot again, and as it was a wrist injury has likely been able to maintain most of his cardio work during his recovery process. He will of course need time to return to form, but the closer he gets the higher the Raptors ceiling becomes.
The dream scenario is that the Raptors can combine their Pre-All Star offense with their Post-All Star defense. Had the Raptors maintained these levels over an entire season (110.9 offensive rating, 102.2 defensive rating), they would currently have a net rating of +8.7.
Here’s where that would put them this season:
- Golden State: +12.0 net rating
- Toronto: +8.7 net rating
- San Antonio: +8.6 net rating
- Houston: +6.4 net rating
Questions still abound though. Will Lowry be healthy? Will he be able to return to his elite shooting numbers from before his injury? How do shots gets distributed once Lowry returns? Will there be other health issues that pop up? How long will it take for Tucker and Ibaka to get used to Lowry’s style of play and court positioning (and vice versa)?
We won’t have any answer to these questions until we see it. At their best though, where the ceiling/roof is found, the Raptors have shown themselves capable of having both a top offense and a top defense.
Which leads to the question that will define their season: can the Raptors combine their two best selves at the same time?
*stats are prior to Thursday’s games.