The Raptors appear to be a team on the rise after winning a franchise-record 48 games last season. Can the dinosaurs possibly beat out Cleveland and Chicago for a spot in the 2015 NBA Finals? Let's examine Toronto's NBA odds.
Addition by Subtraction
Generally when a team trades its second-leading scorer in what amounts to a salary dump, the team is going to be significantly worse. Yet the exact opposite happened when Toronto traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes in early December last season. The Raptors didn't do it because any of those four players are all that good -- Vasquez and Patterson are solid -- but because Gay had a player option of $20 million following the season and the Raptors didn't want to be stuck with it. Gay could score but he wasn't very accurate and was, frankly, a ball hog.
Instead of going into the tank and landing in the lottery, as many assumed Raptors GM Masai Ujiri wanted (the team would have done nearly anything to get Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian), the Raptors got much better after the trade. The ball was shared a lot more and the backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan became one of the best in the Eastern Conference. Lowry averaged career highs in points (17.9), assists (7.4) and rebounds (4.7). Meanwhile, DeRozan averaged career highs with 22.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
Thanks in large part to those two and a blossoming Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors surprisingly won the Atlantic Division over Brooklyn and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The postseason was a disappointment as Toronto took a 3-2 series lead in the first round against the Nets. Brooklyn easily won Game 6 at home and then stole Game 7 in Toronto, 104-103, as Paul Pierce blocked the potential series-winning shot in the lane from Lowry on the final play of the game. The Raptors still haven't won a playoff series since 2001.
Toronto finished 2013-14 an excellent 43-33-3 against the spread on NBA odds at sportsbooks (regular-season only) and 45-37 'over/under.'
The biggest move for the Raptors was re-signing Lowry to a very team-friendly four-year, $48 million contract this offseason when he became a free agent. By comparison, Eric Bledsoe got $70 million from Phoenix. Toronto also re-signed Vasquez and Patterson.
The bench should be better with the addition of Lou Williams from the Hawks, acquired for Salmons. It was a salary dump for Atlanta as it immediately waived Salmons. Williams used to be one of the best sixth men in the NBA but has been a bit injury-prone in recent years. He averaged 10.4 points in 60 games mostly off the bench for the Hawks in 2013-14. The NBA draft wasn't any help for Toronto. With its first-round pick the team took Brazilian forward Bruno Caboclo, a guy most ESPN announcers working the draft had never heard of. He's incredibly raw and years away. The Raptors had to go to Plan B when Phoenix took Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis at No. 18 overall. Toronto wanted him badly as he also is from Canada and could have backed up Lowry or perhaps made Lowry trade bait in a couple of years.
So essentially this team is largely the same other than Williams. The Raptors' seven most-used players, DeRozan, Lowry, Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, Vasquez and Patterson all return. Vasquez and Patterson will come off the bench with Williams, Chuck Hayes, James Johnson and perhaps Tyler Hansbrough.
Raptors NBA Futures Odds
The Raptors are +4000 at sportsbooks to win their first NBA title, +2000 to win the Eastern Conference and -150 favorites on NBA odds to repeat as Atlantic Division champions. They have a wins total of 48.5, with both betting options at -115. DeRozan is a +30000 long shot to win NBA MVP. Dwane Casey is +2000 to win NBA Coach of the Year.
Free NBA Picks: 'Under' 48.5 wins, although not by a lot, and yes on the Atlantic Division prop only. When chosing your NBA picks keep in mind it's pretty unrealistic to expect the Raptors to win the NBA title or Eastern Conference as at best they are the third-best team in the East -- and the East is much weaker than the West. The Atlantic Division is very winnable and might be the weakest division overall in the NBA. Brooklyn (+280 on NBA odds) will take a step back without Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston and simply being a year older. The Knicks (+400) should be a little better than last year but still have many questions. The Celtics (+4000) and 76ers (+20000) are lock lottery teams.