The Golden State Warriors play the Raptors tonight in Toronto. One team is a trundling dynasty and the prohibitive favorite to win their fourth world championship in five years. The other is primed to challenge the throne, with a new head coach and monolithic go-to player in place to reverse the franchise’s cursed history.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors are outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s a very good number and it easily clears the “legitimate championship contender” bar. (It’s currently second-best in the league, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks, and over twice as high as the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, and Boston Celtics—three teams that, subjectively speaking, have enough staying power to make an impressive playoff run.)
Toronto’s starting lineup might be the best five-man unit in the entire league—they’re outscoring opponents by a whopping 15.8 points per 100 possessions in 200 minutes—if not for the group that flips Serge Ibaka for Jonas Valanciunas, which is somehow even more dominant. The roster is a two-way army of chic NBA archetypes and nobody should be surprised if/when they reach the Finals.
All that said, it’s probably too soon to label Toronto as a prohibitive favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference. Their aforementioned point differential is impressive but also only one point higher than the Raptors finished last year. Obviously, so much about this team is different from that one (i.e. Nick Nurse and Kawhi Leonard instead of Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan) but the point remains: net rating at the 20-game mark can only tell us so much.
Some of their offensive success is unsustainable (like making almost half of all twos attempted at least four feet from the rim) and other elements may not translate in a seven-game series (the Raptors are utilizing transition more frequently than they did under Casey). There are questions that can’t be answered until the playoffs begin—such as Kyle Lowry’s seasonal divorce from his jump shot (for the record, he was exceptional last year), Nurse’s first taste of final say, how teams will defend Pascal Siakam if Pascal Siakam still can’t shoot, etc.—but this year’s team doesn’t feel or look like it used to. And in all likelihood, Toronto’s greatest obstacle will come from an outside force before there’s internal collapse.
The East isn’t “wide open,” but its postseason bracket will be more treacherous than anyone expected. Along with Toronto, fighting for the right to dethrone Golden State will be the Bucks, Sixers, Celtics (probably?), and I’m going to throw the Pacers into this discussion because Domas Sabonis is the new Wilt Chamberlain. All those teams match up well with the Raptors, two may have the most dominant player in a series, and two are likely to settle in and reach another level after the trade deadline.
After the Raptors vanquish their first-round opponent (be it the Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, or whoever), they will probably have to face two of Philly, Boston, Indiana, and Milwaukee in the next two rounds. This is a gauntlet, and that second-round battle could be devastating by itself. How will the Raptors respond if they go down 2-1 and have to hear about Kawhi’s free agency ad nauseum, as the pressure to emerge victorious, exorcise their demons, and script a new narrative starts to drown everything around them? They won't be the only team desperate to advance past the second round, but by far they have the most to lose if they don't.
The NBA is fickle. Someone who matters will get injured and we don’t know what deals will be made over the next few months as contenders separate themselves from pretenders and weigh how many future assets they’re willing to surrender in an attempt to upgrade this year’s team. What if the Sixers ship out Markelle Fultz for Terrence Ross or Rodney Hood? What if another All-NBA player (like LaMarcus Aldridge) heads East?
What if the Celtics have finally discovered their best starting five (Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford are outscoring opponents by 30.6 points per 100 possessions) and Gordon Hayward rekindles his All-Star characteristics off the bench? What if Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to surge as the leader of a team that shares all the same stylistic qualities as Mike Budenholzer's 60-win, star-free-but-still-awesome 2015 Atlanta Hawks?
Even with LeBron James out of the frame, competition in the East will undoubtedly be fierce, but if we're looking, today, at all the aforementioned candidates most likely to beat the Raptors in a playoff series and move on to the championship, it's Milwaukee. Boston has too many general question marks, the Sixers need more shooting (and don't have anyone who can guard Lowry for 40 minutes), and Indiana doesn't quite have the dependable offensive firepower. The Bucks, though, as of today, are scary. They take a ton of threes, live at the rim, and know exactly what they are on both sides of the ball. That isn't to say the Raptors can't beat them, but to say they have any obvious advantage would be wildly premature.