Raps still playoff bound despite recent struggles

Just a couple days after being charged with impaired driving, Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas will get a chance to redeem his image (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty)
January 21, 2014, 12:28 PM

The last time the Toronto Raptors made the playoffs was 2007-08. The team finished 41-41 that season—sixth overall in the East—and bowed out to the Orlando Magic in five games in the first round.

Since then, T.O. has experienced a five-year post-season drought. But, despite the team’s recent slip, that appears to be changing.

Though ‘Tank Nation’ has resurfaced a bit over the last few days—following Toronto’s frustrating losses to the Celtics, Lakers and Bobcats—the Raptors still seem poised to land in the playoffs.

The math suggests that, at this point in the season, it would take a statistical collapse of epic proportions for Toronto to not only miss the playoffs but, more importantly for the pro-tank lobby, be bad for a top pick in a stacked draft to be a real possibility.

Sure, Chicago (who finished 33-49) won the 2008 lottery with only a 1.7 percent chance of doing so—and went on to select Derrick Rose with that top pick. But that was the biggest leap to No. 1 in 15 years (Orlando won the 1993 lottery with a 1.52 percent chance). The fact is, if you’re going to be a bad team, you’d better be a really bad team. Otherwise, your odds of picking in the top five aren’t great.

Toronto is not a bad team. They’re still atop their division with a 20-20 record and a two-and-a-half-game lead on Brooklyn. Yes, the Nets are coming on strong and their lineup is stacked with former all-stars and champions. And, yes, the Raptors have many flaws. As head coach Dwane Casey often points out, they’re not good enough to take any opponent lightly. Consistency, commitment, experience and depth are all factors that continue to impact Toronto’s rise and fall in the East. But defence (most nights), chemistry and a group that seems to be ‘buying in’—even with a few young bodies in key positions—have earned the Raptors notice around the league.

Just a few weeks ago, the chatter in T.O. shifted from the season going down the drain to the team making a run at the sixth, seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs. That was good enough for some, but a strong December and an equally impressive start to January put Toronto in position to stand alone at the top of the Atlantic. Now that Brooklyn is charging is the sky suddenly falling for the Raptors?

No. It isn’t.

At least, it shouldn’t be. The merits of another top pick versus playoff experience for your existing core could be argued for days. But the reality is that the Raptors have moved beyond the point of no return this season. They have to win—and play and act like winners. They have to carry the swagger of a team that believes their recent success is not fool’s gold but the reality and result of hard work.

If nothing else, a post-season berth—even as an eighth seed—provides a chance at a championship, valuable experience and some extra playoff revenue. The muddled middle doesn’t provide much of anything.

Since the Raptors last appearance in the second season, the average regular season record for the eighth seed in the East has been 40-42. And the average record of the team with the fifth-worst record in the league has been 27-45.

But let’s look at this season specifically, and especially the Eastern Conference, where only three teams are above.500. As of Jan. 21, the eighth seed is Charlotte (18-25). Over 82 games, the Bobcats’ .419 winning percentage would result in a 34-48 record.

Does anybody think that Toronto—even with their recent struggles—can’t go 14-28 over the remainder of the season? What about 16-26, which would give the Raps a final record that right now would be good enough for seventh in the East?

And more importantly to the rumbling tankers: Does anybody really think that the Raptors are only going to win five or six more games for the rest of the year? Heck, even if the Canadian Crew went 0-42 they’d still finish with a better record than seven teams have over the last five years!

Ironically, with the NBA trade deadline less than a month away, one could make the case that Toronto should be more of a buyer than a seller.

NBA bottom fives over the last five years

2008-09

Sacramento (17-65)
Washington & LA Clippers (19-63)
Oklahoma City (23-59)
Memphis & Minnesota (24-58)
Golden State (29-53)

The eighth seed in the East was Detroit (39-43)

2009-10

New Jersey (12-70)
Minnesota (15-67)
Sacramento (25-57)
Washington & Golden State (26-56)
Philadelphia & Detroit (27-55)

The eighth seed in the East was was Chicago (41-41)

2010-11

Minnesota (17-65)
Cleveland (19-63)
Toronto (22-60)
Washington (23-59)
Sacramento & New Jersey (24-58)

The eighth seed in the East was Indiana (37-45)

2011-12

This was the lockout-shortened, 66-game season. The final seed in the Eastern Conference was Philadelphia at 35-31. Over 82 games, that .530 winning percentage equates to 43.5 wins.
Using the same 82-game projections, here are the bottom five records that year:

Charlotte (7-59) – 9-73 over 82 games
Washington (20-46) – 25-47 over 82 games
New Orleans & Cleveland (21-45) – 26-46 over 82 games
Sacramento & New Jersey (22-44) – 27-45 over 82 games
Golden State & Toronto (23-43) – 28-44 over 82 games

2012-13

Orlando (20-62)
Charlotte (21-61)
Cleveland (24-58)
Phoenix (25-57)
New Orleans (27-55)

The eighth seed in the East was Milwaukee (38-44).

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