The Raptors were the Phoenix Suns of the East last year, except their hard work was actually rewarded with a playoff appearance in the weaker Eastern Conference. The year ended in a disappointing seven-game series loss to the Brooklyn Nets, but with the way the Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan injected life into Canadian basketball, nobody really cared too much.
One year later, the East has improved, but the Raptors have chemistry going for them. They also have one of the best backcourts in the conference, not to mention a monster-in-the-making with Jonas Valanciunas. It’s tough to think the Raptors will grab the third seed in the East once again this year, but no one should be surprised if they do either.
That being said, being a very good team in the East doesn’t make you a title contender. It means you might hang around for the Eastern Conference Finals in a best-case scenario, but even if the Raptors somehow got that far, there’s no way they’re advancing to the Finals, let alone beating whatever beast emerges from the West.
Toronto should be proud to even be in this kind of conversation, but they’re not contenders for anything other than an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. “Pretender” seems a little bit harsh, because this is still a team that has accomplished a lot already and will continue to do so in 2014-15, but they’re definitely not a legitimate contender either.