It feels wrong to do this. It really does. Less than 72 hours after the Toronto Raptors shipped out DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard I’m writing a column about what this new Raptors team might look like. It feels wrong because I haven’t fully digested the fact that DeRozan is gone, nor have I decided how I feel about the trade that shipped out the most loyal superstar the Raptors have ever had for a player coming off a mysterious injury who reportedly has no interest in playing for Toronto. These things happen and it takes time to let the emotions pass in order to make objective judgements; considering DeRozan helped me fall in love with the sport of basketball, I’m not ready to do that just yet. Instead, I’m going try to put my love for DeRozan on the backburner as I imagine the endless possibilities this new Raptors team represents.
First a confession I share with many Raptors faithful: If the Raptors ran it back this season, regardless of their head coaching change, I wouldn’t have cared about the regular season. How could I be expected to sit through another meaningless regular season when we all saw what happened last year after the Raptors won the East? With this trade — and specifically with Leonard being a Raptor — the regular season just got interesting again. The Raptors with Leonard are a very interesting and exciting team; A young, versatile, defensively swarming team with the deepest roster in the East and new head coach who seems eager to prove himself. Furthermore, for the first time in franchise history, assuming Leonard is healthy, the Raptors will have the best player on the court every time they face an Eastern Conference opponent (or anyone not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant). It’s the first time the Raptors have had a player of Leonard’s calibre, and despite it likely only lasting one year — perhaps because of it — Raptors fans are have a reason to be excited again.
With the additions of Leonard and Danny Green, a 3-and-D veteran with championship pedigree, the Raptors all of the sudden possess one of the deepest, most versatile, and most defensively intimidating rosters in the league. As currently constructed the Raptors have “two point guards (Lowry, VanVleet), four 3-and-D wings (Green, Wright, C.J. Miles, and Norman Powell), three versatile forwards (Kawhi, Anunoby, and Siakam), and two traditional big men with 3-point range (Ibaka and Valanciunas).” New head coach Nick Nurse will have a ton of pressure on him to maximize the roster by making the correct lineup adjustments throughout the regular season and playoffs; something Dwane Casey got fired for his inability to do.
Photo courtesy of Blake’s work at theathletic.com.
It will be interesting to see how Nurse distributes the minutes throughout the lineup and how heavily he relies on the young players compared to the veterans. Given Nurse’s history of developing these young players and the extra offseason they’ve now had to get bigger and better, it seems likely that he will count on them even more than Casey did.
Given the disappointing season and playoffs Serge Ibaka just had, I’d like to see him come off the bench where he will have the opportunity to regain his confidence by feasting on lesser big men. That would pave the way for a more versatile starting lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, OG, and Valanciunas that can switch almost everything on defense and space the floor offensively. A bench mob of VanVleet, Wright, Miles, Siakam, and Ibaka will scare the crap out of opposing coaches, likely forcing them to stagger their star players’ minutes more than they would generally like to. Additionally, given the fact that Leonard will usually guard the opponents’ best offensive weapons, Nurse will have even more room to experiment with lineups without worrying too much about being torn apart defensively.
Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, three-time First-Team All-Defense, and quite possibly the best perimeter defender the league has ever seen. Add him and Danny Green, a decent defender himself, to a roster already composed of defensive stewards like Lowry, Wright, Powell, Siakam, and OG and what do you get? A long and athletic team with high basketball IQs and the ability to switch at almost every position.
Considering the demise of the Raptors at the hands of LeBron James has come year after year because the Raptors didn’t have a defensive superstar who could slow down the league’s best offensive weapons, Leonard is exactly what Raptors faithful have been asking for (and much, much more). Leonard will swarm the top options in the East including Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, John Wall, Bradley Beal, and every other superstar who has lit up the Raptors in the past. Leonard’s presence will also take pressure off the rest of the roster by giving them easier defensive assignments, which will a key part of keeping guys rested and energized down the stretch. One season removed from having the fifth best defensive rating in the league, albeit one that fell off dramatically in the playoffs, the Raptors just got a whole lot better on that end of the floor.
Leonard is mysterious. Nobody knows what he wants in his career, let alone if he is going to show up to training camp in Toronto. But if Leonard buys into the opportunity to be the face of one of the best and biggest franchises in basketball, if he wants to be the go-to scoring option on a winning team, he may regain his MVP candidacy before we know it.
We already know what Leonard can do on the defensive end, but his offensive potential was never truly realized as a Spur. The precedent for running the offense through Leonard is awe-inspiring: When Pop funnelled more of the offense through Leonard in the 2017 playoffs he “averaged 27.7 points and 4.6 assists during his 12-game run,” Kevin O’Connor points out. “Over this stretch, 40.6 percent of Leonard’s plays came in the pick-and-roll. He was typically dominant as a scorer and showed flashes of greater upside as a playmaker. The Raptors could cast Leonard in this role, and we might witness him undergo a drastic change.”
Nurse will be responsible for unlocking Leonard’s offensive upside while keeping him rested enough to be himself on the defensive end of the floor. If Nurse can manage that, and if Leonard thrives in both roles, who’s to say he won’t be in the MVP conversation by years end?
So, what are the realistic expectations for Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors? Leonard has one year remaining on his contract, so despite the rumblings that he might not be ecstatic about coming to Toronto this is a contract year for him. Assuming he plays and fully buys into the system the Raptors have what it takes to not only win the East, but to come out of it too.
Getting past Boston in a playoff series will be hard, but the Celtics has never match up well against the Raptors. Considering the Raptors depth and the fact that Kawhi will be the best player on the court in a potential series, anything could happen. Is a finals run and MVP consideration enough for Kawhi to stay in Toronto?
YES. Look, think on it like this: Let’s say Kawhi shows up and he’s healthy and ready to start collecting additions to his necklace of human teeth that I’m almost certain he’s always wearing underneath his jersey. He does that, and jumps back into the MVP conversation, and Toronto is instantly in a position to challenge for the Eastern Conference title. And let’s say that Philly regresses a little bit (a very real likelihood), and that Kyrie Irving does or says something nuts in Boston that sends them into just enough of a tailspin that they stumble in the playoffs. (“I’ve spent a lot of time studying bees these past few months. I feel connected to them. They understand me, and I understand them. Which is why I would like to be traded next season to Charlotte, which I’m told has many hornets, if not literal bees. Thank you.”) Toronto, behind the strength of Kawhi’s dominance, thunders its way into the Finals. And the Raptors lose to the Warriors, sure, but it doesn’t matter. He’s drunk off the success of the season (Defensive Player of the Year, legitimate MVP candidate, All-NBA First Team selection, first Finals appearance for his new franchise). And so he’s sitting there staring at a possible future that includes multiple trips to the Finals over the next five or seven years, and he knows the Warriors will eventually fall apart and LeBron will eventually stop being LeBron and when that happens … I mean … why couldn’t the Raptors win a title or two under Kawhi’s tenure? And if he gets drawn in by that idea, then who knows? Maybe he’d stick around. (Or, maybe less complicated than all that: He shows up to Toronto, goes down a snowy hill on an inner tube, and is like, “Snow is good,” and then signs an extension.)
It’s possible Leonard stays in Toronto and signs an extension. It’s much more likely he doesn’t. Regardless, the Raptors have one year to convince Leonard that the city of Toronto and the Raptors organization are the best possible fit for him. It won’t be easy, but don’t put it past Masai Ujiri. Nobody thought he could get Leonard until he did.