Are the Raptors the favorites in the East?

The Raptors took a massive gamble to trade for Kawhi Leonard. After nearly a decade of absolute dominance over the Eastern Conference, there exists a power struggle for who will take LeBron’s throne. He has been Toronto’s Kryptonite after routing them three consecutive times in the past three postseasons (with commanding sweeps in their last two series). The firing of Coach Casey was a harsh but necessary step. He tried to implement and change his tactics that resulted in regular season success – winning a franchise high 59 games and the Number One seed. The postseason is a different matter altogether. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry simply were unable to replicate their performances in the Playoffs. DeMar is an All-NBA caliber shooting guard, but a healthy Kawhi Leonard is a whole other beast. In each of his past two full seasons, Leonard finished in the Top 3 of MVP voting. DeMar has yet to crack his way into the Top 5. And now, they start a new chapter in their history.

There was one major question that Raptor’s President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri had to answer: How do I fix this good team and turn it into a great one? You do so by bringing in an MVP caliber player. Kawhi Leonard is a former NBA Finals MVP who immediately becomes the best player in the Eastern Conference – should he become healthy. The easier option for Masai would have been to break down this team, piece by piece, and start the process of rebuilding this franchise. This is easier said than done. The Orlando Magic have been in a rebuild ever since they traded away Dwight Howard and they’ve drafted in the lottery ever since. And that has not amounted to anything yet. The Magic have barely sniffed the eight seed let alone be a team capable of pulling a deep playoff run. The Timberwolves barely made the playoffs after 14 barren seasons. The Sacramento Kings are in the process of smashing the Minnesota’s record for most consecutive seasons to not make the postseason. Masai took a massive gamble. It would have been easy for him to cave to the public pressure to try and rebuild. It is a gutsy move and it is one that could payoff.

The Raptors needed to evolve (no dinosaur pun intended). Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. Dwane Casey deserves all the credit in the world when he changed Toronto’s offensive philosophy. In one summer, he changed from an iso-heavy system to an offense that become more free-flowing and had a greater reliance on three-point shooting. Simply put, he employed a better, more modern offense. DeRozan changed his game to fit this new style of play. He went from a 27 PPG in the 2016-17 season to average 4 less point last season. He look nearly four less shots per game past season in comparison to his 21 FGA the previous year. DeMar’s assists per game also went up last season, as did the number of attempts from beyond the arc (he nearly doubled his attempts). Kyle Lowry also took a step back last season. The Raptor’s backcourt pair sacrificed their individual numbers for the good of their team and it worked. They won 8 more games and clinched the number one seed. The Raptors were a Top 5 team on offense and defense. A team that ranked near the bottom in pace became a pack of the middle NBA team. A revamped team with a young bench looked ready to take on anything. And then they ran head first into a brick wall named LeBron.

This summer, the Raptors had to evolve again. Instead of focusing on the way their roster played, Masai took aim at who was giving out the instructions. He fired Casey (who would later go on to win the Coach of The Year Award) and trade the face of their franchise, DeMar DeRozan for Leonard. Change of this earthshattering magnitude was never going to be easy. Though Ujiri and the Raptors ownership did not accept the stagnation of making of simply making the playoffs and getting bounced in the second round. After trading for Kawhi, he spoke about wanting to compete for the title. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again. The Raptors needed a massive alteration.   

Trading DeMar DeRozan, the face of the Toronto Raptors, for a superstar who might only be a part of the franchise is quite a risky venture. Kawhi comes with a whole set of questions for himself. The main one surrounds his health. Nobody is denying his raw talent and skillset. Though the question still remains, will be healthy next season? It has been meticulously documented that he detests cold weather cities. He grew up in Southern California and he has spent his career so far in San Antonio. The word in NBA circles is that he spent the entire All-Star weekend (when it was hosted in Toronto a couple of years ago) in his locker-room and was not short in complaints of the weather. This is likely be a trivial reason if it is to be believed though Toronto is certainly not his preferred destination. Will he play hard for them? Has he already set his heart for Los Angeles and is this season already a wash for him? These are valid questions to ask given all the noise that has come from one of the quietest men alive. We will find out the answers to these questions during the course of the season. But, if he returns to full health and plays hard, the sky is the limit for this Raptors side. Kawhi Leonard is just that exceptional of a player. It is hard to forget his other-worldly dominance on both ends of the court. It was over a year ago when he injured his ankle against the Warriors against the 2017 Western Conference Finals but if he can return to 80% of what he was; that is still a special player.  

We only really started to see the best of Leonard in his last full season with San Antonio. He averaged: 25.5 PPG on 48.5 FG% and 38 3PT%, 5.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, and 1.8 SPG. He took his stats to the next level during the playoffs as he guided the Spurs to the Conference Finals. Were it not for an injury, he would have taken the fight to the Warriors. He was the perfect hybrid of Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant. Cold-blooded on the offensive end and absolute beast of an athlete on the defensive head. He may be the best wing defender of All-Time behind the Bulls legend. That season, he had a Player Efficiency Rating of 27.6. He became part of the handful of player to achieve this since the turn of the Century at the Age of 25 and under. Only The Greek Freak as achieved this since (out of players still remaining in the East). Giannis may be the only true contender to fight for the mantle of Best Player in the East. The Bucks will definitely better with hiring of Mike Budenholzer, though Toronto has better pieces around their superstar.

This is a much younger team in comparison to the Spurs’ rosters that Kawhi has had during his career with San Antonio. Kyle Lowry is an All-Star point guard who is a Pitbull on both ends of the floor. Leonard is also joined by Danny Green. The two were traded to the Raptors earlier this summer and Green is an excellent 3-and-D wing player. Toronto depth chart is out of this world. It differs from a Spurs who had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili play significant minutes of the bench last season. Masai has drafted well to have a roster full of young and budding talent. 

OG Anunoby was a late first round pick last year who has transformed into a competent starter and All-Defensive caliber player. Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have both spent time with the Raptor 905 in the G-League. Siakam has developed into a dynamic forward who may already be better than Serge Ibaka. VanVleet is a sharpshooter and the perfect third guard. The diminutive Illinois native has already injected himself into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation after his first full season with the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas (I’m still not sure if Charles Barkley can properly pronounce his name) has shown improvements on both ends of the floor. Delon Wright is a competent guard in his own right. It is a testament to the Raptors ability to successfully draft outside the lottery and develop the perfect complimentary players for a modern NBA team.

Defense. I am trying to imagine a lineup featuring Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam. Holy shit would I hate to have to face off against these five. They ranked fifth last season on defensive rating last season after being a league average defense the previous go around. Leonard is the best on-ball defender in the league who is more than capable of guarding 1 through 4. DeRozan was worst defender in their starting five and have replaced him to their heir-apparent to Scottie Pippen. It will be amazing to see how a really good defensive side takes it to a whole other level.  

The window for the Raptor may close by the Summer of 2019. The trade for Kawhi was inspirited in some ways by OKC’s trade for Paul George. George had made it abundantly clear that he was headed to Los Angeles once he became a free agent. And the day Paul George subsequently signed a 4 year deal with the Thunder twelve months after he was traded. Masai Uijri and Raptors ownership are hoping that they can achieve the same with Leonard. He can opt out of his contract next July. If the Raptors want to convince him to sign long-term with them, winning is their priority. The intangibles of a near 60 win team are still there. If Kawhi is able to ingratiate himself and fully buy in, Toronto can once again break their franchise record. The Celtics and 76ers are armed with the talent to compete for a Finals Berth for the next decade. The Bucks cannot be discounted either. That being said, Boston are relying on two players who are both coming off major injuries in their hope to make a Finals Appearance after a decade. How will the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown adapt to finding a happy medium between realizing their talent and playing roles will be fascinating. Philadelphia’s best players are Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have only won a single playoff round between them. And the 76ers were unable to find their third star to pair with their dynamic duo. And it’s best nobody mentions their luck with injuries.

Injuries are also something that is best to avoid saying around the Raptors. If Kawhi can stay healthy, there is no reason as to why the Raptors can’t make their maiden Finals Appearance. It is something worth imagining though it all hinges on a massive if. But just imagine, a Finals game in the Air Canada Center. I sure can.

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