The Toronto Raptors have really improved this year. The Cleveland Cavaliers have improved...but not nearly enough. Can the Cavs look to the Raptors as a guide of how to get better going forward? Does Toronto have a repeatable and sustainable model to become a playoff team? I'm not so sure.
Furthermore, what is Toronto's ceiling with this core of players? I don't have answers to these questions, but feel free to ponder them.
Who? Cleveland Cavaliers (27-44) vs. Toronto Raptors (39-30)
When? 7:00 PM Eastern
Where? Quicken Loans Arena -- Cleveland, OH
Where on my eyeballs? Fox Sports Ohio / NBA League Pass
Today, we have a special treat for you. Blake Murphy a wonderful Raptors expert from Raptors Republic kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the Cavaliers' opponent tonight. I also answered a few questions for him and you can see that stuff over at RaptorsRepublic.com. Also: you should totally follow Blake on Twitter.
Here's what I asked Blake and here's how he answered:
Most years it seems as though there's at least one team that makes a major jump from bad/mediocre to a legitimate playoff team. Last year it was the Golden State Warriors. This year it appears to be the Toronto Raptors (and the Phoenix Suns, but forget about them for now). A lot of people (including myself) thought that it would be the Cavaliers. It's not the Cavaliers. What has been the biggest contributor to the Raptors being able to make that significant leap forward?
Obviously, everyone points to the Rudy Gay trade back on Dec. 9, after which the Raptors have been a top-10 team on both ends of the floor. It wasn't as simple as addition by subtraction, though, because it's not as if Gay is a useless player. Instead, Gay's high usage was spread out across several, more efficient options, with the offense taking on a far more fluid and less predictable dynamic. On both ends, the team moved from relying on a single player to a more holistic approach, leading to several gains at the margin in different areas rather than one "Eureka!" change.
Keeping with that theme, do you see any similarities between these Raptors and last year's Warriors? The styles of play may not be identical, but do you think the Raptors' success is repeatable so that they can be in a similar position next year?
There are definitely similarities - young players growing into bigger roles, the removal of a high-scoring, low-efficiency wing making the whole more efficient, and a coach doing a better job than he maybe had any business doing. I think some parts of the success are repeatable, but the team has remained pretty quiet on offseason plans; the two biggest driving forces in the turnaround - coach Dwane Casey and point guard Kyle Lowry - are both in the final year of their respective contracts. Masai Ujiri inherited both, and while there's every reason to like what's happened this year, this franchise has gotten into big trouble before when a general manager rolled with a surprisingly successful status quo. The hope, then, would be that similar to Golden State, the Raptors see the need to continue to make improvements.
Raptors fans seem to love Jonas Valanciunas. Cavs fans don't really love him because people constantly say they could have had Jonas instead of Tristan Thompson. What have you seen from Jonas this season? Has he become the magical basketball unicorn that people thought he would be a year or two ago?
He has definitely not become said unicorn. In fact, his progression has been marginal at best - he's rebounding a bit more but scoring less efficiently, and he hasn't made strides on the defensive end to quite the degree some expected. You'll still take 13.7-and-11.1 per-36 on 52 percent shooting from a 21-year-old (that's still pretty rarefied air), but given where expectations were entering the season, it's been a mild disappointment. On the bright side, following an apparent sophomore slump, Valanciunas has had a solid stretch of ball - 15 points and nine rebounds over his past five, shooting 58.3 percent with a 12.7-point impact on the team's defensive rating. Small samples and all, but he's playing his best ball of the season of late.
So there you have it. Now you know everything you could ever want to know about the Raptors, right? Well basically.
The Cavaliers will try to play some good basketball tonight and, of course, they'll do it without Kyrie Irving again. Dion Waiters has been playing much better lately, but I'm not sure that it will be enough. The Raptors are quite stingy on defense and Kyle Lowry is a slightly better defender than any of the Knicks' point guards. Jarrett Jack probably won't go off for 31 points.
It's a little unclear how healthy Luol Deng's ankle is right now. Defensively, it would definitely help if were able to defend DeMar DeRozan at full strength. But I know that he's been banged up all year, so it's hard to bank on Deng's ability to lock down DeRozan. We shall see.