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Guard combo turning Raptors into elite force in East

All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been the driving force behind an epic season in Toronto

POSTED: Jan 29, 2016 2:06 PM ET

By Kevin Cottrell Jr.

Special to


The Association: Toronto Raptors

As Toronto prepares to face the Knicks tonight on TNT, Rick Kamla takes an all-access look at the Raptors.

Winning in the NBA is a process. For the Toronto Raptors, that process has taken 20-plus seasons. On Nov. 3, 1995, the Raptors won their first-ever game, a 94-79 decision over the (then-) New Jersey Nets. That 1-0 start was followed by seven losses and the team finished its inaugural season 21-61. Twenty-one seasons later, the Raptors sit at 31-15, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers by two games for the Eastern Conference lead.

Since the 2015-16 season tipped, many wondered who would challenge the Cavs in the East. Would it be the oft-injured Chicago Bulls? How about the Atlanta Hawks, fresh off their 60-win season? Or a Washington Wizards team that has improved each of the last three seasons?

But why not the Raptors?

All-Star Top 10: DeMar DeRozan

Check out the top 10 plays from Eastern Conference All-Star DeMar DeRozan!

In 2013-14, the Raptors set a then franchise record with 48 wins. However, Toronto was eliminated from the postseason by the Brooklyn Nets and coach Dwane Casey wondered if he would return to finish the job. But the Raptors and Casey eventually agreed to a contract extension and during a May 2014 news conference, he made it clear that "It was easy to come back and be a part of this, be a part of the growing process."

The growth is evident and throughout the Casey era, improvement has been a hallmark of these Raptors.

Raptors during Dwane Casey era
Season Record Playoff result
2015-16 31-15 ???
2014-15 49-33 * L, First round
2013-14 48-34 * L, First round
2012-13 34-48 Missed playoffs
2011-12 23-43 Missed playoffs
* = Won Atlantic Division
$ = Franchise record for wins

In the past 20 seasons, the Raptors have clinched the playoffs seven times with just one series win (2001). While reaching the postseason is a part of the process so is conquering the regular season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Raptors are the only active NBA franchise without a 50-win season. The 50-win mark is typically a threshold for contenders and, during the 2015 postseason, 10 of the 16 teams that qualified won 50 or more games.

The Raptors first 50-win season seemingly rests in the palm of their hands. However, nothing is guaranteed with the Raptors posting the same record last season through its first 46 games.

Raptors comparision (through 66 games)
Category 2014-15 * 2015-16
Record 31-15 31-15
PPG 106.0 101.3
FG pct. 45.8 44.8
3-pt pct. 35.1 36.5
Point differential +5.4 +4.8
* = Won 49 games

So what makes these Raptors different? They're finishing the deal. On Thursday, they defeated the New York Knicks to set a franchise record with 10 consecutive wins. Even more impressive? Their 10-game win streak has come without defensive specialist DeMarre Carroll. Prior to this run, the Raptors were one of five teams to never record a double-digit win streak. While they're far from a finished product, stringing together small accomplishments like these help the overall process of contending.

The good news? Toronto currently boasts the Eastern Conference's second best offensive rating and the second-best net rating, 3-point percentage and point differential. While the Cavs continue to search for their identity, the Raptors are fine tuning theirs. Defense has been the key to their success as they're 28-0 when holding opponents below 100 points.

All-Star Top 10: Kyle Lowry

Check out the top 10 plays from Eastern Conference All-Star Kyle Lowry!

The bad news? If the team that proclaims "We the North" wants to be considered as "We For Real", they'll need a better showing versus the top teams in the East. Thus far, the Raptors are 2-3 against the Cavs, Bulls and Hawks. They've collected wins against Cleveland and Atlanta, but lost both matchups with Chicago. There's still room to improve and gain confidence with six remaining showdowns with these three teams.

Winning in the NBA is a process that players, an organization and fans endure together. The Raptors faithful have cheered the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh ... only to watch them depart for greener pastures. Now, it seems that the Toronto fans can embrace stars that have seemingly embraced the city, specifically All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

They are the team's leaders in points and assists per game, respectively, and solidifying their status as an elite backcourt and dynamic duo.

Top Three Scoring Duos
PPG Players Team
48.57 Stephen Curry & Klay Thompson Golden State Warriors
47.17 Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder
44.13 Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan Toronto Raptors

While the debate for the East challenger continues, the Raptors and Cavaliers are the only East teams with 30 wins today. As a reward, the fans voted Kyle Lowry an All-Star starter for the second consecutive season and DeMar DeRozan earned his second All-Star spot (albeit as a reserve pick), too. Toronto becomes the first host city since Los Angeles Lakers (1972) to have a pair of guards in its All-Star Game. Yes, another small feat for the Raptors, and also another step in the right direction for Lowry and DeRozan.

"Words can't explain it, especially with the rough time I had last year, going down with the [groin] injury" DeRozan said about being named an All-Star reserve. "But everything is a process."

After starting the season 11-7, Toronto is an East-best 11-2 in January. A third consecutive Atlantic Division title is within reason and their first ever 50-win season is obtainable. So, what's next for the Toronto Raptors? Winning a playoff series? Advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals?

It's all a part of the process.