The Toronto Raptors are seen by some as a realistic threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. Standing in at 49-24 and just three wins behind the Cavs, there isn’t much evidence to combat that.

DeMarre’s Battle

The big question, of course, is if Toronto can catch Cleveland for the #1 seed without swing man DeMarre Carroll before the regular season dries up. More importantly, once in the playoffs, just how far can they go without their best defender?

Carroll proved to be a strong defensive asset in his first 23 games with the Raptors, racking up almost two steals a game, while chipping in 11 points per contest on the offensive end. Unfortunately he dealt with a troublesome knee and ended up having surgery to ensure he’d be ready to help Toronto with a deep playoff run later in the year.

The time to help has arrived, but per reports, Carroll has suffered a set-back and can no longer be relied upon to help the Raptors close out the regular season strong. In fact, it’s possible he might not be able to help Toronto at all.

Lowry Ailing

With Carroll likely not due back unless the Raptors make a deep playoff run, Toronto may be left wondering what could have been. Add Kyle Lowry to the pile of problems, as a sore elbow has reportedly impacted his shooting and has him on shutdown alert.

Losing Carroll is bad enough, but Toronto has at least maneuvered through a huge part of the 2015-16 season without their prized free agent acquisition. Trying to close the regular season strong and make serious noise in the playoffs without Lowry, however, is a totally different issue.

At this point Lowry does not seem likely to miss much time (and maybe not any) and Toronto has hopes of it being a passing problem. Still, with one key player already probably lost for the beginning of the playoffs, Toronto is playing with fire when it comes to the injury bug.

Title Odds

As they stand, Toronto is still the second best team coming out of the Eastern Conference and even with Lowry now also hindered, they still have a shot at catching Cleveland for the top seed. That isn’t their chief concern, however. The bigger problem is focusing on the first round of the playoffs, which could still reveal a very tough out. Judging by the current Eastern Conference playoff standings, Toronto can prepare for a first round date with the Detroit Pistons. Due to their size and athleticism, Detroit could be a handful, too.

Vegas puts Toronto (+2500 odds) in a decent spot to make a run at the 2016 NBA Finals, resting comfortably as the fifth most likely NBA team to win the league title this summer. But should they?

The idea of the Raptors rising from the ashes of a 4-0 first round exit last year isn’t crazy, but it requires Carroll locking down the opposition’s top offensive player and chipping in timely outside shooting. Carroll was an underrated piece of the puzzle that led to the Atlanta Hawks taking the #1 seed a year ago and by all accounts, he could have helped the Raptors do the very same had he not gotten hurt.

In the playoffs, Carroll would be counted on to slow down megastars like LeBron James, Paul George, Dwyane Wade and others. Without him, the defensive pressure falls on Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, both of which are more than capable defensively, but need to save their efforts for the offensive end. In turn, that also puts a focus on Toronto’s best big man – Jonas Valanciunas. Already one prone to foul trouble, attacking Jonas V down low gives opponents an advantage, at least hypothetically.

In other words, the Raptors are a very strong team and even without Carroll, they’re every bit as good as their 49 wins suggest. They’re not the only solid Eastern Conference team, however, and they absolutely need Carroll to take down the Cleveland Cavaliers. Needless to say, unless word breaks that Carroll will be returning a lot sooner than later, consider slow-playing those bets on Toronto to win it all this season.

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