Most of the Eastern Conference was supposed to be fodder for the eventual Miami-Indiana rematch in the conference finals.
The rest of the East was playing for draft picks in the much-hyped 2014 class, especially with Chicago’s Derrick Rose injured and New York and Brooklyn unable to get above .500.
Toronto was definitely in the group of teams not looking like contenders.
In the offseason, the Raptors dealt former No.1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani to New York. Twenty games into the season, they dealt Rudy Gay, who had been with the team less than a year, to the Kings.
Salaries were being cleared. The tank was in – or so it appeared.
Someone forgot to tell the Raptors this season was about increasing their chances of getting possible top draft prospect Andrew Wiggins, a Canadian.
Toronto is 18-12 since the deal and leads the Atlantic Division. And don’t try telling Raptors coach Dwane Casey his team’s success is simply a product of playing in the East.
“It took a little while for the Eastern Conference, and it’s sad and upsetting that you get that rap because they get paid on the 1st and the 15th. All of us do,” Casey said.
Casey points out East teams have had success against the West’s better squads. Washington knocked off Oklahoma City and won at Phoenix and Golden State, and Charlotte won at Golden State, just to name a few of those wins.
“I think it took some time for some teams in the Eastern Conference because they were new coming together and it takes time to get together and jell,” Casey said. “But I think a lot of teams are coming around and jelling. It is what it is, but I wouldn’t slight the Eastern Conference just because of the records. I’ve been in the Western Conference all my career. The talent is in the Eastern Conference. It’s just young talent that’s starting to jell.”
The Raptors have one of the more talented young players in guard DeMar DeRozan, who was selected to his first All-Star team this season. He was averaging 22.3 points through Friday and has flourished since Gay was traded. Both are wing players who like the ball in similar spots on the floor.
“He’s got more touches, more go-to sets for him,” Casey said. “And Kyle (Lowry) has done an excellent job of orchestrating things.”
The four players Toronto took from the Kings in the trade have helped fill roles, too. John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez have been around winning teams and fit in with the Raptors.
“They’ve been a good fit, and their basketball IQs have been a huge help to us,” Casey said.
But it’s not time to vault the Raptors into the same conversation as Indiana and Miami when discussing the best in the Eastern Conference.
The record since the Gay deal has been good, but Casey isn’t patting himself or his team on the back.
“To me, we still have some growing to do,” Casey said.
February has been good to Boston center Jared Sullinger.
The second-year big man is averaging 23.7 points and 12.7 rebounds and shooting 60 percent in three games this month, all wins. That includes a career-high 31 points in Friday’s win over the Kings.
Sullinger is generously listed at 6-foot-9 but uses his 260-pound frame to his advantage.
Portland has lost six of its last 10. Though still third in the West, the Trail Blazers cannot afford to slip too much more and risk falling to the fourth or fifth spot.
The best way to do that would be with better defense. The Trail Blazers lead the NBA in scoring at 107.8 points per game but are 26th in points allowed at 103.4.
“At this point after the amount of period of time the former general manager had, we just felt it was time. We needed a shift in certain cultural aspects and a different environment.” – Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, who fired general manager Chris Grant, hired in 2010, hours after an embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had lost seven in a row, dressed eight players and finished with five because of injuries and fouls.