A yr after the primary championship in Raptors franchise historical past, it is protected to say the Kawhi Leonard commerce paid off.
Speedy response to the commerce — DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round decide to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard, Danny Inexperienced and $5 million US — was that Toronto took a danger.
A danger price taking, mentioned many, however nonetheless: a danger. Leonard, a bonafide famous person when wholesome, had performed simply 9 video games the yr prior. DeRozan was a sturdy, reliable all-star. Leonard was a flight danger with only one yr left on his contract. DeRozan was the workforce icon who pledged allegiance to Toronto.
It labored out for the Raptors. Despite the fact that Leonard left, he first supplied the best second in workforce historical past — the four-bounce buzzer-beater to topple the Philadelphia 76ers in Sport 7 — and, in fact, a title. He was named Finals MVP.
There was one different main danger concerned in going all-in for one yr: you by no means know. You by no means know if a sprained ankle will derail a season, or just a few bounces will value you your playoff life, or the dynasty you are set to face within the Finals will crumble earlier than your eyes. You by no means know.
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And people are simply common issues. Think about if this season — the one at present paused on account of a pandemic — was the season with all of the Raptors’ eggs in a single basket.
As an alternative, the Raptors had been having fun with a victory lap of kinds. The rise of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet final season prevented the anticipated rebuild from taking place. Kyle Lowry, now 34, hasn’t proven indicators of getting old. “Run it again” turned the rally cry.
Let’s assume the NBA returns and all the pieces goes as deliberate. The Raptors had been third total and second within the East at 46-18. May “run it again” change into actuality?
The potential path
There might be eight extra regular-season video games earlier than the playoffs, however the schedule stays unknown. The Raptors had been staring down a key recreation with East No. 2 Boston quickly after the season was paused, making it attainable the groups will meet in Disney World.
The Raptors needs to be favoured to carry on to that No. 2 spot. That might set them as much as play the Brooklyn Nets, doubtless with out Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, or the Orlando Magic, final yr’s first-round draw, to open the playoffs.
Subsequent could be the Celtics, a workforce on the rise led by Jayson Tatum, within the second spherical, adopted most likely by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks within the convention remaining, as soon as once more. The Finals opponent, barring an upset, could be LeBron James’ Lakers or Leonard’s Clippers.
So, not a straightforward street. And past the primary spherical, the Raptors might not be capable of declare the perfect participant within the collection once more, as was the case with Leonard final spring.
The Raptors obtained nothing in return when Leonard bolted for the Clippers, or when Inexperienced signed with the Lakers. As an alternative, the strengths of the 2019-20 Raptors are what make them such a likable group.
There’s Siakam, a former first-round decide who did not play organized basketball till he was 17 however appears to get higher yearly. Siakam was joined at his first profession all-star recreation by Lowry, making his sixth look.
Lowry elevated his factors per recreation by greater than 5 over final yr whereas additionally bettering his taking pictures percentages throughout the board. He is as defensively feisty as ever and led the league in expenses drawn on the pause.
VanVleet, as soon as an undrafted free agent, stepped seamlessly into Inexperienced’s previous beginning position, choosing up the place he left off within the Finals as a red-hot shooter bringing the identical defensive depth as Lowry.
Terence Davis adopted in VanVleet’s footsteps as an undrafted contributor to the workforce. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka cut up beginning centre duties with out lacking a beat. Norman Powell improved to the purpose the place he garnered sixth man of the yr consideration. OG Anunoby made a powerful comeback from an injury-plagued season.
There was no clear alpha canine. Typically it was Siakam, or perhaps Lowry, however often VanVleet and even Powell within the week earlier than the pause.
A distinction from final yr, positive, however this workforce’s profitable proportion was even larger.
Nick Nurse was getting buzz to win coach of the yr for his efforts in holding a Raptors workforce that many anticipated to keel off close to the highest of the league.
Nurse, who spent years teaching in England in addition to the NBA’s G League, has proven time and time once more that his greatest trait is adaptability.
The 2019 champion Raptors hardly ever had their full squad, with Lowry and Leonard virtually buying and selling off absences. Seldom did the workforce miss a beat.
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This yr’s model featured a bunch of actually good gamers, however maybe no nice ones. Nonetheless, Nurse made it work. Although he joined the Raptors generally known as an offensive dynamo, it is his defensive work, from the box-and-one in opposition to Steph Curry within the Finals to the chaotic-yet-organized defensive tempo this yr, that places him within the dialog as one of many league’s greatest bench bosses.
The Raptors had the second-best defensive ranking (factors allowed per 100 possessions) within the league on the pause.
That the Raptors can relaxation on their defensive laurels in Disney World is a key benefit, and a credit score to Nurse.
Oddly, the largest benefit the Raptors might have is continuity. The championship expertise might be vital in sustaining targeted mindsets amid the bizarre playoff atmosphere.
Past that, the Raptors gamers are workhorses. It is evident while you watch them. Hustling for free balls and changing turnovers into fast-break alternatives are staples of what make the workforce so profitable.
And bear in mind: they’re taking part in with home cash. This season’s run was by no means imagined to occur. It is all gravy.
However the items are all in place for the Raptors to run it again.