A dense Eastern Conference and the case for a Raptors playoff push

As the NBA approaches the halfway mark of the season, a lot has been made of the competitiveness of the Eastern Conference – and rightfully so.

Clustered at sixth to 12th place and all hovering around the .500 mark are the 76ers, Hornets, Wizards, Celtics, Knicks, Raptors, and Hawks. The competition has made the prospect of tanking a little less guilt-inducing for fans tempering their expectations, but the Raptors shouldn’t look to replicate last year’s lightning in a bottle lottery outcome.

There are pros and cons to a more competitive conference, and fans of Eastern Conference teams within the last half decade know it first-hand. It was not too long ago that outside of the top three competitors (or top one in the era of prime Cleveland LeBron), there was a steep drop-off in competitiveness, with teams well below .500 regularly making the postseason.

Things are quite different now.

Franchises once in rebuild like the Cavaliers and Hornets are rounding out with their more seasoned young cores – signalling a light at the end of the tank-tunnel with their organizations prepping for a solid decade of high-level play. It isn't a stretch to say that the conference’s Top 4 teams this year have a legitimate shot to represent the East in a finals matchup, and although that isn’t a probable outlook for a Raptors team integrating a rookie and finding an identity beyond cultural-cornerstone Kyle Lowry, they’re primed to make a well-timed push for a playoff appearance as the season’s second half comes around the corner.

With injuries having sidelined numerous players throughout the season thus far, the Raptors sit at 15 wins and 17 losses – even after having to play a few games without bulk of their roster due to COVID protocols and confusing exposures. Considering all obstacles they’ve collectively encountered already, the current win and loss record isn’t a bad place to be at prior to the mid-season.

As the team now deals with a nearly empty Scotiabank Arena, head coach Nick Nurse spoke on their acquired resilience and ability to generate energy without fans present. There might be something there, considering the Raptors have a better road record than their home mark.

“I think we have a lot of practice in a lot of situations," said Nurse. "And you really gotta focus in on yourselves, in accomplishing the job, getting something out of all the work you’ve put in ... (and) still understand that we’re here to do a job and be professional and get a result.

“I mean, I think there’s still a lot at stake.”

Barring any serious injury to their most prolific offensive producers, and hopefully with the now-inevitable COVID outbreak in the rearview, the healthy Raptors have an opportunity to string together enough wins and see a drastic leap in the standings.

Some may see another tank as a viable option, but the flash of generational talent demonstrated on a game-to-game basis by rookie Scottie Barnes is reason enough to prioritize a postseason appearance.

A postseason appearance may be just what Scottie Barnes needs to push closer to his ceiling. (Getty)
A postseason appearance may be just what Scottie Barnes needs to push closer to his ceiling. (Getty)

Toronto's most frequently used five-man lineup, featuring Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa, and Barnes, has the sixth-highest net rating among the league’s 20 most-used lineups, at 10.9 (via NBA.com). If anything, it demonstrates a legitimate and successful lineup when at full health – even sans Pascal Siakam, who — in spite of his steady and dominant recent stretch prior to and after COVID — hasn’t seen too many minutes with the squad at full health.

A playoff appearance for Barnes – who has showcased real-time development in his play – can be the sort of transformative, high-level experience to throw him closer to the ceiling of his abilities. That is, after all, phenomenon NBA fans have witnessed time and time again.

In the age of pandemic professional basketball, a few things would have to go right for a Toronto playoff push to occur, but if the Raptors have been able to keep from drowning with everything going wrong, perhaps it may not take much to overtake those ahead of them in the standings.

They just need a break from bad luck.

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