Toronto Raptors need to worry about the “sleeper” Washington Wizards

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 17: Serge Ibaka
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 17: Serge Ibaka /

The Toronto Raptors sit comfortably in the top Eastern Conference tier. If any team outside the “Big Three” is going to unseat them, it may the Washington Wizards.

The top-three teams in the Eastern Conference are the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, although the order is certainly widely debated. The trio is constructed the top of last year’s conference standings, but a new squad is knocking down the door: the Washington Wizards.

Though not a team at the top of the conference last season, the Wizards improved on a roster that was already a contender in the East and is staged to take a step forward.

The trio at the top of the conference widely stayed the same in the transaction market. The Celtics were nearly in The Finals despite the loss of their two stars. The return of both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward puts them at the forefront of contention. Yearly growth from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will only aid their efforts further.

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The 76ers, outside of re-signing J.J. Redick and trading for Wilson Chandler, stayed quiet in the offseason. Once a contender in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, the front office chose to avoid the hazards present in trading for a rental. Instead opting to build around their stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The final piece of the puzzle, the Raptors, remained quiet for much of the free agency period before making a splash with the acquisition of Leonard. The acquisition poses as relatively even in terms of production between Leonard and the departed DeMar DeRozan, but the team should see a marginal improvement.

The three went into the offseason looking to make a splash, if it was available, but widely missed the boat on several key players.

The Wizards, after finishing 43-39 last season, went into the offseason in search of reconstruction themselves. The backcourt stayed the same in perennial All-Star John Wall and first-time All-Star last season, Bradley Beal. The pair combined to score over 40 points a game and dished out nearly 15 assists.

The ceiling for the two was never reached due to the issues in the left knee of Wall, a constant issue in the point guard’s career with the Wizards. Due to injections and a cleanup of the knee that caused in a multiple-month absence, Wall only accrued 41 games played.

The additions for the Wizards are twofold. Constant upheaval between their star in Wall and their big man Marcin Gortat threw a wrench in the team’s success. Gortat’s already limited arsenal seemed be compounded with general unhappiness. Though he played a full slate of games on the year, Gortat was unable to eclipse double-digits in points or rebounds.

The Wizards responded by dealing Gortat to the Clippers this offseason in a deal for much-maligned point guard Austin Rivers. The departure from his father’s watch should go a long way for Rivers in a new locker room.

The team also added former Cavalier, Jeff Green, along with eight-time All-Star, Dwight Howard. Though often an afterthought at this point in his career, Howard quietly averaged 16.6 points a game while cleaning the glass with 12.5 boards per contest. His numbers stand to dwarf the production the team received from Gortat.

The combination of offseason moves, LeBron’s departure, and (hopefully) improved health from John Wall, should help the Wizards catapult into real Eastern Conference contention.

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The battle between the aforementioned trio of proven contenders, along with the Wizards, stand to create a constant tug-of-war at the top of the Eastern Conference, a conference in search of a team to unseat the Golden State Warriors.