2018-19 Preview: Toronto Raptors

You can only be publicly humiliated in a soul-crushing fashion so many times before you change course. It would appear three straight send-offs from the Cleveland Cavaliers did the trick for Toronto.

General manager Masai Ujiri had his fill and rightfully so. The playoff performance from the Toronto Raptors and specifically their franchise player this past May was abysmal. In a banner year where they had homecourt advantage, won 59 games and were getting a deeply flawed Cavaliers team that had just battled through seven games with a mediocre Indiana Pacers squad, it was the best-case scenario for the 6ix. The Raptors responded by losing all four games, two of the four were blowouts and no one will ever forget LeBron James full-court thrashing game-winner in Game 3.

The page needed to be turned, James or no James in the East. Fair or foul, head coach Dwane Casey was the easy fall guy. The first domino dropped and from there things got crazy. When an opportunity to acquire Kawhi Leonard came about, Ujiri didn’t hesitate, dispensing with the franchise’s best player and all-time leading scorer.  Just like that, the Raptors had reloaded in rather rapid fashion.

The pressure is on both the team to perform and the city to enchant the soon-to-be-free-agent Leonard for the long haul. The Raptors have a team that can contend now and a city that’s ready for real success when it matters. No more 50-win benchmarks, no more hoping against all hope that DeRozan could rearrange his playoff DNA, the Raptors are risking it big for a real shot to contend.

 2018-19 Raptors  Guards  Wings  Bigs
 Returners Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, Malachi Richardson Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
 Newcomers Kay Felder, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Collinsworth Greg Monroe, Eric Moreland, Chris Boucher
 Gone DeMar DeRozan, Malcom Miller Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
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Offense: The Raptors had the No. 3 offensive unit last year, thanks in large part to the excellent play of the bench mob. Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. The Raptors were 11 deep and did not miss a beat anywhere. The Raptors didn’t win 59-games by some fluke chance, they had 12 separate three-man lineups with a net rating of 10 or better in over 500 minutes played.

Only Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have hit more triples on a higher percentage than Kyle Lowry over the last three seasons. Lowry is going to be 33 headed into next year’s playoffs so the clock is ticking, but he’s still one of the best dual threat players in the League at the point of attack. Lowry is oft unfairly cast in the same light as DeRozan for poor playoff performances. It needs to be said, Lowry was solid in 2017 and very good in 2018. In fact, last postseason he averaged nearly 18 PPG and 9 APG with a lava hot 45 percent shot from deep.

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Leonard should take this offense to another level, he provides spacing DeRozan didn’t and has historically picked his spots a lot better. Leonard averaged a career high 25.5 PPG his last healthy campaign and he was creating 52.4 percent of his own looks, a mark that ranked higher than star comparable Kevin Durant (38.3). Leonard has had a true shooting percentage of 60 or better in three of his four last seasons, DeRozan never topped 55.5. In theory, the Raptors upgraded across the board.

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Defense: Toronto, along with Utah and Philadelphia, should have an absolutely devastating defensive roster. The length and switchability the Raptors get from Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Danny Green and Leonard is jaw-dropping. The Raptors had the No. 5 overall defense last year and going from DeRozan to Leonard on the defensive side of the floor is like swapping out a white picket fence for the Great Wall of China.

It’s yet to be seen who the Raptors will start or close games with but a potential small-ball lineup of Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Siakam feels like a death squad in its own right. Jonas Valanciunas might be the worst defender of the Toronto rotation players and even he has his moments as a post-defender, provided he’s not asked to defend in space.

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Upside: VanVleet and Wright are high end bench players that could probably be low end starters on other teams. The duo give the Raptors a ton of upside and versatility in their backcourt options. Siakam has a shot to be special, a small-ball five and a capable perimeter defender naturally cut for the four—he offers the Raptors a package Ibaka used to offer the Thunder in his earlier years.

FanSided’s, ‘The Step Back’ recently assembled their top-25, under-25 and Anunoby ranked 21st and that might not be high enough. Anunoby has a star frame and exceeded all expectations as a defender and floor-spacer last season. Leonard and Lowry performing to par is the minimum needed for Toronto to contend in the East, but Anunoby taking a comparable jump to Boston’s Jaylen Brown last season would raise the Raptors into their own tier.

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Durability: Lowry’s age is a factor. He’s been hurt or burnt leading into the postseasons where he did struggle. Managing his minutes will once again be key. Leonard is obviously the biggest concern. An MVP and DPOY candidate that missed nearly a whole year. Leonard’s right quad is the most valuable asset in Toronto and will be the cause of much worry. Lowry and Leonard aside, many of the Raptors key contributors are young with limited injury history. Anunoby, who slipped in the draft, partly due to injury concerns, played 72 games last year and has given fans of The North little reason to stress.

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Synergy: A team that in years passed thrived off their continuity and chemistry may experience growing pains this season. DeRozan and Lowry were the unquestioned leaders of the team and their relationship was unique. The rapport and genuine friendship between the two were a source of strength for the team and emanated outward in the locker room. Hopefully the Raptors adjust quickly to the new situation and don’t allow decisions out of their control to detract from their NBA title aspirations.

Experience: Leonard is a Finals MVP. Valanciunas and Lowry have been to the playoffs five straight years. Leadership and experience aren’t lacking. Unlike Philadelphia and Boston, Toronto’s best players aren’t puppies still stumbling into fold. The time is now, and Toronto needs to fight like they’ve never fought before.

Win Frame: 53-57 wins