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We might just have another contender in the East

Published by Axel on 14th December - 21:52 (CET)
When the Toronto Raptors joined the NBA along with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995, they became the first Canadian teams to play in the league since the Toronto Huskies dissolved in 1947. On May 24, 1994 The Raptors held a press conference and revealed their new logo and former NBA champion Isiah Thomas as their General Manager.

They were welcomed to the NBA by being prohibited from receiving a top five picks in their first draft, and the number one pick in the following three seasons. The majority of their roster had to be filled by players from the 1995 NBA Expansion Draft. As every team in the league were able to protect eight players on their rosters, there weren't that many good players to draft. With the first pick Toronto selected B. J. Armstrong, the only player in the expansion draft who ever gained an All-Star nod. As Armstrong refused to report for training he was traded to the Warriors for power forwards Carlos Rogers and Victor Alexander. Their first ever pick in the regular draft - number 7 - was instead used on point guard Damon Stoudamire, who immediately was met by booing fans who wanted the UCLA's Ed O'Bannon instead.

Toronto also acquired former Defensive Player of the Year Alvin Robertson, who actually scored the first points in franchise history. However with a weak Canadian dollar and US players unwilling to move to Canada, the new teams weren't very fortunate in the free agency and the Raptors subsequently chose to build their franchise around their rookie point guard, Stoudamire. Just like their Canadian cousin, the Raptors had to endure some dark years as the newcomers in the league. During their first three seasons in the league, they totaled a 67-179 record. Better than the Grizzlies, but probably worse than all teams not from Canada.

On June 24, 1998 Toronto traded for Vince Carter, who previously that day had been picked with the 5th overall pick in the draft. Things immediately turned for the better and the Raptors ended the season with a franchise high winning percentage of .460 during the shortened 1998/99 lockout season. With Carter's help they improved even further in the upcoming years and managed to qualify for the playoffs in 2000, 2001 and 2002. During those years the value of the franchise more than doubled.

With Carter injured during large parts of the 2002/03 season things went south again with the Raptors failing to make the playoffs four years in a row. One of the few positives at the time was Chris Bosh. Bosh took a big leap in 2005/06 and ended the season averaging 22.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting .505 percent from the field.

With Bosh emerging as star player and the Raptors getting the first overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft, the Raptors were in a good position improve and finished with a 47-35 record, tied for the franchise best and good enough to make the playoffs ones again, something they repeated in 2007/08. Unfortunately that first pick in 2006 was used on Andrea Bargnani, who turned out to be... Andrea Bargnani. Bosh left for Miami in 2010 and ones again the Raptors were back at square one.

My point with this history lesson is that while the Raptors have managed to stay competitive with the likes of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, they have never made it past the Conference Semis. They have never had a record better than 47-35 and they have certainly not been considered a contender.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan may have changed that. They ended up last season with a franchise best 56-26 record and made the Conference Finals for the first time in team history. It was a joy to watch and we we're all very impressed, but were there any of us who actually thought that the Raptors were a contender last year? Perhaps the most bias fans, but probably not that many. This season is another matter. The Toronto Raptors looks strong.

They're currently leading the league in 3-point field goal percentage, free throw percentage and free throws made. They hold the second to highest league averages in field goal percentage and field goals made. They also ranks third in points per game and gives up the third to lowest turnovers per game. Currently sitting at a 17-7 record with a strong 9-1 performance during their last 10, things look very good.

Much of this is thanks to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the latter who've turned in to one of the deadliest scorers in the league with an average of 28 points per game. A lot of this is also thanks to the Raptors bench mob. They're deep enough to completely demolish their opponents second units. In fact, among all 5-man lineups in the league who've played more than 100 minutes, Kyle Lowry with Terrence Ross, Lucas Nogueira, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson leads the NBA in Net Rating. The same lineup also leads the league in effective field goal percentage. That's better than the Warriors. Curry, Durant, Green, Iguodala and Thompson ranks second. What's interesting about this is that the Warriors lineup runs the highest pace offense in the league, the Raptors lineup runs the lowest.

With 118.25 in Offensive Rating they're also on pace of breaking the all time record. As of now, Toronto are down 3-0 against Cleveland this year, but the Raptors are the only team this season to not have lost a single game by 10 or more. The next closest is a group of 7 teams that all have lost three games by 10+.

If they manage to continue this when the playoffs comes and the impact of the bench decreases, the Raptors might give the Cavs a run for the money.

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