Travel back in time: the Toronto Raptors’ 2017-2018 season was a failure. Although the team won 59 games, earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference, they were swept postseason by the Cavaliers in the second round for the second year in a row.
That offseason a change had to be made. The greatest Raptor player up until that time, DeMar DeRozan, had failed to play to his potential time and again in the playoffs, and the team was going nowhere.
He and backup center, Jakob Poeltl, were shipped to the San Antonio Spurs for the defensive-minded shooter Danny Green and the former MVP candidate, two-time DPOY, two-time All-NBA first team Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
At the end of the 2018-2019 season, the Raptors won 58 games and earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference. After beating the Orlando Magic in five, Kawhi Leonard took over in the second round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers, ultimately getting the Raptors over the hump with a final second buzzer-beater in game seven.
Although it looked like the Raptors would fall to the first seed Milwaukee Bucks, Kawhi Leonard outplayed the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final four games.
Then came the 2019 NBA Finals, where the Raptors would face the reigning champions, the Golden State Warriors, who had won the last two Finals. The Raptors would eventually win the Finals in six games, winning their very first championship.
Kawhi Leonard, the now two-time DPOY, would leave the Raptors after the championship to play for the Clippers, and Danny Green left to join the Lakers during the offseason.
Most would doubt the Raptors’ chance of repeating their championship hopes, but in the realm of basketball, I am oddly optimistic for a man given to pessimism. Although the easy answer as to why I am so hopeful would be to point out to the fact that the Raptors still have Nick Nurse as their coach, I will additionally highlight some of the positives after the departure of the now greatest Raptor, Kawhi Leonard.
As the Raptors are now constituted, we have the most talented team in the entire NBA. We have a former DPOY center Marc Gasol, the former block leader Serge Ibaka, the G-League MVP and DPOY Chris Boucher, and the rising (and rising and rising and rising) star Pascal Siakam as our big men. They all can shoot and, most importantly, defend.
Marc Gasol is like a very toned down Larry Bird, constantly making the right plays and the right passes at the right times. Serge is a double-double machine who, if provoked, chokes the offence with overwhelming defence; Boucher is his skinnier double. I leave Siakam to the viewers.
Lowry is old reliable, dependable on the defence, annoying at the offence (his pronounced posterior is an effective shield against opponents), and shooting a volume of threes unseen by any Raptor fan. VanVleet is living up to his nickname: he is a high-volume stealer who makes the right plays while shooting the right shots.
Norman Powell has finally become what he was meant to be: a shooting version of DeRozan. Terence Davis has been a revelation – why wasn’t he with Raptors back in 2018? Brisset is nothing short of a miracle pickup.
With Kawhi away, OG Anunoby plays. He is shooting and defending like never before; Matt Thomas, if used correctly, can take over games with his lethal shooting.
Patrick McCaw is a crafty defender who hounds opposing players; Stanley Johnson is a former starter who can become a useful leader with the third unit. Jefferson rarely disappoints, and will undoubtedly be a useful piece to the second unit during the playoffs.
The other players – Miller, Ponds, Hernandez, Watson – are unknown quantities. They are rarely played.
Who knows? Maybe they will be the leaders of the third unit, maintaining leads or becoming valuable potential second unit rotation players, who can help decide games on the line when the first unit is not up to par.