A month ago, the conversation around the slumping Raptors was centered about whether Scottie Barnes could win Rookie of the Year. Now healthy and on a winning streak, it's time to consider if the Raptors can solidify themselves as a top 6 team in the Eastern Conference.
IMMAN ADAN: They're still a pretty good team as they are right now. I'm trying to find a way to like segue into this next thing. But I kind of want to talk about, the Raptors, they beat the Bucks. They're above 0.500. And they're the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
I think you and I kind of are on the same page about them being able to finish as a top six team in the Eastern Conference. I'm going to ask you, are you? Are you on the same page with me on that?
YASMIN DUALE: Yeah, that was my pre-New Year's prediction. I said January, they're going to be a sixth seed. I looked at the upcoming schedule for a bulk of the teams in the East. I feel like if luck is on their side, their worst injuries and COVID protocols are behind them. So if they are able to maintain health for the second half of the season, which is a lot to ask in today's NBA--
IMMAN ADAN: Especially considering the minutes that they're all playing and the load that someone like Fred VanVleet has to take on. I just keep harping on this. Wrap him in bubble wrap. Let Alex McKechnie work all of the magic that you possibly have on him, because if he goes down, that's it. And he's so important to this team.
And there's no Fred VanVleet duplicate. The Raptors, I think, can withstand OG going down for a while. They can even withstand Pascal Siakam going down for a while. We saw it. It's not ideal, but they can withstand it. I don't think they can withstand any Fred time.
YASMIN DUALE: And it just speaks to the thinness at guard that they have right now in terms of just playable guys. The reason why you can withstand Pascal or OG is because you're going to have Scottie. You're going to have Yuta. You're going to have even Precious. You're going to have multiple bodies who can, just at least defensively, keep it above water. But it's just so thin at guard right now.
And with Delano and Malachi kind of struggling right now, you can't rely on them. They're rookies. They're young players. Malachi is on his second year. It's just tough in those positions.
But yeah, based on what I saw, it's a lot to ask for them to maintain health for the second half of the season. But if they're able to, I think that I can see them just having a chance against any competition on a game-to-game basis. And I'm talking about the postseason. But I'm less concerned, actually, with what happens in the postseason. I just want them to get there and to gain that experience as a unit, because I feel like it's going to be so important to their development moving forward in the next couple of years.
This is such a young team. Even the veterans on this team-- typically on the better playoff teams, you have guys above 30. The Bulls have DeMar DeRozan, who has just been a wealth of veteran presence on the team, especially in those fourth quarters. We've been seeing him dominate it. Even the Sixers have it. Every single team has it. Even the Cavs, they have Ricky Rubio.
IMMAN ADAN: Even without the age thing, the Raptors' veterans are-- it's their first time in the situation that they're in--
YASMIN DUALE: Exactly, yeah.
IMMAN ADAN: Where it's like, other teams' veterans, regardless of their age-- Joel Embiid is what? Probably the same age as Siakam, I'm assuming. But he's been the number one player for that team for years at this point, whereas we're finally seeing Fred and Pascal and OG and Scottie, as a rookie, in these roles at they're first in.
So I agree with you. The Raptors just don't have the experience to be like, oh, they need to win a round when they get there. Kind of like, get there, and let's see what happens.
YASMIN DUALE: Yeah, exactly. I was just saying today that Rookie of the Year was a priority when we were below 0.500, when we stank. But now, I have bigger plans. I want to see Scottie have his coming out party.
IMMAN ADAN: It's like nail polish emoji. You have to do after that. Your fancy now. That's an upgrade.
Now, OK, so in order for them to get to the top six, because they're seventh right now, one of those top six teams has to fall out. Just as a refresher, we're talking about Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Chicago, Philly, and Cleveland. I'm missing somebody. Miami.
YASMIN DUALE: Sixers? Wait, no Miami, yeah.
IMMAN ADAN: Miami is this team that I'm missing there. So which one of those six teams?
YASMIN DUALE: I think the Cavs, just simply because of the injuries. I think that at full health, they are probably better than the Raptors, especially with the season Rubio has been having. I feel like that's just kind of pushed them over the edge with having--
IMMAN ADAN: And they have those vets. They have Love. They have Rubio. Yeah, they have the vets there as well.
YASMIN DUALE: Yeah, and Kevin Love as well, who's been great the last few games. I feel like that has put them over the edge. But with Collin Sexton's injury and with Rubio's season-ending injury, I feel like that just kind of is a huge blow to them, unfortunately. So I feel like they're probably the most likely to lose some steam and fall out of the top six. And that would be, I feel like, the Raptors' pathway to the top six, because I feel like all of the other teams in that range are a better team than the Raptors.
So if everything works out, that should be how the East shakes out. But obviously, things haven't gone to plan this season. So we'll see.
IMMAN ADAN: 2022, it's a new year.
YASMIN DUALE: Yeah, everything's like, I don't know, but--
IMMAN ADAN: So OK. I want to know though, from the sort of teams that are around that play in range with the Raptors right now, the Charlotte Hornets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Washington Wizards, the Boston Celtics, which one of those teams do you think is the Raptors' biggest threat to a top six spot outside of Cleveland? Cleveland is clearly that for right now. But outside of that, which one of those other teams?
YASMIN DUALE: Probably the Celtics. I feel like the Wizards had a hot start, lost steam. I feel like the Hornets are just very young. So I don't really see them as a threat to the Raptors. I feel like the Raptors' stars are more seasoned, just based on that.
IMMAN ADAN: What about the Hawks?
YASMIN DUALE: And yeah, I just feel like-- the Hawks--
IMMAN ADAN: Everyone was very high on the Hawks coming into the season. And I didn't know why everyone was as high on them. But I definitely had them as a top six seed. I think I had them as a sixth seed right below the Bulls.
YASMIN DUALE: Yeah. Yeah, the Hawks and the Knicks have underperformed. I think it's just been a matter of defense. I feel like their defense has really struggled outside of the bubble from last season. And I'm not sure why. I would have to look at the numbers. And also obviously, injuries have affected the-- or also COVID, I think, has really affected the Hawks so--
IMMAN ADAN: That would be the answer for the Knicks as well.
YASMIN DUALE: Yeah. I feel like that's been an issue. I don't really see them as a threat in that sense. If they had more reinforced front courts that were able to really affect the Raptors' frontcourt players, I would say otherwise.
But I say the Celtics because they have that backcourt defense that has given the Raptors struggles in Marcus Smart. They have the frontcourt defense in Jayson Tatum and even Jaylen Brown, who had success against Pascal Siakam their last playoff round. Yeah, so I feel like just positionally, the Raptors and the Celtics kind of mirror each other.
I feel like the X factor that really puts the Raptors ahead would be Scottie Barnes, who has shown that he can play well against them. He can really pressure their frontcourt, because yeah, maybe they can stop Siakam. But can they deal with OG and Scottie Barnes as well? So I feel like the Celtics would be the biggest threat in a play-in scenario. I would hate to watch that playoff series. I would literally, like between like my fingers.