Caleb Mynatt | October 2nd, 2018
The Toronto Raptors sent shock waves through the NBA when they traded for Kawhi Leonard and abandoned DeMar DeRozan, franchise player and fan favorite, taking a chance on improving this season. The goal is to get over the top and to the Finals, but can they do it?
Recap of Last Season
The Raptors have been a top-4 seed in the East the past five years, but they always had the view of a team that may not belong, usually because of their inability to perform against LeBron James in the playoffs. But while everyone expected the same old Raptors team, Toronto scorched the league and set a franchise record in wins with 59, making them the one-seed for the first time in franchise history. The Raptors had a top-5 defensive rating and offense, finding themselves towards the top of the NBA in points, assists, blocks, and field goal percentage. One thing that also set the Toronto Raptors apart from years past was their three-point shooting and bench: the Raptors were fourth in three-pointers made this year and their bench were great on the offensive and defensive end, leading NBA benches with a +/- rating of 3.6.
DeRozan and Kyle Lowry still led the way for the Raptors, but by no means was it the best year of their careers. Lowry only had a career-high in rebounds and DeRozan had a career high in three-pointers made and assists, they both had overall better years in the 2016-2017 season. The thing that differed last year from years past is how deep the team was as a whole and how it played together. Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka and CJ Miles were good pieces that bolstered the Raptors and Fred VanVleet was a Sixth Man of the Year finalist. The Raptors were for real under Dwayne Casey and they played as a team.
The Raptors made it to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals and ran into LeBron James again, although they appeared more threatening than any year before, they were swept by the Cavaliers and everything felt the same as always.
The difference is, this time they actually did something about it.
Casey was fired and DeRozan was traded and Leonard was brought in after fear that the team had reached its peak with the DeRozan and Lowry combination. After the best regular season in Raptors history, the front office felt it was time for something different. Even at the risk of Kawhi being a one-year rental, the Raptors still rolled the dice.
In the trade for Leonard, the Raptors also swapped Jakob Poeltl for Danny Green, which could further improve the Raptors three-point shooting. But undoubtedly, the offensive potential to improve lies in Kawhi Leonard himself. Before Kawhi went down in the 2016-2017 postseason, Leonard was enjoying the best year of his career. It’s pretty much universally understood that a healthy Leonard isn’t only better than Derozan, but is also a top-5 player in the league. The Raptors likely have the best player in the Eastern Conference now and that’s something they’ve never had.
The rest of the team is virtually the same, at least as far as the overall core and rotation go. The Raptors should be similar to the team they were last year, except Kawhi stands a reasonable chance to jump-start this offense. They lost Casey, but many fans and analysts seem to think that won’t matter in a weaker Eastern Conference. There is a sense of optimism around the Raptors this year, although many wonder how the insecurity of Leonard’s want to be there will affect his game and team chemistry.
It is important to remember that Leonard only played nine games last season and left the Spurs largely because of how his quad injury was treated. It’s possible that this injury will nag Leonard through this year too, but the Raptor faithful are remaining optimistic that he will return to his MVP-candidate self. If he does, this team could be scarier than ever before.
The Raptors were one of the best defenses in the league last year, and now they’ve added a good defender in Green and one of (if not the best) defensive players in the league in Leonard. The Raptors didn’t get a ton of steals last year and Leonard could kick that aspect of their defensive game to the next level; Kawhi is that good of a defender.
Again, Leonard’s health is a concern. If this quad injury has impacted his lateral quickness and mobility and Kawhi isn’t the same caliber of defensive player as before, his value as a player will be hurt. The potential is no doubt scary on the defensive floor just as it is on the offensive end, but it’s something we will have to evaluate in time. If Leonard is healthy, it’s expected that the Raptors should be a top-5 defense in the league.
The bench was really solid last year and they should continue to be this year. Their bench stayed virtually intact and had just a little bit of movement. The loss of Poeltl is notable, but his production can be replaced. The bench should still be one of the best in the league and continue to help the Raptors outlast the regular season.
The #1 variable at play is Leonard’s health, and the second is his commitment to the team around him. Leonard wasn’t exactly pumped about playing for the Raptors, but the Raptors are still expecting him to show up and help them win. Winning is their entire approach to keeping him around for the future and they’re going to need to win games this year to have a chance of keeping him. And by all indication, the Raptors should be able to do that.
Leonard is an unbelievable player and he could help carry this team to heights it has never reached before. It’s also possible that Leonard is still injured and is going to leave next year and the Raptors are going to look very stupid. This team is going to be one of the best teams in the East this year and will at least finish with a top-4 seed.
The Raptors could be extraordinary, but we will see how Leonard mixes with his new teammates at the beginning of the season. If they click and get off to a hot start, the Raptors could maybe finish at #1 again and go all the way to their first franchise NBA Finals. Getting past the Celtics would be tough, but the Raptors do have a superior player in Leonard. Everything needs to fall into place around him, and their success or failures will largely be about what he does.
Final Record: 56-26, 2nd in the East
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images