-- At 23-10, the Toronto Raptors are on pace to win 57 games and top last year's franchise record of 56 wins. Yet the Raptors may still need something more to overcome the Cleveland Cavaliers, who defeated them in last year's Eastern Conference finals and have won all three head-to-head meetings this season (two of them in Toronto).
Could Paul Millsap be that something more? On Sunday, ESPN's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst reported that the Atlanta Hawks are taking calls on their All-Star power forward, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If the Raptors could land Millsap, would that be enough to challenge the Cavaliers in the East?
Projecting Toronto with Millsap
All right, let's say the Hawks have gone beyond merely listening to offers for Millsap and decided to trade him to the Raptors in exchange for a package of stretch-4 Patrick Patterson, hot-shooting wing Terrence Ross, 2016 lottery pick Jakob Poeltl and 2015 first-round pick Delon Wright. We'll also give Toronto forward Kris Humphries to help balance the salaries and number of players heading each way while Atlanta likely nets a draft pick or two, though that doesn't affect our analysis.
Now, how good are the Raptors? Projecting minutes for a typical rotation based on the multiyear, predictive version of ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) suggests Toronto could be expected to post a 109.4 offensive rating and 102.5 defensive rating with Millsap, performance that would typically translate to 58 wins over a full season.
If that sounds unimpressive compared to the Raptors' current 57-win pace (and their actual league-leading 113.8 offensive rating), remember that RPM projections are regressed to the mean to account for the possibility of unforeseen injuries and poor performance.
A better comparison, then, is how Toronto's current rotation projects by RPM: a 109.8 offensive rating and 104.9 defensive rating, equivalent to a 53- or 54-win team over a full season.
Intriguingly, despite Millsap's broad skill set for a big man, RPM suggests the Raptors would see a slight drop-off on offense. Thanks to the shooting he provides (36.6 percent career from 3-point range, as compared to 33.2 percent for Millsap), Patterson actually rates better offensively in multiyear RPM (plus-2.0 per 100 possessions) than Millsap (plus-1.3).
Instead, Toronto's upgrade comes at the defensive end -- where they have more room for improvement this season, having ranked 17th in defensive rating thus far. Adding Millsap, an All-Defensive second team pick a year ago, would help the Raptors. So too would giving the minutes played by the offense-minded Ross to defense-minded wing reserve Norman Powell. In fact, RPM suggests that Toronto could jump into the league's top five defensively with such a trade, offsetting any offensive regression.
Depending how quickly the Raptors could complete a hypothetical Millsap trade, it might add anywhere from one to three expected wins over the remainder of the regular season. That could be meaningful given Toronto is currently three games behind Cleveland for home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs.
The Raptors already have the more favorable schedule the rest of the way (in fact, ESPN's Basketball Power Index rates it the league's easiest remaining schedule), so BPI projections give the Cavaliers just a one-game advantage in the typical standings and show Toronto finishing atop the East 35.3 percent of the time. FiveThirtyEight's projections show a two-game edge for Cleveland on average.
Getting home-court advantage would help the Raptors change the outcome of a rematch, but the Cavaliers have shown before they can win a conference finals starting on the road (they swept Millsap and the top-seeded Hawks in 2015). So what we really need to know is whether adding Millsap could help even things up in a playoff series.
Projecting Cleveland and Toronto in the playoffs
Part of the issue for the Raptors, like Atlanta before them (and later the Golden State Warriors), is the way the Cavaliers improve in the postseason by extending the minutes of their stars and cutting playing time for their fringe rotation players.
Here's how RPM projects a possible Cleveland playoff rotation.
The projections for the Toronto playoff rotation are similar, though a bit more defense-oriented.
While they get there in slightly different ways, the Cavaliers (plus-7.8) and Raptors (plus-7.3) have similar projected net ratings, close enough that Toronto probably would be favored in a series with home-court advantage.
Now, it's certainly possible that RPM is underrating what Cleveland can do in a playoff series, as the Cavaliers outperformed their RPM projections in last year's NBA Finals. LeBron James is awfully tough to beat four times out of seven when his team isn't outmatched in terms of talent.
Still, the RPM projections show Millsap making enough of a difference -- without him, the Raptors' projected playoff net rating is just plus-5.3, not in the same ballpark as Cleveland -- that adding him looks like a no-brainer for Toronto despite the cost of giving up young talent for a player who can leave next summer via free agency.
It's possible the Hawks just aren't interested in the Raptors' prospects or are bowled over by an offer from another Millsap suitor. Or, for that matter, Atlanta could just hold on to Millsap and take its chances in the playoffs. But if Toronto can find a way to land Millsap, it would likely make the Eastern Conference finals far more dramatic than currently expected.