SPORTS

Toronto Raptors: 3 things to look for in February

02/03/2015 03:49 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT
The Toronto Raptors (33-16) are off to their best start in franchise history and are already looking like a lock to repeat as Atlantic Division champions with a staggering 13-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets.

Ever since they traded Rudy Gay early in the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have been one of the NBA's pleasant surprises. 

Last April they returned to the playoffs after a five-year absence and fell just short of advancing in a thrilling best-of-seven series with Brooklyn that went the distance.

The Raptors hit the ground running to start this season and now face an important month ahead as they work towards the goal of advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Here are three things to look for in February.

The all-star break

For most of the team, this will be a chance to get a few days of much-needed rest.

The Raptors just completed a stretch of five games in seven nights and will hit the court four more times between now and Feb. 11. 

All-star weekend runs from Feb. 13-15 in New York City, but the Raptors don't go back to work until Feb. 20 against the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks. 

It will be a special time for Kyle Lowry, though, as he will make his first appearance in the midseason showcase after being voted in by fans.

The Raptors continue to gain in popularity around the league, proving that their success has not gone unnoticed. 

The trade deadline

General manager Masai Ujiri went all-in on his core group of players in the summer in an effort to maintain the chemistry that was developing with his roster. He also added James Johnson to provide some defence and Lou Williams for his instant offence.

The question now is whether the Raptors want to disrupt their long-term plan to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them this season. 

It would be somewhat shocking to see the likes of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, and Patrick Patterson involved in any deals, but there will be other options if Ujiri wants to bring in more complementary players like he did in the summer. 

For example, Amir Johnson and Landry Fields are both in the final year of their contracts, which is something that would be attractive to teams looking to clear cap space. If the Raptors don't believe they are going to bring Johnson back next season, then they may try to capitalize on his value leading up to the Feb. 19 deadline. 

The rotation

The safe bet is that the roster will look pretty similar once the trade deadline has passed.

For the current group to maximize its potential and ultimately win a playoff round, there are several kinks that need to be ironed out.

Above all, the Raptors need to decide on a player rotation that gives them the best chance to win games, especially with respect to the starting lineup and key reserves.

Ross was recently removed from the starting five in favour of Greivis Vasquez, and after being a key contributor for most of the season, James Johnson's playing time has essentially vanished. 

Amir Johnson remains as the starting power forward, however Patterson is making a strong case to be anointed in that role.

Coach Dwane Casey often laments the Raptors' poor starts to games, but the second unit has shown the ability to provide a spark.

This is something the Raptors need to figure out sooner rather than later. If they do, then this is a team that should feel good about its chances in the post-season.

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