Expectations have never been higher.
When the first official over-under win totals were released in Vegas at the start of August, the Raptors were pegged for 54.5 wins, tied with the 76ers for second in the Eastern Conference behind only the Celtics. Upon first glance, 54.5 wins probably doesn't seem all too noteworthy for a team that's averaged 55 wins over the last three seasons.
MORE: Over-under wins for all 30 teams
But while winning at least 50 would be nothing special in Toronto, this is the first time in franchise history they're actually expected to win 50 by the bookmakers heading into a season. Their previous high-water mark was 49.5 entering 2016-17 coming on the heels of a then franchise-record 56 wins and berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.
For a team clouded in uncertainty - a new franchise player with health concerns, a rookie head coach, lingering doubt from another playoff exit via the broomstick - it's fascinating that it simultaneously enters 2018-19 with unprecedented hope. Here are three reasons why the Raptors outlook is so rosy.
No Raptors player has ever finished in the top five in MVP voting. In 23 years, the Raptors have never had a player named 1st-team All-NBA. Vince Carter and Chris Bosh may have been perennial All-Stars but neither carried Toronto towards true title contention. Tracy McGrady blossomed after he left and with apologies to both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, neither - though certainly All-Stars - are the type of transcendent talent that automatically guarantees contention.
Enter Kawhi Leonard.
If healthy and motivated, Leonard is unquestionably one of the top five players in the entire league and arguably the best player in the Eastern Conference. An MVP runner-up, 2-time Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP, Leonard quite simply represents the type of top shelf talent that Toronto has never truly rolled out. Toss in the league's best bench and a second All-Star playmaker to help lighten the load and it's easy to see why the mere presence of Leonard equates to greater expectations.
Defence wins championships... or at the very least puts you on the short list of contenders. Over the last eight years, six of the teams to finish first in the NBA in defensive rating made it to at least the Conference Finals. The exceptions? A 67-win Spurs team in 2015-16 that got bounced by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the second round and the 2011-12 Bulls who finished with the best record in the East before Derrick Rose's ill-fated knee injury in the first round.
After finishing fifth in defensive rating in 2017-18, there's every reason to believe that the Raptors will be among the very best defensive teams in the league in 2018-19 after adding Leonard and Danny Green, who has annually ranked among the best defensive shooting guards over each of the last five years. Those two would generate optimism on that end in a vacuum but even moreso when considering they figure to replace nearly all of the minutes taken by DeMar DeRozan.
Though DeRozan certainly deserves credit for carrying Toronto's offence, it's no secret that the Raptors morphed into an entirely different animal on defence whenever he came off the floor. While the Raptors defended at a level just better than league average with DeRozan on the floor last season, in the 1,200-plus minutes he was out of the game the Raptors held opponents to just 98.9 points per 100 possessions, a number that would be by far the best in the NBA.
With Leonard and Green in the fold alongside O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam (not to mention Fred VanVleet who rates extraordinarily well among point guards), the Raptors have the personnel to consistently put a top-notch defensive unit on the floor.
To fully understand the bullish expectations for the Raptors also requires an honest assessment of the Eastern Conference as a whole. The low-hanging fruit is the departure of LeBron James who simply tormented Toronto in the postseason. While it's easy to point to his decision to head west as a reason for high expectations in Toronto, the reality is it doesn't have much of an impact on the Raptors overall win total in the regular season.
The bottom of the East helps Toronto's case as there are six teams - Hawks, Bulls, Knicks, Cavaliers, Magic and Nets - projected to win fewer than 33 games compared to just two in the Western Conference. Not including the Cavaliers who are obviously going to be a much different team, the Raptors went a combined 18-1 against those other five last season.
In addition to feasting on teams towards the bottom of the conference, the Raptors performed exceptionally well last season against the Celtics and 76ers, the two teams which figure to also be in the running for the best regular season record. In fact, no team in the NBA had a better scoring margin against either the Celtics or 76ers last season. While there's no guarantee of history repeating itself - especially with the return of Gordon Hayward and natural growth of young stars on both teams - the Raptors should have the confidence it can more than hang with them, especially if Leonard returns to top form and states his case as the new top dog among Eastern Conference All-Stars.
Throw in the fact that Toronto went a respectable 19-11 against a loaded Western Conference last season and it's easy to see why the experts consider the Raptors a force to be reckoned with in 2018-19.
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