The long NBA season has turned the corner and headed for home, with four teams still standing, each with varying degrees of expectation of being the only team to win the final game of the season and bask in the trophy ceremony recognizing them as NBA champions.

For the other 26 teams, there are lessons to be learned, unique to almost each case. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, who lost in seven games to the Dallas Mavericks in the second round? Simple — get older, get bigger and add more shooting to support superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as he enters his prime, and don’t wait any longer to do it.

For the New York Knicks, who lost to the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the second round? Get healthy, force head coach Tom Thibodeau to find more minutes for more players in what should be a deep rotation (see first point) and figure out if they can turn Julius Randle into the centrepiece of a trade for a player who fits snugly between Jalen Brunson and OG Anunoby.

For last year’s champion, the Denver Nuggets? Find and develop cheap depth pieces to support Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon, and decide if it’s worth keeping Michael Porter Jr. around on All-Star money if he continues to deliver pedestrian playoff performances.

And on and on. The Cavaliers, the Magic, the Nuggets and all the rest have wounds to lick and insights to glean as they shift their attention to next season.

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But what of the Toronto Raptors? They missed the final play-in spot in a rather diluted Eastern Conference by 11 games — and that was to an Atlanta Hawks team that itself finished 10 games under .500 and which jumped nine spots in the draft lottery and will pick No. 1 overall in June.

The Raptors, as we all know, fell two spots in the lottery, surrendered their pick to the San Antonio Spurs to complete the 2023 trade for Jakob Poeltl and will have to keep their rebuild going by picking 19th and 31st in the draft.

Admittedly, watching the best teams in the NBA and comparing them to the Raptors as they stand is like comparing someone who can pull off a mean home barbeque with the chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant — in either case folks get fed, but the experience is decidedly different.

But one thing is clear as the Boston Celtics and Pacers face off in the Eastern Conference and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Mavericks match up in the West, with the winners of each series set to meet in the NBA Finals: each of the NBA’s Final Four have areas of strength — often several of them — that the 25-57 Raptors are missing.

For the sake of digestible numbers, here are five things that teams in the conference finalists have, that the Raptors will almost certainly need to do if they want to return to the NBA’s elite sooner rather than later:

Get bigger: The Timberwolves upended the Nuggets and three-time MVP Jokic in part because they relied on a three-headed monster that could eat centre minutes and wear Jokic down: Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid. They also had strong positional size elsewhere in their lineup that created problems for Murray, with Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker taking turns harassing Jokic’s dance partner and wreaking havoc with their two-man game. The Celtics have plus-size across their starting lineup, and that’s even while they are waiting for 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis to return from his calf injury. The Mavericks have thrived with a big-man pairing of Derek Lively and Daniel Gafford; the Pacers are probably the “smallest” team of the final four, but they have had great minutes from stretch-five Myles Turner throughout the post-season and became bigger across the board since the addition of Pascal Siakam and the insertion of Andrew Nembhard as a starter at guard.

How the Raptors compare: Not well. Poeltl is a quality NBA big and in a vacuum was probably worth what the Raptors traded for him, timing of the deal aside. But the Raptors get positively tiny with Poeltl off the floor and are mostly average to below average in size across all positions, with Scottie Barnes the exception. If it doesn’t get addressed, the Raptors’ rebuild will be dead in the water.

Get deeper: The exception here might prove the rule in that the Celtics don’t have a notably deep rotation, with head coach Joe Mazzulla playing his key starters an average of 44 minutes in Boston’s overtime win over Indiana on Tuesday night, with only one bench player — Peyton Pritchard — getting more than 22 minutes. But the Celtics rotation will be eight deep when Porzingis returns, and Boston does have usable pieces outside of that. But when your starting lineup is as good and versatile as Boston’s — all five are either all-NBA level players or all-NBA level defenders — your bench matters less. The Pacers — lighter on star power — used nine players in their Game 7 win over the Knicks, and the Timberwolves had only one starter — Edwards — crack 40 minutes in their Game 7 win over Denver. The Mavericks had eight players in double-digit minutes in their Game 6 win over OKC. Sure, playoff rotations get shorter, but having seven or eight players worthy of double-digit minutes in the most crucial moments of your season is a good indicator you might have a chance of getting there.

How the Raptors compare: There is depth, and then there is quality depth. At full strength, Toronto head coach Darko Rajakovic could mix and match perhaps 10 NBA players of varying quality after the trade deadline, but how many would be part of a playoff rotation? Barnes, Immanuel Quickley and Poeltl, and maybe Barrett. After that, the well runs dry. The Raptors’ run to their 2019 title was built on the shoulders of exceptional organizational depth — Norm Powell was the 11th man on a 59-win team in 2017-18 — and they are a long way from that standard.

Shoot better: Three-point shooting has come to rule basketball. The Celtics were the best team in the NBA this season and led the league in three-pointers made; the Mavericks were third and the Pacers were 10th. And Minnesota, which is defined by a league-leading defence, was third in the NBA in three-point percentage, connecting on 38.7 per cent of its attempts, even if its number of attempts ranked 23rd. All four of the conference finalists were in the top nine in three-point efficiency in the regular season.

How the Raptors compare: Errr, not great. Toronto was 27th in made threes, 22nd in attempts and 28th in three-point percentage. There is room for optimism here. Quickly shot 39.5 per cent from deep and projects as an elite marksmen among point guards; Barrett shot 39.2 per cent as a Raptor, well above his career average. Gradey Dick shot 39.5 per cent over the last 40 games of his rookie season and Barnes showed signs of improvement in his shooting, connecting on a career-best 34.1 per cent, even with a late-season slump. Can Ochai Agbaji turn himself into a league-average three-point shooter? Will pending free agent Gary Trent Jr. — the Raptors’ most proven three-point threat — re-sign? Will Kelly Olynyk be a credible three-point threat in five-out lineups? Those questions will determine the Raptors’ ability to join the league’s playoff calibre teams next season or beyond.

Defend better (or score way more): For the most part, defence still wins — or at least competes — for championships. The Timberwolves had the league’s No. 1 defence in the regular season; the Celtics were third and the Mavericks led the NBA in defensive rating in the final month of the regular season and have defended at a level that would have stood them in second place during the regular season through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Pacers are the exception here. They have stuck with their offence-first identity throughout the post-season, even slipping defensively as they have allowed 118.1 points per 100 possessions through 14 playoff games, compared with 117.6 in the regular season, a mark that left them 24th in the NBA. But they have compensated by scoring 121.2 points per 100 during the playoffs, a mark that would be the highest for a conference finalist in NBA history. It is their defensive question marks that have the Pacers as a heavy underdog to knock of the Celtics, it should be pointed out.

How the Raptors compare: Errr — again — not great. Toronto finished 26th in defensive efficiency in the regular season, which is notable given that of the 20 teams that had some kind of post-season opportunity, only one — the Pacers — finished in the bottom 10 defensively. A good chunk of this is personnel driven as outside of Poeltl and Barnes, the Raptors are sorely lacking in players who can defend multiple positions and do it effectively. The exception might be Agbaji, but his offence is a major sticking point. Bruce Brown is another positive defender, but his long-term fit with the club is a question mark. In the past 12 months, the Raptors have lost four proven — even excellent — defenders in Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa. Other that Poeltl, they haven’t added any. Toronto’s path to being competitive again is reversing that trend.

Get ‘some guys’: Championships are won by superstars, that’s no secret. The Timberwolves have one being made before our eyes in Edwards. The Mavericks have Doncic as Batman and one of the better Robins of the past decade in Kyrie Irving. The Celtics have perennial all-NBA selection Jayson Tatum joined by Jaylen Brown and surrounded by an elite supporting cast. The Pacers might be a little light in comparison, but they do have Tyrese Haliburton and Siakam, who have each made or will make all-NBA teams. But championship teams are often put over the top — especially as the salary-cap loopholes get ever tighter — by smart, low-cost finds either in the latter half of the draft or thanks to unheralded signings of players the rest of the NBA overlooked. Boston has got useful minutes from Luke Kornet, Sam Hauser and Peyton Pritchard this season. The first two of that trio were undrafted, and Pritchard was taken 26th overall. The Pacers have been getting quality starting from Nembhard, who was taken 31st in 2022, and from Aaron Nesmith, who was taken 14th in 2020, but couldn’t crack the Celtics’ rotation and was part of the Malcolm Brogdon trade in the summer of 2022. In his fourth NBA season, on his second team and third coach, Nesmith is beginning to flourish. The Mavericks drafted a starter-level centre in Lively with the 10th overall pick in 2023 and have rounded out their starting lineup with Derrick Jones Jr., who has emerged as their best perimeter defender and doing it while playing on a veteran minimum contract. The Timberwolves are built around Edwards and Karl Anthony-Towns, a pair of former first-overall picks, but are championship contenders because they mined unexpected gold in Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who passed through New Orleans and Utah before finding a home in Minnesota; signed Reid as an undrafted free agent and were rewarded when the versatile big man earned Sixth Man of the Year honours this past season; and struck gold again with all-NBA defender Jaden McDaniels, who was the 28th pick in the 2020 draft.

How the Raptors compare: You guessed it, not great. The Raptors believe they have their star in Barnes, and that Quickley could join him in that category. We’ll see. But building around the fringes has been problematic. The Raptors owned this category on their way to the 2019 title as they added the likes of Norman Powell, Delon Wright, VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby and Chris Boucher between 2015 and 2018 without picking higher than 20th in the draft. Since that remarkable run, the Raptors have yet to add a meaningful contributor outside of the draft lottery or by taking chances on lower-tier free agents. That’s one reason Agbaji is an important piece for them. The Jazz — who drafted him 14th overall in 2022 — were quick to cut bait, but he showed in Toronto that he has the physical tools and the will to be the kind of high-end, versatile defender they are otherwise lacking. The challenge is, he shot just 21.7 per cent from three with Toronto and 39.1 per cent overall, a level of production that would make him virtually unplayable on a playoff team. Agbaji’s just 24 and entering his third season, so there is hope for improvement. But no matter who the Raptors draft or where in the years to come, the chances of them becoming a conference finals contender without finding players other teams have overlooked are slim and none.

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