The Toronto Raptors have never looked better. Even when Vince Carter was at his peak, the Raptors never won 48 games in a regular season, and they didn't claim back-to-back Atlantic Division titles. Toronto continued to make improvements during this offseason, and yet they’re still not seen as viable contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Some things never change. The Raptors are the black sheep of the NBA; outside of their Canadian fan base, few people talk about this team. Toronto doesn't have a superstar player like Carter drawing eyeballs with highlight-reel dunks. The changes that GM Masai Ujiri has made over the past two-plus years have been subtle, mostly to improve the bench. And as usual, LeBron James is casting a very long shadow over the rest of the East.


Atlantic Playland
The NBA odds haven't changed much, either. Going into the 2014-15 regular season, the Raptors were +5000 to win the championship, well behind LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers at +250. One year later, the Cavs are back on top of the futures market at +275. The Raptors are still +5000.

At least Toronto is expected to win the Atlantic again. This remains the weakest division in the NBA, and the Raptors are the clear favourites at –200. The only real competition is expected to come from the Boston Celtics (+200), who have made some upgrades of their own – including the free-agent signing of former Raps power forward Amir Johnson. But anything beyond a third straight Atlantic crown could be a pipe dream. Toronto is just +2500 to win the East, tied with three other teams for the No. 5 spot on the odds list.



Silver Polish
Judging by this year's regular-season win totals, the betting market doesn't seem to be convinced about Ujiri's latest upgrades. The Raptors won 48 games two years ago and 49 last year. At press time, Toronto is looking at an over/under of 46.5 wins for the 2015-16 campaign, with the over favoured slightly at –125.

Is that still too optimistic? Nate Silver's CARMELO projections (a new algorithm, based on Silver's PECOTA system for baseball) have the Raptors winning 44 games this year. Almost all of Toronto's starters are expected to decline somewhat, including point guard Kyle Lowry, who made his first All-Star team in 2014-15 before breaking down and having a difficult spring. That being said, CARMELO doesn't know about Lowry's offseason regimen. He's clearly in the best shape of his career, which should help with both his speed and his staying power.



Best Defense
The projections also gloss over how the new Raptors should be greater than the sum of their parts. Ujiri's biggest offseason acquisition was free-agent small forward DeMarre Carroll, a strong 3-and-D player who helped the Atlanta Hawks win 60 games last year. Carroll is a significant upgrade over Terrence Ross, who moves to the bench as a sixth-man to replace Louis Williams. Ujiri also jettisoned back-up guard Greivis Vasquez and brought in Toronto native Cory Joseph from the San Antonio Spurs. Joseph is a huge step up defensively from Vasquez.

Speaking of defense, Bismack Biyombo is Toronto's new back-up centre. The former Charlotte Bobcat/Hornet was signed on the cheap to give the Raptors some much-needed rim protection, and has already impressed with his decision-making in preseason games. Also new for 2015-16: veteran power forward Luis Scola, and power forward Anthony Bennett, another Toronto native who was cut loose by the Minnesota Timberwolves after failing to live up to his hype as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.


4 on the Floor
If there is a concern for Toronto fans this year, it's at power forward. With Johnson out of the mix, the Raptors need to figure out who will do the best job of complementing centre Jonas Valanciunas in the frontcourt. Patrick Patterson will get the first crack at the job; as a stretch-4, Patterson can help clear the paint for Valanciunas on offense, but neither big is particularly good at defense. Scola could end up playing a bigger role than expected, or head coach Dwane Casey could get over his reluctance to give James Johnson more minutes.

Bennett is the Wild Card in this scenario. In theory, he has the talent to fill the void with his rebounding and his improved shooting, but does Bennett have his head in the game? It isn't costing the Raptors much to find out. At the very least, Bennett will get a chance to develop with Toronto's new D-League team, Raptors905, along with prospects like small forward Bruno Caboclo, centre Lucas Nogueira, and this year's draft picks: point guard Delon Wright and shooting guard Norman Powell.

Ultimately, there's little question that Ujiri has this franchise pointed in the right direction. This should be a better team than last year's, with no shortage of betting value in single-game situations. But if you're looking for a long shot at +5000, Lowry is more likely to lead the NBA in assists than Toronto is to win the championship. Or you could get paid out at +10000 if shooting guard DeMar DeRozan leads the league in points per game. It could happen.


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*Odds as of October 21, 2015