A new season is upon us, and with it comes plenty of intriguing storylines. From massive traves and superstar uncertainty in the East to a West perhaps the deepest it has ever been, here is an early season NBA Power ranking.
Far-Fetched Friday: The Toronto Raptors Make the Conference Finals
By: Khaqan Khan
Back In the summer, I predicted the Toronto Raptors would finish in the top 6 in the east. As of today, they currently stand in the 6th spot, but I'm not going to take a victory lap just yet because the 10th spot is only four games back with six games remaining. But what I will do is lock in the Raptors to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Raptors have all the ingredients to be successful in the playoffs and have one of the best Chefs in Nick Nurse to make an ECF Poutine. Fred Van Vleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam are all former NBA Champions having career years for the Raptors. They are flanked by tenacious young talent with the likes of Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr, and even Precious Achiuwa. This team has length and shot-making across the team, and most of all, they have no fear.
Nick Nurse has empowered his players while experimenting with different wrinkles throughout the season. That has allowed their starting five-room to explore their game as primary options. Their go-to option is Pascal Siakam, who ranks 6th with 5.4 ISO possessions a game, which leads to points 44% of the time. On offense, they use these ISO possessions to kick the ball out to find an open three or a cutter to the basket. That is when they are at their best. But at times, they can stall in the half-court, which is my main concern for them on offense. However, they can counteract that by mismatching hunting. Having so many options allows them to exploit opposing defenses. For instance, they can go small ball with Siakam at the center and attack a Nikola Vuceivc-type; or they manipulate the defense to get one of Brooklyn's small guards to switch onto Anunoby or Barnes.
On defense, they use their team length extraordinarily well. Nearly all of their wings have a 7ft wingspan, and even a 6'5 Gary Trent Jr. has a 6'9 wingspan. The Raptors love playing aggressively on the point of attack, even though that can lead to the occasional slip-up. Overall, the defense ranks 9th in defensive rating. I'm excited to see what different strategies Nurse deploys. When they played the Nuggets in March, the Raptors opted to double and apply off-ball pressure on Nikola Jokic and force him to be a passer, which doesn't sound like a good idea at all, but they were able to sit one and disrupt passing lanes making Jokic slightly less effective which led to the Raptors winning the game. I would venture to guess they do something similar against Joel Embiid, who is a good passer but not at the level of Jokic.
I believe the Raptors match up well against every team except the Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics without Robert Williams is still a good team but leaves them vulnerable. Darius Garland, who is the engine of the Cleveland Cavaliers, still tends to struggle when crowded and against length. The Raptors have enough defense to throw at Derozan and Lavine and have the capabilities to exploit Vucevic on defense. The Raptors can make it tough on the Brooklyn Nets, especially with rebounding, but then again, the Nets have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. I just can't see this Raptors team breaking down the Bucks defense enough to match the legendary offensive output by Giannis. If the Playoffs started today, the Raptors would play the Bucks in the second round, but since the standings fluctuate so often, it's hard to forecast who plays who.
The Raptors have the same formula that led them to the 2019 NBA Championship. Multiple scoring options, no weak links on defense, and lineup versatility. It is worth mentioning that they don't have the final piece from 2019 in Kawhi Leonard, but they do have a young star on a similar trajectory in Scottie Barnes. I believe the Raptors' success in the playoffs this year is directly correlated to how well Barnes plays, which I know is a lot to ask for a 20-year-old rookie, but he has all the tools to be a difference-maker, and more importantly, he has the certain 'it' factor, that thing that will lead to him being a great player one day in this league. I'm excited to see how he responds to the challenge. He is definitely in good hands, surrounded by a championship-caliber core and one of the best coaches in the league.
Scottie Barnes and the Toronto Raptors make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. You heard it here, first.
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