Last season, the Raptors took a shot at changing the team without changing the roster. Sure, they brought in CJ Miles and rebuilt the bench, but the goal was to adapt to a modern NBA, become more of a versatile team that shot more threes, while retaining the personnel that had built their success. To their credit, it worked, mostly. They won a franchise record 59 games, and shot the fourth most three-pointers in the NBA. The offense was one of the best in the league, but there were signs of the old Raptors at critical points during the season. Late game execution that would devolve into isolations without passing, and in the playoffs that reared it’s head again, and ended with the sweep at the hands of LeBron, for the second year in a row.
The trade of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, as well as the replacement of Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse, the architect of that new offense, was a statement by Masai Ujiri that the plan was solid, but the personnel was wrong. The Raptors saw that in order to run a modern offense, you need a modern roster, and they went out and built that this summer.
As much as DeRozan will go down as one of the greatest Raptors in history, the truth of it is that his limitations often dictated the ceiling of the team. He wasn’t a switchable defender, because he had a tendency to force unnecessary off-ball switches, and in a modern offense he became a player that opponents could help off of, as the Cavaliers did frequently in the playoffs, because he’s not a reliable threat from three-point range. His game was more suited to the old Raptors, and he was great in that role, but the team had made the decision to leave that playstyle behind and it made the fit awkward.
The modern NBA is about teams that can switch defensively to avoid mismatches as well as provide outside shooting threats at all positions to keep pressure on the defense and open up space for ballhandlers. This new Toronto team is built to excel at those things. Danny Green is one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, and he might be the Raptors’ third best guy on the wing, with Kawhi and OG Anunoby on the roster. They have Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright at point guard, each of whom brings a lot to the table at that end of the floor. Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka can do different things defensively, with Ibaka, despite slowing down some since his athletic peak, still being a strong shot blocker and Siakam’s quickness and ability to switch onto smaller players. Even Jonas Valanciunas, despite his issues at times with pick and rolls, can be a solid interior defender and has improved his rotations significantly in recent years.
On the offensive end of the floor, the Raptors will put heavy pressure on defenses to not ignore anyone by bringing shooting across the floor, and that will open up space for their guards to work, as well as for Jonas Valanciunas’ scoring in the paint. This team will be able to play a quicker offense with more passing and exploit defensive mistakes at more positions than years past. The lineup versatility is immense, and they’ll be able to keep pressure on the defense with Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright all more than capable of creating space off the dribble and finding the right lane to get a good shot for the offense.
Last year the Raptors brought the promise of a culture change through modernizing the way they played to adapt to the direction the NBA was going, but this trade was the fulfillment of that promise, this trade was a clear statement of the direction the Raptors want to be headed.