Raptors: Can Toronto compete for a division title this season?

Toronto Raptors - Kyle Lowry (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Kyle Lowry (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors have won the last three Atlantic Division championships, and have dominated the division since the 2013-14 season, winning all but one title. But now, much like in the world, times in the NBA are changing with the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference being the most competitive it has been in several years.

In recent years some teams, mainly the Nets and the Knicks, have struggled to be competitive in the Atlantic. However, this season all five teams are in the running for the Atlantic Division crown, with the Raptors currently at the bottom, but only five games back of the division-leading 76ers.

Such parity has not been seen in a long time in the Atlantic and now with the higher level of competition

Can the Raptors bounce back from an inconsistent start to the season and keep their division title? Or is this the beginning of the end for Toronto’s Atlantic Division dominance?

Why the Raptors won’t keep their division championship

There are new beasts in the East teams that pose a real threat to the Raptors’ decade of division dominance. The 76ers finally look like the team they have been expected to be since drafting Joel Embiid in 2014 third overall and Ben Simmons in 2016 first overall.

The franchise saviors are finally coming good, with Embiid in the running for league MVP honors, as he averages a career-high 29.6 points per game. Simmons is rated as one of the best defenders in the league, and he just scored a career-high 42 points on Monday night against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz.

Even though the 76ers lost that game on Monday night, they remain top of the Atlantic and top of the Eastern Conference. The 76ers look deep and balanced unlike ever before on both ends of the floor, having acquired the clinical shooting of Seth Curry in the shortened offseason along with the defensive and veteran presences of Dwight Howard and ex-Raptor Danny Green.

Right behind the 76ers, sitting just one game back are the Nets. Brooklyn, not satisfied with their previous superstar core of Kyrie Irving and a rejuvenated Kevin Durant, went out and acquired Harden last month in a multiple-team deal.

The Nets are an offensive dream, or a nightmare depending on whose side you’re on. While they do suffer from defensive fragility after trading away Jarrett Allen to the Cavs in the Harden deal, they can add players to help on defense. They are already doing so, adding 2017 all-defensive second team selection Andre Roberson on Tuesday as a free agent signing.

The bottom line however is that this Nets team looks scary if you are an opponent. If KD, Kyrie and Harden are all on the floor and having productive nights they can easily blow out opposing teams. Not only could this Nets team take the division crown, but they are also already one of the favorites to win the NBA title this spring.

A Celtics team led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who on some nights can inspire their fans and completely demolish teams while losing games that they could have won on other nights, currently sits just at .500 with a record of 14-14.

Mind you, Tatum missed the majority of January after contracting COVID-19, only returning to the team on January 25th. If Tatum, Brown, and starting point guard Kemba Walker, who has also struggled with injuries this season, can stay healthy, the Celtics can definitely compete for a division title.

Let’s not forget they have become something of an annoying nemesis for the Raptors beating them in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals and they are currently 2-0 against them this season. If anyone should take the Raptors’ division championship, it could fittingly be the Celtics.

Lastly, the Knicks (that’s right you didn’t misread that) have a shot. They currently sit a half-game above the Raptors with a record of 14-15 and finally seem to have some good players and stability after years of mediocrity.

Julius Randle, a seemingly underwhelming pick-up in the 2019 offseason, is averaging 23.1 points per game this season and adds a decisive veteran presence for a budding superstar in Toronto’s own RJ Barrett.

Barrett is quickly making a case to be the best Canadian player in the league and in only his sophomore season he is averaging 16.5 points per game. Stranger things have happened and with continued growth and offense from Randle and Barrett, the Knicks could, but probably won’t win the Atlantic Division.

Why the Raptors will win and keep their Atlantic Division title

If the Raptors, who currently sit last in the division with a record of 13-15 continue to improve as they have in the last month, winning six of their last ten games, they could win and retain their division title this season.

They have the experience and leadership to do so, with championship holdovers Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and others still on the current roster.

They have done this before, and they can do it again, especially as their offense continues to thrive led by Siakam, VanVleet and Lowry. The Raptors’ offense has started to kick it into high gear after moving towards a smaller lineup, a welcome change for a team who started the season with too many nights with offensive droughts that cost them victories.

While their defense, something the Raptors have prided themselves on in the past few seasons is struggling at around 18th overall in the league, Nick Nurse and his team should steady that aspect of their game as their season progresses, no matter how many box-and-ones it takes.

It will all come down to close games

If the Raptors are to retain their division title, it will be a tighter race than ever before. Ultimately, the Raptors’ performances in tight games will be extra important with the logjam in the Atlantic. After some frustrating losses, most recently to the Timberwolves, the Raptors’ ability to close out tight games will define their ability to potentially repeat as division champs.

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