The Toronto Raptors have what it takes to be a contender in the Eastern Conference

The Toronto Raptors are currently second in the Eastern Conference and 13-4, showing early on they have what it takes to contend in the East

Once Kawhi Leonard decided to leave the Toronto Raptors this past offseason for the LA Clippers, not many people gave the Raptors much hope of being a contender this year. Kawhi was the backbone of this team en route to their first-ever NBA title last season, then like that, he was gone.

But early on, Pascal Siakam and co. are playing very well, sitting just 1.5 games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Since Lowry and Ibaka went on the shelf with injuries, the Raptors have managed to go 7-2 since then, including a big win over the NBA-leading Los Angeles Lakers on November 10th at the Staples Center.

Heading into Friday night’s tilt with the Orlando Magic, Nick Nurse’s team is on a five-game winning streak.

Several players doing their part

After a breakout year last season, Siakam looks to be blossoming into a star for the Raps, with a team-leading 26 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest. He’s averaging almost ten more points per game than last season, while also registering the second-most minutes per game on Toronto at 36.7.

Kyle Lowry is still a vital part of this team’s success, but Siakam is showing huge potential as the next franchise player for the Raptors.

Fred VanVleet is also enjoying a breakout campaign after bursting on to the scene last year. The former Wichita State standout is playing the most minutes on the team currently at 37.6 while averaging a career-high 18.3 points and team-leading 7.5 assists.

He’s really taken his game to another level so far this season, and the increase in minutes that he’s seen haven’t overwhelmed him at all, showing out on a nightly basis for Toronto. Siakam and VanVleet have emerged as the two most important players on this team in the 2019-20 campaign thus far.

Small forward OG Anunoby has been a pleasant surprise this season for Nick Nurse. The 22-year-old is putting up career-high numbers in all categories, most notably dropping 11.9 points per game off the bench on 54 percent shooting from the field. With several injuries on their roster, Anunoby is getting his opportunity to contribute on a nightly basis and running with it.

Norman Powell is getting substantial minutes this year and posting solid numbers across the board, while newcomers Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and reigning G-League MVP Chris Boucher are proving to be instrumental players in the second unit.

Lowry and Ibaka returning will be important

Both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka should be back relatively soon from their respective injuries, which will definitely give the Raptors a boost. Lowry is their second-best scorer with 21.8 points, while Ibaka is dropping 14 points per contest. Even though a lot of these young guys are stepping up in their place right now, if this team wants to make a serious run once again this year, they will need two of their most experienced players. Seeing how good this team is playing without these two is very promising though, showing that they have a lot more depth than people give them credit for.

Marc Gasol, another veteran on the Raptors, is really struggling this year, scoring a dreadful 5.8 points per night. If he can find himself once again, it’s only going to make the defending NBA champions that much harder to beat because he did prove last season to be an important part of their title run.

Sinking the 3-ball

The Raptors currently lead the NBA with a 40.1 3-point percentage. Lowry is shooting 42 percent from downtown this year on 8.5 attempts per contest, while both VanVleet and Siakam are both shooting just under 40 percent from long-range. These two are attempting 6.5 and 6.3 3’s per night respectively, but it’s proven to become an important part of both of their games, especially VanVleet.

They have what it takes to contend

I’m not going to go ahead and say the Raptors can compete for their second straight NBA title, but they’re definitely talented enough on both sides of the ball to be a contender in a competitive Eastern Conference. When Lowry and Ibaka return, they will be at full strength. If Siakam and VanVleet can continue to put up solid numbers on a nightly basis, with their second unit playing their part, they’re going to give themselves a very good chance of playing deep into the playoffs by the season’s end.

Next: What's fueling Dwight Howard?

An Eastern Conference title is by no means impossible if the Toronto Raptors continue to play quality basketball all year long.

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