By Cole Parkinson
The NBA trade deadline has come and gone, and the Toronto Raptors didn’t do anything.
And that’s exactly what they should have done.
This team wasn’t expected to do much damage after the departure of Kawhi Leonard in the summer to the Clippers but man, they have been better than anyone could have imagined.
No matter what sports media was saying in the States, they were always going to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference but with a record of 40-15, which included a season-high 15 wins in a row, they have continued to defy any expectations placed on them.
And that great record is especially impressive due to injuries to some of their big players (Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred Van Vleet, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Norm Powell and on and on) throughout the year but every hurdle placed in front of the Raps has been successfully jumped.
So heading into last Thursday’s trade deadline with the second-best record in the east, could the Raptors have made some trades?
Absolutely, but would they have made them an exponentially better team? Highly unlikely.
I love that Masai Ujiri, president of basketball operations and Bobby Webster, general manager, decided to just stand pat with the team they have.
The Raps are already a great team so if they were going to make a trade, it would have had to be for someone of that superstar ilk for it to make sense.
The thing there though is, none of the bad teams who were selling off have a player of that skill, so the best they could do was get pretty good players or some more depth pieces, which they already have.
In any of those deals, OG Anunoby. Powell or Ibaka would likely have to go the other way and what would be the point?
A large majority of these players have experienced winning an NBA championship and know what it takes, so why not roll the dice and see how far they can continue to push the envelope?
The lack of minutes available off the bench also had to be a concern in picking up any depth players.
With Terence Davis II, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher and Patrick McCaw all getting fairly significant minutes, there would have to be a clear upgrade to bump them down.
Those bench players and the starting five have already exceeded expectations so would anyone be shocked if they continued to do so?
The Eastern Conference has a ton of great teams but none of them really scare me in a seven-game series.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the only team that I wouldn’t feel great about beating in a series due to the best player in the east — the Greek Freak, Giannis Annantetokounmpo.
But even then, who says the Bucks are for sure the best team in a playoff round?
The playoffs are a different beast and until they actually make it all the way, I don’t think anyone can honestly say the Bucks are guaranteed to make it to the NBA Finals.
Sure, they would be heavy favourites heading into any series but the Raps have been there and done it.
I mean, they beat them last year, and I know Kawhi was a major factor, but this team is largely the same as it was a year ago.
A matchup against Giannis would not be an easy one but I’d still love to see how Nick Nurse and the Raps coaching staff approaches that challenge without Kawhi.
Other teams in the east, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and Indiana, are all beatable.
Would it shock me if the Raps lost to any of them? No, but I’d still pick the Raptors as favourites in any of those series.
Of any of them, the Heat would be the most challenging in my opinion.
Jimmy Butler has a tendency to take over games when he plays against the Raptors and in a seven-game series, I would expect a handful of games going like that.
Boston and Philly are both teams that should be way better than they are but have struggled throughout points in the regular season.
I would like Toronto in any series against either of those teams especially if Toronto has home court advantage.
And maybe I’m getting ahead of myself with a good portion of the regular season still to come.
The Raptors still have three games against the Bucks, and one against Philly, Boston and Miami so there’s still plenty of measuring stick games left.
I think the most important thing for the rest of the regular season is to get some of the older guys some rest, especially Kyle who has seen some heavy minutes.
He has averaged over 36 minutes so far this season over 40 games which needs to taper down because, at 33, you can’t expect him to be completely renewed come playoff time.
One issue is the lack of a third playmaking point guard, though Nurse has continued to trot out McCaw with Gasol (when he’s healthy) to curb some of those playmaking issues that happen without Fred and Kyle on the floor.
The buyout market may offer a chance at getting a bonafide number three guard who can help take some minutes off of both Kyle and Fred before the playoffs.
A healthy and fresh Kyle Lowry heading into the playoffs is the absolute best-case scenario for this team.
Of course, finishing second in the east has to be another priority because home court is huge in the NBA come playoff time.
There isn’t a good shot of finishing at the top with how hot Milwaukee has been but a second-place finish would mean the two couldn’t meet until the Eastern Conference Finals.
And finally, having a healthy team heading down the stretch would be massive for the Raps.
Having a full lineup of regulars before the playoffs would allow the team to get back into rhythm on the floor which would no doubt lead to much better synergy in the first round.
Either way, I can’t wait to see the Raptors continue to prove doubters wrong, and while that may not lead to another championship, it will once again prove the Raptors are for real.