Well, we made it. Basketball is officially back.
The last time we saw the Toronto Raptors play a game that actually mattered, they were getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers and the omnipotent LeBron James, with DeMar DeRozan getting ejected in the waning minutes.
Now, DeRozan is no longer a Raptor, and James is no longer a Cavalier. Yet, this season poetically begins the way the last one ended, with the two franchises meeting head-to-head again, albeit with much different expectations.
As the kick-off to every season is wont to elicit, optimism is running high about the fresh start. Fans and pundits alike seem generally excited about the potential of the team, and after the Kawhi Leonard trade conjured up new concerns and questions, answers will finally begin to take shape tonight.
Speaking of the trade—someone else who’s ready to get this journey started? Toronto’s reinvigorated superstar, who was asked on Tuesday what he missed about playing meaningful hoops.
“Everything,” said Leonard. “Bad calls, missing shots, making shots, winning games, high-fives with teammates, and just being competitive out there. Just everything. I love the game.”
This is gonna be a fun ride.
On one last personal note, we here at Raptors Republic want to thank you, the readers, for continuing to follow along and supporting us every single year. Your enthusiasm does not go unnoticed and the community that has developed here is quite honestly the best I have ever been a part of. All of us at the site are chomping at the bit to make this our best season yet—so let’s do this thing.
The game tips off at 7:30PM EST on TSN and TSN 1050.
Joshua Howe: This time last year, the Raptors were set, most thought, to have a really solid season. No one expected them to run roughshod on the East, win 59 games, and claim the first overall seed. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, had much higher suppositions, as is the case when the best player on the planet is heading the roster. Now, things have somewhat flipped. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard (arguably the best player in the conference), and with him comes a cornucopia of pressure. With LeBron out West, expectations for the Cavs have plummeted (unless you’re Tristan Thompson) and many pundits don’t have them making the playoffs. What should fans pragmatically expect from the wine and gold this season?
David Zavac: I don’t think the Cavs themselves know what they want. Publicly, they want to push for the playoffs. Their first round draft pick will go to Atlanta if it’s not a top 10 pick. The incentives are there for a tank. No one would blame them for a tank after losing LeBron James. They have some nice young pieces, but nothing on the roster that looks like a future star. But they do still have Kevin Love and a host of other hold-over veterans from the last few seasons. Anyone who saw how the supporting cast fared last spring in the playoffs could be forgiven for holding off on hope or excitement at the prospect of them trying to hold their own without James, but here we are. The best case scenario is Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, and Larry Nance Jr. growing into NBA roles as the season goes on, combined with a bunch of losses that ultimately results in a top-five pick.
Joshua Howe: Despite expectations being low, Cleveland’s not completely feckless. Five-time All-Star Kevin Love is still on the team, and he’s going to be the go-to guy for the first time since his days in Minnesota. What kind of season do you expect Love to have, and will there be more freedom to his game than there has been the last few years?
David Zavac: Will the playmakers be able to get him the ball? He’s not out there with Ricky Rubio or LeBron James. And there will be a lack of shooting with many lineups Ty Lue deploys, and he’ll need to be out on the perimeter creating some space. What I’d most like to see is him develop some chemistry with Collin Sexton and help the young kid grow. If he builds some trade value for himself, or makes it appear that he can help the Cavs in a couple years when they’re ready to compete again, that works too. In terms of numbers I expect, I don’t know. I wouldn’t expect them to be markedly better than they have been the last couple years; one, they were pretty good, and two, he’s got less talent around him to help him succeed.
Joshua Howe: Everyone loves to talk about the young talent on the Raptors, but the Cavs have some intriguing pieces of their own in guys like Cedi Osman, David Nwaba, Ante Zizic, and Collin Sexton. How much do you expect the young guns to contribute, and did anyone in particular stand out in preseason?
David Zavac: Ante Zizic is in a tough spot because Love, Tristan Thompson, and Nance all spend time at center. Nwaba might not start the year in the rotation, but will certainly get there as time goes on. Sexton and Osman will get every opportunity in the world, though. Let’s throw Rodney Hood in here too; in terms of building blocks the team believes in you’re talking about Sexton, Osman, Nance, and Hood. As much as the Cavs want to make the playoffs, I think a lot of the front office just wants to see where that talent develops, or doesn’t. Osman’s handle and ability to shoot will always be a question, but he runs the floor and projects as a plus defender. Sexton, who knows?
Joshua Howe: Last season in Cleveland was pretty tumultuous, to say the least. Everyone remembers the horrid defense, the early questions about James’ effort, the massive deals at the deadline, the “We’ve got a (expletive) squad now” quote despite the lacklustre sheen of the new additions, and the inevitable Finals run that saw James squash the aforementioned concerns about his engagement level and deliver herculean performance after herculean performance. As someone covering the team, it must be relieving that the constant pressure is finally off after four years. Ready for a return to normalcy and, dare I say, more fun?
David Zavac: I’ve seen people express excitement at this new chapter, but I don’t know that I’m there. It certainly will be a bit more fresh, as things were undoubtedly stale last season. It’s easy to be brave and excited when the team is 0–0. What happens when Sexton struggles, Lue and Love are unhappy, etc.? That might not happen, of course, but part of being in the dark about what’s going to happen is the possibility that things that aren’t great are going to happen. I think fans will miss national relevance more than they might be letting on. That being said, the subject of your next question tends to brighten things up.
Joshua Howe: Let’s get real—Cedi’s gonna be an MVP candidate, right?
David Zavac: The guy is always smiling. He genuinely loves being in the NBA and all that comes with it. His English is getting better and better. The Cavs have been in love with him for at least three years now. His game might be catching up to his attitude. He’s probably a better prospect than Collin Sexton is. What that means, I don’t know. But he’s got the highest approval rating of a Cav that I can remember. Everyone loves him.
The Raptors managed to stroll out of preseason relatively healthy, with Delon Wright’s left thigh strain being the sole exception. As of now, it’s unclear whether Wright will play in the opener; everyone else, however, is good to go. Leonard (coming off of his now infamous quad injury) looked vigorous during his time on the floor, not shying away from contact and giving the kind of effort that clearly shows he’s invested in shaking off the rust and playing his best basketball this season. Danny Green (groin), too, looked to be returning to form by the second-last preseason matchup against Brooklyn.
One of the topics that will finally bear some clarification tonight concerns that of the starting lineup. Will Nurse go for the three-wing lineup and play Kyle Lowry-Green-Leonard-OG Anunoby-Jonas Valanciunas? Or will he opt for something more traditional? I am going to guess the latter simply based on matchups (I presume the Cavaliers will start Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson), so that’s how I’ve laid out the depth chart below. But knowing Nurse, anything could happen—even a lineup none of us expected.
Still, for now, here’s how things shape up for Toronto:
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, (Delon Wright), Lorenzo Brown
SG: Danny Green, C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, Jordan Loyd
SF: Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Malachi Richardson
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Greg Monroe, Chris Boucher
TBD: Delon Wright
Unlike the Raptors, the Cavs are starting things off in a rough patch. J.R. Smith (elbow) is listed as “doubtful” for tonight, Larry Nance Jr. (ankle) is “questionable,” and Kevin Love, while indications are that he will play, is battling a sore left foot that will potentially limit his minutes. Cedi Osman (ankle) also sat out of Cleveland’s final preseason game against Detroit, though there has been no talk of him missing the opener.
With Smith unlikely to play, upstart guard David Nwaba could get more run, and there’s a good chance that Sam Dekker moves up in the rotation as the next guy behind Love. It will also be worth keeping an eye on Rodney Hood—will he come out of the gate aggressive, looking to start off the young season right after the abomination that was his close to 2017–18?
All said, this shouldn’t be too tough of a matchup for Toronto, and will act as a good warmup for the Celtics on Friday.
Here’s how the Cavs rotation might pan out:
PG: George Hill, Collin Sexton
SG: (J.R. Smith), Jordan Clarkson, David Nwaba, John Holland
SF: Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman
PF: Kevin Love, (Larry Nance Jr.), Sam Dekker, Channing Frye
C: Tristan Thompson, Ante Zizic, Billy Preston
TBD: J.R. Smith, Larry Nance Jr.
Canton Charge: None
The Raptors are 12-point favourites and the over-under is 214.