Are the Toronto Raptors a Legitimate Threat in the NBA's Eastern Conference?

The Raptors are riding high on a franchise record nine-game winning streak. Are they for real?

While the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and (to a lesser extent) Oklahoma City Thunder are all considered title contenders from the Western Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have run more or less unopposed as the only true contender in the East from the summer up to the season's halfway mark. 

There are plenty of good teams in the Eastern Conference -- there are currently 13 that are either in a playoff slot or within four games of one -- but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone, pundit or fan, who's picked any team other than the Cavs to come out of that side of the playoff bracket at any point this year. 

That was, of course, until the Toronto Raptors ripped off a nine-game winning streak (tying a franchise record) that has put them a mere two games behind Cleveland for the top seed in the conference. The Cavaliers might have more star power than the Raptors, but they are currently mired in a murky fog of a shocking mid-season coaching change and a myriad of questions on how to balance all that talent.

There's still plenty of season left to be played, but is it possible that the red-hot Raptors are earning themselves a spot right next to the Cavaliers in discussions regarding the Eastern Conference's elite, or do they still belong down in the next tier of near-contenders?

The Anatomy of a Streak

Toronto's current nine-game winning streak is currently the longest active streak in the NBA and is tied for the longest in their franchise's history. They are playing some of the best ball in the Association right now, and the numbers back up that and just about any other superlative claim you can come up with.

Since the streak started on January 6th, the Raptors are sixth in the NBA (first in the East) in Offensive Rating at 108.2, second in Defensive Rating at 96.4, and third in Net Rating (first in the East) at 11.9. That mark of 11.9 more points scored than allowed per 100 possessions trails only noted juggernauts the Golden State Warriors (14.7) and San Antonio Spurs (12.7) over that period.

The streak largely hinges on the inspired play of the team's two stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but the Raptors are getting contributions across the board and throughout their rotation. In fact, the best five-man lineup of the last three weeks (since the streak began) in the entire NBA has been one made up of Lowry and four bench players: Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Bismack Biyombo. Of all lineups across the league that have played at least 50 minutes together over that span, that combination leads them all in Net Rating at a whopping 29.3 in 78 minutes of action.

Stronger Than Ever Before

When looking at the entire season-to-date as a whole, it's hard not to consider this the best Raptors team in the franchise's history. At 30-15, their .667 win-loss percentage is on pace to be their best ever, while their Simple Rating System mark (a team rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule) of 4.26 easily beats out their previous best of 2.55 set in 2013-14.

The are currently fourth in the NBA in Offensive Rating (108.2) and ninth in Defensive Rating (103.1), joining the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers as the only teams in the NBA that currently rank inside the top 10 in both. The Raptors have only achieved that feat once in their 20 years prior to this season, when they placed 10th in both ratings in 2013-14.

Are They Contenders?

There are two factors that might impede people from labelling the Raptors as true "contenders" this year: inexperience and a lack of star power.

As discussed in the previous section, this year's Raptors team is on pace to crush team records and put forth the best regular season in franchise history. Of course, that might not be the most impressive of accomplishments, since there have been a lot of bad seasons in said history -- 13 losing campaigns out of the 20 played, to be exact.

Combine 20 years of non-contending seasons with a total lack of playoff success, and it's easy to understand why believing in this team comes with some trepidation. They've only once made it out of the first round of the playoffs and have never won a seven-game series. They've been knocked out by a lower-seeded team in each of the last two postseasons (last year, in an embarrassing sweep to the Washington Wizards). 

In terms of superstars, this particular iteration of the Raptors has previously been discredited for lacking one. Well, that opinion might be on the verge of becoming outdated, as both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are simultaneously putting forth the best campaigns of their respective careers. 

Lowry, already named an All-Star this season by way of fan voting, is averaging 20.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting a career best True Shooting Percentage (TS%, weighted two, threes, and free throws) of 57.9%. 

DeRozan, sure to be named an All-Star on Thursday when the reserves are formally announced, is averaging 23.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.0 steal per game, while posting a career-best TS% (excluding his less involved rookie season) of 55.4%. 

Even Jonas Valanciunas, who spent 17 games on the shelf this season with a fractured hand, is having one of the best months of his career, averaging 12.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game in January, while shooting 55.1% from the field.

They might never have been here before and lack a traditional superstar in the LeBron James or Kevin Durant mold, but they are clearly better than they've ever been and have enough emerging star power to belong with the rest of the cream in the NBA's crop.

Let the Numbers Do the Talking

Our projections don't factor in things like a lack of previous success or superstar appeal, so let's see what they have to say about the Raptors and how they've performed this season.

As of today, the Raptors are sixth in our NBA Team Power Rankings with a nERD of 63.2 (a number meant to project a team's ultimate winning percentage based on play-to-date for the season). That number puts them second in the Eastern Conference, only barely trailing Cleveland's 64.8. 

We have them as a near-lock to make the playoffs at 99.9% and even a decent shot at the title at 6.3%. It's a far cry from the Golden State Warriors at 36.3% and the San Antonio Spurs at 30.4%, but it's very much within striking distance of the Cleveland Cavaliers at 7.5% and the Oklahoma City Thunder at 7.3%. The next closest Eastern Conference team after that is the Boston Celtics down at 2.7%.

So, if you're looking purely at the numbers and ignoring the intangible biases of experience and superstardom, the Raptors are looking just as much like contenders as the Thunder and conference rivals, the Cavaliers. At the very least, they are playing like Cleveland's only true peer in the conference.

And they've done all that without their big offseason free agent acquisition in DeMarre Carroll for the better part of the season and a supposed hole at the power forward position, where Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson have played. If the Raptors can reintegrate a healthy and normally very effective Carroll into their starting lineup, while being buyers at the NBA's trade deadline, who's to say they can't give Cleveland a run for their money in the East come playoff time?

Perhaps it's time to start believing in the team up North, eh?