As NBA player movement cools down, fans begin to look at virtually completed rosters and wonder where their team fits in. It’s no different for Raptors fans, who are looking at a young roster they feel might be in the hunt for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

While much of the talk likely centers around how many games this team can win (I’d peg them at around 35 right now, but will make an official prediction in October) and how many wins would be needed to make the playoffs in the East (likely 40-to-42), my measuring stick revolves around one major question: Can this team, as presently constructed, finish in the top-10 in defensive efficiency?

The answer to that question could hold the key to either the franchise’s first playoff berth in five years, or the longest post-season drought in franchise history.

By allowing 101.5 points per 100 possessions last season, Toronto jumped from 30th in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2010-11 (the 110 points Toronto allowed per 100 possessions in 2010 and 2011 ranks among the worst defences in NBA history) all the way to 12th in 2011-12, and that was with a defensively underwhelming roster.

So what can Dwane Casey do with the team he’s been given for the 2012-2013 season?

Kyle Lowry is one of the better defensive point guards in the Association. Landry Fields, regardless of his oversized contract and offensive limitations, is an effective defender. Jonas Valanciunas’ propensity to pick up fouls might lead to Toronto conceding a few extra free throws, which would negatively effect the team’s defence, but the big man’s rim protection cannot be denied. Quincy Acy and Terrence Ross are two of the more defensively capable rookies from the 2012 draft class.

Sure, Jerryd Bayless and James Johnson were solid defensively (though Johnson’s blocks overrated his actual defensive effectiveness), but add it all up, and it’s tough to argue against the fact that on paper, the Raptors improved defensively at every position.

Other teams outside of the top-10 in defensive efficiency last season also improved at that end of the floor this summer, specifically the Lakers, the Nuggets, the Hornets and the Warriors, but with their own defensive additions and a full year under Casey, the Raptors have given themselves a fighting chance to compete for a spot in that top-third of defensive measurement.

And that’s huge, because despite a perceived increase in importance on the offensive end, defence is still the name of the game. In fact, in the last 10 years, while an impressive 86 per cent of top-10 offences made the playoffs, a staggering 91 per cent of teams who finished in the top-10 (or tied for 10th) in defensive efficiency qualified for the post-season, and that number jumps to 94 per cent over the last five years (47 out of 50).

Taking the last three seasons into account, only one team has managed to miss the playoffs despite finishing with a top-10 defence (the 2010-11 Bucks).

Here’s the breakdown:

Season Number of Top-10 Defences That Made Playoffs
2002-03  11* (out of 12)
2003-04  9* (out of 11)
2004-05  10
2005-06  7
2006-07  10* (out of 11)
2007-08  9
2008-09  9
2009-10  10
2010-11  9
2011-12  10

*Note: In seasons marked with an asterisk, there was a tie for 10th place in defensive efficiency, so 11-12 teams actually finished with ‘top-10′ mark*

Under Kevin O’Neill, the Raptors were actually one of two top-11 teams that missed the playoffs in 2004, but by and large, the equation holds true – A top-10 defence is a playoff caliber basketball team in the NBA, and that has to resonate with the defensively aware Casey just months removed from finishing two spots outside of that range.

We’ll all eventually project win totals, individual statistics and award possibilities, and we’ll probably continue to discuss Jonas Valanciunas’ arrival, Kyle Lowry’s impact and Andrea Bargnani’s health. But if we want to be talking playoff basketball in April, the talk in October should be about improving by at least a couple of spots defensively.

Building a top-10 offensive team might be seen as more entertaining (personally, I find winning entertaining) and it will give you a good chance to win. But find a way to build a top-10 defence, which is more realistic for this Raptors squad anyway, and the rest just seems to take care of itself.