The story line in the Eastern Conference this season is going to be the possibility of having three 60-win heavyweights duke it out for the conference title—basically the same story line as the one that emerged last season. There will be much hand-wringing over the importance of getting the top seed, so as to avoid the other top two teams until the Eastern Conference Finals. All of that hand-wringing seemed justified last season, until Orlando (the 3rd seed) toppled Cleveland in a Conference Finals that seemed simultaneously close and lop-sided.
Of course, the top seed is also good because (in theory) you face the weakest possible opponent in the first round. What’s that? Elite teams don’t worry about the first round? Or even the second round, if they’re the top seed? In theory, I agree.
But the East has the potential to be stronger this season than it has been in a long time. I’m willing to bet right now that this will be the first season since 2005 in which all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams finish at 42-40 or better. And that raises another question: Do any of the second-tier Eastern teams have the potential to topple one of those three elites in a playoff series?
Don’t laugh. Atlanta and Chicago almost did it to the C’s in the last two seasons. Philly-Orlando was competitive last season. We all remember Golden State-Dallas in 2007.
Just as Kevin Arnovitz took a look at the second-tier sleepers on TrueHoop last week, we’ll spend the next week or two examining some of the teams outside the Boston-Cleveland-Orlando triumvirate to see if there’s any potential for sneaky goodness there. These are not meant to be ultra-exhaustive looks; your thoughts are requested in the comments.
Starting with…The Raptors.
In: Reggie Evans, Amir Johnson, Hedo Turkoglu, Sonny Weems, Rasho Nesterovic, Demar DeRozan, Quincy Douby, Antoine Wright, Marco Belinelli, Jarrett Jack
Out: Shawn Marion, Jason Kapono, Roko Ukic, Carlos Delfino (not really), Anthony Parker, Joey Graham, Kris Humphries, other minor players
(Ed. note: Holy crap is that a lot of turnover).
Admit it: You’re laughing at the very thought of this Raptor team winning, say, 50 games and pushing one of the top three teams to the brink in the playoffs. But then you think of the diverse skill set that a four-man core of Jose Calderon-Turkoglu-Chris Bosh-Andrea Bargnani brings to the table, and you can see the Raps at least making life uncomfortable for their opponents. Lots of screen-rolls, lots of shooting.
In order to scare the C’s, though, the Raps will have to answer at least a few of the following four questions affirmatively.
1) Can the team move away from mid-range two-point jump shots?
Only two teams took a lower percentage of their field goal attempts from near the rim than the Raptors, and only seven took a lower percentage of their FGAs from three-point range, according to 82games. A bunch of teams (including last season’s Spurs) have shown you can win while lacking in one of those two efficient types of field-goal attempts, but it’s very difficult to win when you’re deficient at both. (Instead, you tend to finish in the bottom third of the league in offensive efficiency; Toronto was 22nd).
Exactly 470 three-point attempts left with Kapono and Parker, but about 770 are coming in with Jack, Hedo and Wright–though none of those players shot the three as accurately as Parker or Kapono last season, and none will be allowed to shoot it with the same per game frequency as they did last season. (And if Wright does take 149 threes again next year, the Raptors officially have a coaching problem, even if Jay Triano is a cool guy you might see on Yonge Street sometime).
On the interior, they’ve undoubtedly added toughness and rebounding in Evans (and both are huge necessities—the Raps were an average defensive rebounding team last season and a terrible offensive rebounding team), but Evans isn’t exactly the low post scorer Raps fans are begging for. Nesterovic has a nice little hook shot, but he’s not a game-changer.
But if Turkoglu gives the team a better screen-roll game, it could result in better looks both inside and out—and we know how well Turk ran the screen-roll with Dwight Howard.
2) Have we seen the best of Jose Calderon?
Did you know Calderon is about to turn 28? And struggling to hide the fact that he’s going bald, something we can all relate to? In other words, he’s no longer the up-and-coming point guard so good the Raps had to move T.J. Ford for Jermaine O’Neal’s corpse. (Calderon is actually older than Ford).
And Jose’s game took a step back last year. He was still productive, with a PER near 19 and a solid effective field-goal percentage, but his numbers dropped across the board. You can attribute some of that to a few nagging injuries, including a hamstring problem, but it’s fair to ask whether Calderon can be a top-10 point guard in the NBA. (Of course, with Hedo around to share ball-handling duties, the team may not need Calderon’s offense as much).
They will need him to at least survive on defense, and the boys at Raptors Republic can tell you Calderon really, really struggled on that end last season. Quickness kills, and it killed Calderon all year.
3) Can the defense improve? (Awesome question, I know. Thanks).
This team was bad defensively—23rd in efficiency—and the numbers suggest the team’s famously mediocre rebounding wasn’t the main culprit. (They were actually 14th in defensive rebounding rate, which measures the percentage of available DRBs a team grabs).
The 82games number show something of a mirror image on defense of the team’s offensive shortcomings. Teams shot about 60 percent from the floor on inside shots against Toronto (one of the bottom 10 marks in the league), and the Raps allowed their opponents to take a ton of threes and make them at a decent rate (about 37 percent); only the Hornets and Wizards allowed more three-point attempts as a percentage of all opponent attempts.
The guys at Raptors Republic will tell you: The Raps got smoked on screen-and-roll all season last season, in part because of Calderon’s problems.
The new guys might actually help here more than anywhere else. Jack is capable on D, Wright is in the NBA only because of his D, and DeRozan has all sorts of potential as a long-armed irritant. Experts tend to be pretty polarized on the defensive skills of Evans and Turkoglu, but I think Turk is a tough match-up for most small forwards, and at least some of the numbers (see here and here for instance) bear that out.
Amir Johnson is a foul machine, but he can’t make the team’s interior defense any worse. (Or can he?)
4) Can someone outside the Big Four provide consistent offense?
The best teams in the East have the interior bodies to frustrate Bosh or limit his impact on Turk-Bosh screen-rolls. Bargs and Calderon get a lot of their offense on open threes–events that happen less often against the best defensive teams.
Will the wing-types provide enough offense for the Raptors to win on nights when the big four are quieter than usual?
This is where the team falls short to me. Jack is more a jump-shooter than slasher; about 75 percent of his shot attempts the last two seasons were jumpers, and he his effective field goal percentage on jumpers is mediocre. DeRozan is unproven. Wright is not an offensive player. Belinelli showed flashes, but he may not be ready.
Verdict: The Raps are good, but nothing to be feared.