The Raptors Are the Class of the NBA's Second Tier

Toronto looks like the clear-cut second-best team in the East behind the Cavs, and among the five best in the league. But the Raptors remain a tier below the NBA's upper echelon.
December 6, 2016, 5:04pm
DeRozan's career-high 28 points per game rank fifth in the NBA. Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

The Toronto Raptors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers once again on Monday night.

After letting the game get just a little too far out of reach, the Raptors scraped back to trim the lead from 15 to five. Were it not for DeMar DeRozan's heel getting a little too familiar with the out-of-bounds line on a play with 12 seconds to go, things may have been different. You want it to be one way but it's the other.

Review (Petraitis): if DeRozan's made shot was a 2 or 3-point FG in Q4 of — NBA Official (@NBAOfficial)December 6, 2016

And so the Raptors are now 2-7 in their last nine meetings with Cleveland, including last year's Eastern Conference finals, a record that is at least somewhat concerning when the Cavaliers are the scale on which the Raptors will ultimately measure themselves this year. They've dropped three games to the Cavaliers in the season's opening six weeks, losing them by a combined 11 points, each game with small enough margins to leave fans and, surely, the team itself, with a postgame buffet of what-ifs.

The Raptors won't get an opportunity to see how they stack up against the Cavs again until a possibly meaningless game in mid-April. There is plenty of time to learn and grow and continue to improve, and the Raptors can go right back to asserting themselves as the gatekeeper between the Cavaliers and the rest of the East. There is nothing wrong with where the Raptors are—seriously, it's amazing, all things considered—but their start to this season does pose somewhat of an awkward question.

Are the Raptors in a tier of their own, their own individual purgatory between contender and also-ran?

To be clear, the Raptors are off to a phenomenal start to the year. They're 14-7 with the third-best average margin of victory in the league, the No. 2 offense, and the No. 2 net rating when adjusting for schedule. The Raptors have beaten the teams they're supposed to (or at least the ones that don't employ DeMarcus Cousns), and they've even begun handily blowing out teams, something long absent in their profile. Meanwhile, they've lost only very narrowly—they're the only team in the NBA yet to lose by double-digits—and mostly to high-quality opponents. Every indication is that the Raptors are better than most of the NBA.

Everyone knew the Raptors were good, though, and they have designs on being great. Their seven losses include an 0-5 mark against the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Clippers, the only teams (along with maybe the Spurs) that are generally considered to be above their level. Their best wins have come in Houston and Oklahoma City, difficult places to play and quality opponents but ones that are roundly considered to be a tier below the league's elite. The Raptors, then, have beaten everyone (again, save for the Kings, for whatever reason) they're supposed to and beaten none of the teams they're trying to catch in the league's hierarchy.

This is probably fine. There is enough that goes on over the course of an 82-game season that a team can find ways to measure itself and improve outside of just beating the teams ahead of them, and it's not as if the NBA is a ladder system or as if regular-season series are exceptionally predictive of how playoff series will play out.

The Raptors don't play an elite team again until Dec. 28 when they visit the Warriors (and then the Spurs a few days later), and they're back into "you can only beat the teams in front of you" territory. Being very, very good in those situations is important and often predictive of future success. It would just probably be for the best if they could add the kind of marquee win that suggests they haven't only narrowed the gap between tiers atop the NBA, they've snuffed it out entirely. For now, they're the class of the second tier, a fine perch one level short of where they want to ultimately reach.