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Path to the Playoffs: The Wizards and the Raptors

The additions of Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal have the Wizards eyeing the playoffs, but it's a tougher Eastern Conference than you remember. This week, Path to the Playoffs takes a look at the Toronto Raptors.

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Toronto Raptors didn't hold anything back when they went for Steve Nash. After signing Landry Fields to a three year, $20 million contract and drafting Terrence Ross, Nash stayed close to his family by signing with the Lakers. Undaunted, the Raps shifted gears and acquired disgruntled(?) Houston Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry for a first round draft pick (protected against a pick too high as well as too low) and Gary Forbes. In other words, they could have done a lot worse.

Disaster thus avoided, what can we expect from the Raps this season? Jose Calderon is still on board, creating a very capable backcourt rotation with John Lucas III tagging along, as well. Calderon is in the final year of his deal and a team could do much worse than Lowry and Lucas III going forward.

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Shooting guard is just as deep. The incumbent veteran DeMar DeRozan has some growing to do, and some serious competition as next year's qualifying offer stares him in the face. Landry Fields and 2012's first round draft choice Terrence Ross will eat up any minutes he leaves on the table.

At small forward, the Raptors are thin. Linas Kleiza is under contract for this season with a player option next year. After him? Alan Anderson will be spending all his time at SF now and we'll find out if Quincy Acy can find his way onto the floor. Not a position of strength, and despite coach Dwayne Casey, the Raptors perimeter defense will likely be lacking.

The interior defensive situation is much better. Amir Johnson is entering his prime while being on a very affordable contract, despite fouling at too high a rate for someone with his athleticism. (Sound familiar?) He split time at PF last season with Ed Davis and two shared very similar production. Fans were hoping for Davis to take a leap last year, but personally, I'm looking for it this season. Why's that? He injured his meniscus, missing the 2010-11 training camp and missing it in 2011-12 due to the lockout. With a full training camp for the first time in his young career, the coaching staff will find a way to get the youngster involved in the offense. Raising his free throw percentage from a dismal 55% to a (more) respectable 67% will help there, though his TS% will probably dip closer to league average as he attempts to become more of a two-way player.

Center is on lockdown this season in Toronto. Andrea Bargnani is the unquestioned starter with the Aaron Gray on notice. Jonas Valanciunas is on his way at long last. The torch won't be passed this season, but with Bargnani's painful deal having three years remaining, fans will be watching Valanciunas' progress closely. Also, Jamaal Magloire.

There are quite a few young pieces and some very serviceable veterans on board. For my money, the Raps postseason chances depend on strong interior defense and Kyle Lowry wresting the starting job away from Jose Calderon. If he can, and they end up in a battle for the eighth seed with the Wiz, the shooting guard position becomes the wild card. DeMar DeRozan and Jordan Crawford both have something to prove with lottery picks Terrence Ross and Bradley Beal coming on board. Landry Fields turns the heat up even more on DeRozan, and it isn't difficult to see a trade happening there if Ross has a strong start.

In the end, I'm going to say that if it comes down to these two teams, the Wizards improved defense and clutch play from the Wall-Nene combo puts DC over the top down the stretch. Two years from now, we'll have some answers:

  • Kyle Lowry will be ready to enter unrestricted free agency and will likely get a very nice deal should his play continue.
  • Ed Davis will show whether or not he can be Charles Oakley-lite.
  • Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas will be showing whether or not they are the future at their positions.
  • Well...someone will be playing at SF.
  • Dwayne Casey will finally have a roster built for his style of play with a slew of cumbersome contracts off the books...should he survive that long.

The Raptors future is looking up for the first time since Chris Bosh absconded. It's about time. But if it comes down to a race for the eighth seed this season, put your money on John Wall & Co.