May 4, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors players huddle before the start of their game against the Brooklyn Nets in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. The Nets beat the Raptors 104-103. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Raptors: A Lock To Repeat As Division Champs?

While the general perception exists that Toronto is predominantly a hockey market because of the beloved Maple Leafs, it is not far-fetched to say that the Toronto Raptors have a real shot at being the hottest ticket in town next season.

Signs were already pointing in this direction during the NBA playoffs, when thousands of fans could be found, rain or shine, watching both home and away games on a big screen outside of the Air Canada Centre.

This will be a landmark season for the Raptors — their 20th year in the league — and they appear to really be finding their stride for the first time since the Vince Carter era.

This time last year, the discussion surrounding the Raptors was very different. There were positive things happening in that the organization ushered in new general manager Masai Ujiri to right the ship, but few, if any, predicted that he would be able to do that overnight.

Change of plans

Heading into 2013-14, there were varying opinions about the Raptors, ranging from calls to purposely fall to the bottom of the standings to the notion that they could end a five-year drought by being a fringe playoff team led by veterans DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Kyle Lowry. In the short term, neither option seemed overly appealing.

After a 6-12 start that gave hope to those in favor of tanking, a blockbuster trade turned the season around. Gay was dealt to the Sacramento Kings for a package that included Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez, who both went on to play key roles in the rise to the top.

Perhaps a year or two earlier than expected, the Raptors suddenly looked like a team that was serious about winning. Forget a high lottery pick or an eighth seed, the Raptors won a franchise-best 48 games and clinched the Atlantic Division.

This group of players endeared themselves to the fans and also to management.

Following a thrilling best-of-7 series with the Brooklyn Nets, Ujiri made it known that keeping his team together was a top priority. He stuck to his word and re-signed Lowry, Patterson, and Vazquez, who along with DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, and new acquisitions Lou Williams and James Johnson, make for a rotation with loads of talent and depth.

Growing up fast

Now, just one year into Ujiri’s tenure, the Raptors are a team with heightened expectations, both internally and externally. The opportunity to tank is long gone. Just squeaking into the playoffs is no longer seen as a lofty goal.

These days, the questions have shifted to the possibility of winning 50 games, to the likelihood of repeating as Atlantic Division champions, and, most importantly, to the chances of winning a playoff series.

As far as winning the division, the Raptors are my odds-on favorite, although it won’t be an easy task.

Even with Carmelo Anthony, it’s tough to see the Knicks as being much of a threat. The Celtics and Sixers are going to be better, but not likely to the level of playoff contention. The Raptors will probably have the Nets looking over their shoulders like they did for much of last season, but I think they’ll be able to hold them off.

Rising to the occasion

The biggest factor will be how the Raptors fare outside of their division, especially in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland, Charlotte, Washington, Chicago, Indiana, Atlanta and Miami will all be very tough opponents. Even Milwaukee and Orlando are bound to be a little better.

Last season the Raptors were 1-6 in overtime, 3-8 in games decided by three points or less, and were 14-23 against teams better than .500. These are all areas were they will have to improve. Having said that, their margin for error could be a little wider if they have a better start to the season.

According to reports, the start time for home games will be moved from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in 2014-15. On the surface, this is something that simply gives fans more time to get to the arena or to settle down in front of the television.

However, in another sense, it seems like this would bump the Raptors up to a bigger stage – the main act of the performance so to speak.

Either way, it is going to be very entertaining to watch as the Raptors set out to maintain their place, and to prove that they belong, at the top of the Atlantic Division standings.

Tags: Atlantic Division Toronto Raptors

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