First half summary: The Toronto Raptors have taken the step backward that some were expecting last season, when they responded to the departure of Kawhi Leonard by finishing second in the Eastern Conference with a better defense than they had with the two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year. They saw another former DPOY (Marc Gasol) depart for L.A. this past offseason and have dropped from second to 18th in defensive efficiency, with only two teams having seen bigger jumps in points allowed per 100 possessions.
With increased production from some of their younger players, the Raptors’ offense has been improved. And the team had seemingly found a rhythm with a 9-3 stretch through the first few weeks of February that included wins over each of the top three teams in the East. But, dealing with injuries and COVID-19-related absences, the Raptors stumbled into the All-Star break with four losses in their last five games. With their defeat by the Celtics in their final game before the break, the Raptors became the first team to match its loss total from last season.
Biggest question going into the second half: Is Kyle Lowry long for Toronto/Tampa? Lowry will be 35 at the end of March, and his ninth season with the Raptors is the last on his current contract. The rest of the Raptors’ core is much younger and Fred VanVleet is a budding star who essentially plays the same position as Lowry. Other contenders could certainly use Lowry and if there’s an offer that helps the Raptors build around VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, it might be difficult to pass up. That’s especially true given that they’re no longer among the best teams in the East and could be left with nothing if Lowry walks in the offseason. Still, it wouldn’t be easy to deal the best player in franchise history.
Playoffs or lottery?: Assuming that Lowry stays put, the Raptors can finish in the top six in the East. Even with their head-to-head loss on Thursday, they’re just two games behind the fourth-place Celtics. At worst, the Raptors are in the top half of the play-in group, in good shape to make their eighth straight trip to the postseason. But to keep the league’s longest streak of trips to the second round (five straight years) alive, they’d probably have to beat the Celtics or Miami Heat in a No. 4-5 series.
That’s certainly not impossible. The Raptors had Lowry, Anunoby and Siakam together for just 1 1/2 of their final 22 games before the break, and they still won 12 of those 22 games. Their 3-point shooting remains potent and they have the ability to defend at a top-five level over the second half of the season. But even at their best, they’re still a step below the elite teams in the East.
— John Schuhmann