Is Toronto still a championship contender in the East?


The Toronto Raptors seemingly had their moment in the sun. After years of playoff disappointments, Toronto broke through to win the 2019 NBA championship behind a sensational playoff run from Kawhi Leonard and breakout performances from the likes of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet.

Yet things seemed headed back to normalcy for the Raptors this summer. Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency, and Toronto was suddenly stuck with a roster dependent full of aging stars on one-year contracts.

Though trade rumors surrounding Kyle Lowry were quieted by the decision to ink him to an extension, it was assumed that the Raptors would be unable to stack up against the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers without Leonard.

But the Raptors are 10-4 through the first ten games. They are one of the most well-balanced teams in the East, and Siakam is emerging as a star.

The question must be asked: are the Raptors still championship contenders?

The aforementioned “balance” was not used in hyperbole. The Raptors are in the top seven in both offensive and defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.

Toronto has emerged as one of the best shooting teams in the league. They are shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc, with VanVleet, Gasol and OG Anunoby filling it up from deep.

Speaking of Anunoby, he gives the Raptors a second long and versatile wing to pair alongside Siakam, and he is one of the better individual defenders in the rotation.

Toronto dominates the defensive glass, with Siakam and Gasol controlling the paint and undersized guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Norman Powell also battling in the trenches.

They have the kind of inside-out proficiency that could give the likes of the Sixers or Bucks some trouble, and their only losses have come at the hands of the Celtics, Bucks, Clippers and Mavericks.

The question is–as the Dallas game proved–who takes over the scoring load when Siakam has an off night? He creates so much offense with his skill set, but the Raptors need more efficient scoring from their supporting cast.

This is going to be another storyline for the Raptors. Can they stay healthy?

Lowry is still out due to a fractured left thumb, and Serge Ibaka missed a couple weeks with an injury. Of course, VanVleet has been tremendous in Lowry’s stead, but it is Ibaka’s injury that actually may be more concerning.

Ibaka had been averaging 14.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks off the bench in his first eight games. He is a vital frontcourt piece, and as he proved during the playoffs, more than capable of shouldering the scoring load when necessary. This is particularly pertinent Marc Gasol is making less than 28 percent of his twos.

The play of the frontcourt was essential against the Sixers and Bucks in last year’s playoffs. That will still hold true in any playoff series this season. If Toronto is healthy, they can still compete in the East.

N'Keal Harry, Patriots