Toronto Raptors: Can They Sneak Into The Playoffs?

After a very rough start, during which they looked like one of the worst teams in the league, the Toronto Raptors have quietly righted the ship and look like a much tougher team than they did in early November.

Their record currently stands at 12-22, but many of their losses came in the first month of the season. In a relatively weak Eastern Conference, where the final playoff spot will likely be up for the grabs, the Raptors might just have the necessary talent to make a legitimate playoff run.

One of their biggest strengths in recent months has been their excellent point-guard play. The Raptors are truly stacked in this position, with both Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry receiving major minutes this season.

Many teams are desperate for one point guard with the talent of Calderon or Lowry, so keeping them both on the roster is a luxury for Toronto. There has been considerable speculation that one of them (likely Calderon) will be traded soon. While I could understand the perspective of wanting to upgrade at another position (maybe some frontcourt help), I’m not sure the Raptors should rush into that decision.

Calderon has played excellent ball since returning to the starting lineup, while Lowry has done a better job of accepting a bench role than most would’ve expected. If the team struggles in the standings, I could see them pulling the trigger on a trade. For the time being, however, their excellent point pairing is the Raptors’ best feature and it would be foolish to dismantle it so quickly.

The top-notch play of Lowry and Calderon has not been the only bright spot in the Raptors’ backcourt. They’ve also gotten inspired play at the shooting guard spot from rookie Terrence Ross.

The expectations for Ross were low going into the season, as many thought he was taken too high and would be one of the least productive lottery picks of the 2012 draft. Initially, that appeared to be an accurate assessment, as Ross struggled mightily out of the gate. In past weeks however, he’s managed to crack the rotation, and has become deadly off the bench.

This was most evident in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers last week, when he put in 26 points  en route to a decisive Raptors victory. After a rough start, Ross has demonstrated that he has the talent to succeed in the NBA and I would look for him to continue improving as he accumulates more experience. If Raptors coach Dwane Casey wants to develop Ross, the smartest thing he could do is keep giving him minutes.

The biggest problem for the Raptors at the beginning of the season was the dreadful play of center Andrea Bargnani. In the past, Bargnani was one of the best scoring centers in the game, with his great ability to put points on the board being enough to compensate for his weak rebounding and defense. This year, however, Bargnani’s shooting went way down, and he quickly became one of the biggest liabilities on the team.

When Bargnani went down with an elbow injury in early December, the team’s play immediately improved without him, as other big men like Ed Davis and Amir Johnson thrived in his absence.

This occurrence leaves the Raptors with the question of what to do with Bargnani when he returns to lineup. Would  the Raptors consider trading the former N0. 1 overall pick? This might appear to be a reasonable strategy, but there’s just one problem: his trade value is at an all-time low.

Last year, when Bargnani was playing the best basketball of his career, he might have brought in an excellent haul. This year, with Bargnani playing such uninspired ball, he’d probably just command a mixture of spare parts and D-League players.

So, what do the Raptors do once Bargnani is healthy again? The smartest approach is to simply take it as it comes. When he is healthy, gradually re-integrate him into the lineup by having him play off the bench. If he looks like his old self, and leads to the team to victories, push him back into the starting lineup.

If his poor play continues to bring the team down, Casey should remove him from the lineup, and hope for the best in a potential trade. Bargnani is a talented player, but the Raptors have enough talent that they can play competitive basketball without him. If he can’t play at a productive level, they shouldn’t hesitate in moving forward.

The Raptors are strong in some areas and weaker in others, but the last month or so has shown that they are capable of being a competitive team the in Eastern Conference. They aren’t an easy out for anyone, and they may continue to improve as their young lineup gains more and more experience. It will not be easy for them to break into the playoffs, but when you consider the impressive backcourt, the promising young guys up front, and the general weakness of the Eastern Conference, they can hardly be counted out of the race.

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Tags: Jose Calderon Kyle Lowry NBA Terrence Ross Toronto Raptors

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