Toronto's amazing transformation

Here it is, the second week in December, and the Toronto Raptors are the topic du jour. Vince Carter isn't hurt. The franchise isn't moving. Lenny Wilkens isn't coming through that door anymore (thank goodness.)

The Raptors are on today's agenda because they are the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, a remarkable transformation that can be traced directly to the Dec. 1 deal with the Chicago Bulls. Following Tuesday night's win in Cleveland, the Raps are now 5-0 since Chicago general manager John Paxson generously agreed to resuscitate a team that was, well, deathly. Too bad he did it at the expense of the team he's paid to oversee. But that's another story for another day.

Prior to the deal, the Raptors were, arguably, the most difficult team to watch in the NBA, the league equivalent of a "Fear Factor" Marathon. They couldn't score. They couldn't win. The only positive was that Vince was still healthy.

Then, life as the Raptors know it changed and changed in a hurry. This was a team that had six games of fewer than 70 points, including one hideous, 56-point submission against Minnesota. Toronto was dead last in scoring in a league where no one scores. They were Princeton without the flash.

Now? Now they're Loyola Marymount. They've gone Westheadian on all of us since Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall and Lonny Baxter passed through customs. In the five games since the trade, they've scored 500 points. They've hit the century mark in three of those games. Their lowest outing: a 92-point drought against Atlanta.

In the first 16 games of the season, now to be known as coach Kevin O'Neill's Wilderness Month, the Raptors reached 92 points only twice -- both times in overtime. They reached 100 points only once -- in overtime against the Rockets. There was Carter and there was, well, Carter. They were slogging along at .500 in a conference where .500 gets you home-court advantage, but their games amounted to eye pollution.

"A lot of those (low-scoring losses) were on the second night of back-to-back games," O'Neill said. "We just didn't have enough depth. It was going to be very difficult in those situations unless we made the trade. To think about it now, to go 8-8 with what we had was pretty much holding down the fort. It was pretty tough to watch."

And now?

"Hey, if we can average 100 points, I think we'll win a few games," O'Neill cracked. Yeah, like all of them.

By far the biggest impact is that of Rose, now with his fourth NBA team. Throughout his career, Rose has been telling anyone who'd listen that he could play point guard and play it well. But in his last two stops, Indiana and Chicago, someone else was always there. O'Neill wasted no time giving Rose the rock and telling him to be the man.

"He's cool, calm and just wants to win," Carter said of his new teammate. "I think it has rejuvenated him as far as just being the player that he really is. With this team, he gets to show his ability to score and to make plays for other guys."

The results: two 10-assist games in the first four games. An average of 7.8 assists a game since the trade, more than double what he averaged in Chicago and, by far, the highest average of Rose's career.

"I knew Jalen could play the point," O'Neill said. "I just didn't know how good a point guard Jalen was. He has been terrific."

The Raptors are averaging 24.6 assists in the winning streak. Prior to that, they were lucky to get 24 assists in a week. Actually, they were averaging 18 assists before the deal. But you get the picture.

They've won in a variety of fashions, which, needless to say, also includes playing good defense down the stretch. But they bombarded the Celtics with 17 3-pointers (the Celtics now know what last year felt like to a lot of their opponents) and the streak has been bookended by wins on the road, a Raptors rarity before the deal.

"I think the thing that impresses me is that we're not a front-running team. What I mean by that is we have found different ways to win during this winning streak," Rose said. "We've done it by sharing the ball, we've done it with 3-point shooting, we've done it by coming from behind, we've done it on the road and we've shown resiliency. Hopefully, we can find a way to continue that."

By installing Rose as his point guard, O'Neill was able to slide the others into more natural, comfortable positions. Alvin Williams, never a true point guard, moved to shooting guard while Carter is now the small forward. Marshall, who has a 20-and-10 itch to scratch almost every time he steps onto the floor, is at the power forward spot and rookie Chris Bosh starts at center. O'Neill also likes the fact that Morris Peterson can now be the team's sixth man, a role he thinks suits Peterson better than starting.

Marshall, by the way, has had 20 or more points in four of the wins and no fewer than seven rebounds in any of the five games. He had five 3-pointers against the Celtics. And, by playing power forward, Marshall allows No. 1 pick Bosh to move to center, the spot vacated by Antonio Davis.

The rook is playing as well as any of the other single-named phenoms taken ahead of him. Since the trade, Bosh has averaged 14.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 37.4 minutes. Included in that was a where-did-that-come-from, 22-point, 16-rebound submission against height-challenged Seattle.

O'Neill said he had no worries about replacing the bigger, more savvy Davis with the untested Bosh. As the coach bluntly put it, "I already had seen enough."

"Chris can play either (power forward or center) position. He's an excellent shot-blocker. He rebounds, he's smart and he plays very hard," O'Neill added. "Across the board, I don't think there's any rookie playing better than him."

Sure, the season is barely one-fourth gone. But after what we saw of Toronto after 16 games, we figured there'd be 14 other Eastern Conference teams more interesting and definitely easier on the eyes. In one fell swoop, that has all changed. Raptors and relevant can now be used in the same sentence without an accompanying laugh track.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.