With the Toronto Maple Leafs already looking like a top-tier NHL team, their Air Canada Centre roommates, the Toronto Raptors, have their work cut out for them if they want to once again be the toast of TO come spring. Are they up to the task?
Logic dictates that the Raptors should once again be a competitive force in the Eastern Conference. Despite losing some useful rotation players, the team retained its two biggest free agents in Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. There has been an organizational focus this offseason on modernizing an offense that has routinely fallen short against top teams, and the tweaks appear to be paying some immediate dividends in the preseason. Barring injury woes, there is no reason Toronto shouldn't win somewhere between 45 and 55 games.
The question is whether or not that will be enough to set it up for success in the playoffs. 188BET is giving Toronto 26.0 odds to win the East, which is good for fifth-lowest in the conference behind the Cavaliers (1.60), Celtics (2.50), Wizards (15.0), and Bucks (21.0). Clearly the betting world has lost some faith in the Raptors, who were downgraded despite finishing ahead of Washington in the standings last April, knocking out the Bucks from the playoffs in May, and maintaining continuity while Boston totally revamped its roster over the summer.
Those things matter. If you're going to dismiss the Raptors for being a known commodity, do so at your own peril. They've got a pair of All-Stars and a mob of scrappy youngsters who are ready to go out and prove you wrong.
Even their perceived ceiling is flimsier than it's ever been. The Cleveland Cavaliers have long been viewed as an impenetrable road block to the NBA Finals, but after trading away Kyrie Irving for an injured replacement, LeBron's squad has its own set of questions to answer before it can be pencilled in for a conference victory. If you believe the hegemonic Cavs are going to take a step back, then Toronto is as good a bet as anyone to usurp them. Its longshot odds only sweeten the deal.
Winning the conference, however, is just one of many bets involving the Raptors for the 2017-18 season. Glance over the MVP contender odds at 188BET and you'll find the Toronto backcourt lurking in the fray. Neither DeMar DeRozan (67.0) or Kyle Lowry (81.0) is a favourite to go home with the hardware that Russell Westbrook claimed last season, but it's not impossible to imagine a scenario in which one—or both—of them catapults into that conversation.
Sure, it would probably require a key injury or two—perhaps even to one of DeRozan or Lowry themselves—for that to materialize. The NBA is arguably more loaded than it’s ever been, and superstars like LeBron James (5.40) and Kawhi Leonard (5.50) are set to shoulder a greater load this year than at any time in the recent past for their teams—meaning that they will also receive heaps of credit should things go well. Still, there's no reason why DeRozan or Lowry can't leapfrog players like the defensively unproven Karl-Anthony Towns (41.0), the injury-riddled Blake Griffin (51.0) and Joel Embiid (41.0), the aging Chris Paul (41.0), or the suddenly star-clustered Paul George (41.0) and Jimmy Butler (51.0).
It's hard to pick either of Toronto's All-Stars as being a more likely MVP candidate than the other. DeRozan outshone Lowry last season, but only because the latter missed significant time and the former went on a torrid scoring streak to start the season, which appeared to be fueled—at least in part—by an egregiously low Sports Illustrated player ranking that isn't as egregious this time around. Lowry will be well-rested after the offseason and hungry to prove himself once again, but if all the three-point practice DeRozan has been doing can translate to the court, then watch out—he'll be the Raptor that MVP voters think of first.
The most intriguing Raptors bet of all might be OG Anunoby in the Rookie of the Year (ROY) race. Ranked in the bottom tier of candidates, the small forward from Indiana is the ultimate low risk-high reward bet. His 101.0 odds would trigger an astronomically huge payout if he does manage to break through and claim the prestigious award.
Part of the rationale for Anunoby's low ranking can be chalked up to injury. He was hurt towards the end of last season and was expected to miss significant time before making his Raptors debut. However, Anunoby has greatly accelerated that timeline, seeing his first minutes of NBA action in Toronto's preseason matchup with Detroit. More importantly, he looked pretty good.
Against the Pistons, Anunoby made a strong impression in limited time. He dished some nifty assists and showed some skill off the dribble. Once he starts playing at full speed again, the three-point shooting and defensive prowess he was known for in college should start reappearing. These are valuable abilities in the NBA—and Dwane Casey knows it. The seventh-year Raptors coach also knows that Anunoby was undervalued in the draft because of his injury, calling the kid "a top-10 pick" despite being selected at No. 23.
All of those things add up to Anunoby having the potential for a ROY campaign like the one we saw from Malcolm Brogdon last year. The versatile Bucks guard defied the odds and became the first second-round pick to ever win the award by serving as a steady contributor for a winning team. That's the model Anunoby would have to follow as well, since he won't be a star right away on a loaded squad like the Raptors. But with Toronto's starting small forward spot up for grabs, there's a universe in which Casey starts a healthy Anunoby to complement the stars, and unleashes Norman Powell and CJ Miles to feast on opposing bench units. Starting for the Raptors would give Anunoby the exposure he needs to actually put together a legit case.
The problem with counting on Anunoby to follow the Brogdon model in this year's race is that there appears to be far more competitive field than there was a year prior. The 2016-17 crop was fluky in the sense that most of the top talent was either injured, unusually raw, or bland. Frontrunners Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid missed either all or most of the season; Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, and Denzel Valentine weren't polished enough to make the meaningful NBA impact that their lottery pick status warranted; and Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Thon Maker, Taurean Prince, and Pascal Siakam were solid but unspectacular. This year's class already has a ton of justified buzz around it. Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith Jr., Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Kuzma dazzled in Summer League; Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, and Malik Monk have the tools to be truly special; and De'Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, Lauri Markkanen, and John Collins will get starring roles and gaudy stat opportunities on bad teams. Oh, and Simmons is eligible too. This could be one of the best rookie classes in years.
Anunoby clearly has a tough road to the top. Still, the payout with him could certainly be worth a small wager. At the very least, it will be another reason to root for a player and team that are chalk full of potential. Go Raps go!