Toronto rarely seems to catch a break from the NBA schedule makers at the start of the season and this year isn’t any different. The Raptors 6-11 record could be very misleading. Even after last night’s embarrassing epic collapse at Golden State, ESPN’s imperfect but objective Hollinger Power Ranking still has Toronto as the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference.
A lot of the rationale (in this case math) is based on strength of schedule (SOS). Leave it to the NBA to ensure Miami gets off to a good start. The HEAT had the softest schedule off the start by a huge margin, the Raptors, not so much. Toronto has played the second toughest schedule of any team in the East.
Only New York had a tougher start and between the competition and the injuries, the Knicks are now in full blown panic mode. If you believe the Toronto sports talk shows, the Raptors might not be that far behind them, but maybe (as usual) they are rushing things.
Outside of the Pacers and the HEAT, no Eastern Conference team has a plus .500 record and every team ahead of the Raptors in the standings has enjoyed an easier schedule. That doesn’t mean the Raptors are a good team, but they certainly are not any worse than a dozen other teams in the East.
Other than Chicago, It’s hard to argue the teams currently occupying the last 6 Eastern Conference playoff spots are any better than Toronto. (The ESPN rankings shown only include Eastern Conference teams)
Washington Wizards – 3rd place, 4th ranked, 9-9 record
The Wizards have played a milk toast schedule and lost to the Raptors earlier. They are, however, ranked just ahead of Toronto and have a .500 record.
Boston Celtics – 4th place, 9th ranked, 8-12 record
The Celtics have a signature win over Miami and little else. Their SOS has been even easier than Washington’s. However, Boston has kept pace in the weak East without point guard Rajon Rondo, so their ESPN ranking could be on the move up if Rondo comes back, can play at a high level and the Celtics don’t trade him for future assets.
Atlanta Hawks – 5th place, 7th ranked, 9-10 record
The Hawks have enjoyed the same soft SOS as the Wizards, although they did beat Toronto earlier in the season. Their big accomplishment so far was beating Detroit in a home-and-home series.
Detroit Pistons – 6th place, 6th ranked, 8-10 record
The sixth place Pistons have a played the fifth toughest schedule in the East and are just shy of a .500 record. They have a signature win over Miami and are ranked right behind Toronto as the sixth best Eastern Conference team.
Chicago Bulls – 7th place, 3rd ranked, 7-9 record
The Bulls are ranked as the third best team in the East and somehow, that just seems fair. Their record has been impacted by the emotional rollercoaster created by Derrick Rose’s return and season-ending injury. They are better than their record.
There are calls to blow this team up. The only problem with that is the Bulls will be a top 4 team in the East if they stick it out.
Charlotte Bobcats – 8th place, 10th ranked, 8-11 record
The Bobcats only own eighth place because they have played the second softest schedule in the East. Half of their wins are over the Cavaliers and the Bucks. Charlotte will have to play a lot better to hold onto a playoff spot against much stronger opponents going forward.
The Toronto Raptors carry their own blemishes into this battle between teams that seem to be trying harder to miss the playoffs than actually secure a spot. They had to lose 4 games in a row before anyone in the Atlantic could overtake them for first place in the division.
Toronto’s only signature win is over Memphis on the road and to-date, they seem to be collecting more signature losses than anything else. They took the Rockets to double-overtime on road and then they took the Trail Blazers to overtime at home.
The Raptors have shown they can be as good as any of the bottom 5 playoff teams in the East and when the schedule turns in their favor, their record will likely reflect that. The real question for Toronto becomes, is that an acceptable level of play? It is hard to believe that it is.
Whether Toronto ends up as that middle of the pack also-ran playoff team probably comes down to what President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri decides to do over the next month. The team either needs to swing a deal to get better and lockdown a playoff spot in a season when the competition seems weak or trade key players for future assets and ‘tank’ for a better draft pick.
As of now, no one seems to know which way Ujiri is leaning and the background noise created by the media over the wins the losses until then really shouldn’t have any influence over which way Ujiri decides to go. That makes the Raptors record more misleading than anything else.
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