The Transcendence of a Superstar

A superstar is is more than just a more talented star, they dictate the terms of the games that they play in, and the Toronto Raptors are seeing that in action for the first time.

So, the Toronto Raptors are good. Like, really good. You can see it in their 6-0 record. You can see it in the way that the NBA cognoscenti talks in gobsmacked terms about their play. You can even see it just by using your eyes to watch the team play.

Now, the Raptors have been good for a while now. Their steady ascent is well-chronicled (and their postseason failures even more so). They’ve been a Playoff staple for most of the decade, they’ve earned postseason awards (a Sixth Man here, a Coach of the Year there, and a few All-NBAs for good measure). Yet, still, they always sat below the pack of serious contenders. As well as they would do in the regular season, it was always difficult to believe that their success would carry on in the Playoffs. The excuses were many: predictable offence, inflexible coaching, LeBron, but there was one issue that stood out above all others, and that was the play of the team’s stars.

The adage in the Playoffs is that the team with the best player wins the series. Basketball is a sport dominated by top-shelf talent like no other. You either have LeBron James and go to the Finals, or you don’t and you plummet to the bottom of the league. The Raptors were headlined by two stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Both were (and are) extremely good players. Many teams would happily pay them hefty salaries to don their colours. Yet, you couldn’t confidently call either one a superstar. Neither one dictates the way that the game is going to be played. Lowry comes closer to that than DeRozan, but when you switch from watching them to watching James or Durant or Davis, you realize the how much higher the best players sit on Mount Olympus.

Enter Kawhi Leonard, who has been everything he was advertised to be and more. He has not played a petulant minute for Toronto (like many assumed he would in the hours after the blockbuster trade), instead he has brought his full talent to bear and has the Raptors playing better than they’ve ever played in their twenty-four year history. When he’s on the court, he bends the game to his will. He plays at his pace, and forces everyone into his rhythm. That’s especially true because unlike most stars, he is equally adept at both ends of the floor. He sizes players up in isolation situations and just waits for them to make a mistake that he can exploit. He tracks entire teams on defence, dictating they flow of their action into spots that the Raptors want them in so that they can suffocate whatever attack they’re attempting concoct.

That’s what it means to be a superstar, and that’s why adding one makes a good team into a really good team. Fans in Toronto would often lament that DeRozan didn’t get the respect that he deserved as a star in the NBA, but now they are seeing on a near-nightly basis the gulf that exists between stars and superstars. Whereas DeRozan was a master of exploiting what was given to him on offence, Leonard is a master of taking what he wants. They say that isolation basketball has been strategized out of the game, but that isn’t exactly true. Superstars are allowed to isolate all they want, because they can make high-efficiency offence out of it (Curry isolates. Harden isolates. Giannis isolates), it’s the stars and role players that have had their right to isolate repealed.

It goes beyond the one-for-one comparisons though. Despite most of this roster being built to augment DeRozan, Leonard simply fits it better. He’s a three-point threat, so the floor is more open when he’s on it, which has both allowed for a more impactful drive-and-kick attack for the team, but also has opened up more space for Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka to operate down low. Leonard is obviously a far more capable defender, which forces the team into fewer help scenarios (and, in fact, he and Danny Green have given them tremendous switchability), which allows everyone to play a bit tighter to their man and pressure opposing offences. Also, Leonard doesn’t need to spend as much time with the ball in his hands, which has given Lowry far more control over the offence, which has invigorated his already-potent game.

There is something more ephemeral that has happened, too, with Leonard (and Green) being added to the roster. The Raptors came into this season having to work. Had they returned their team from a year ago, they would have still been good, but it would also have been the third year in a row with the same rotation. That familiarity breeds consistency, but it can also breed boredom. New imports force adjustments, and activates the brain. The players on the Raptors cannot simply rely on muscle memory to get them through games, they have to be aware, they have to be observant and learn how to mix with new players (and new combinations of players). This is especially true on defence, where they have so much potential to be disruptive that they can’t ever sit back in their schemes and let rhythm take them over.

Teams have traded key players to make good teams very good in the past. Adrian Dantley was a fan favourite and key player in Detroit’s 1980’s ascension, but trading him for Mark Aguirre put them over the top (also like DeRozan, Dantley did not take the trade particularly well). Similarly, the New York Knicks traded All-Star Walt Bellamy to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere and would go on to make three trips to the NBA Finals, winning two. In both cases, the team just *clicked* in a way that they hadn’t before. Watching Toronto now, it isn’t as if what they do is wildly different than it has been in the recent past, but rather it’s like they are able to execute what they did even better, what with augmenting their attack with a superstar player.

The change has been good. It has clearly shaken them up. The same can be said for DeRozan, too. He famously spent his entire career in Toronto improving his game, but he was always playing the same kind of role. In San Antonio, he’s been given a whole new environment in which to ply his trade, and he’s been spectacular at it. His improved passing game has proven essential for a team that has lost all of their point guards to injury, and he now has a coach in Gregg Popovich that has no problem with teams operating in the mid-range (DeRozan’s sweet spot).

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say that the trade has worked out equally well for the Raptors and DeRozan, though. The Raptors look like the most fearsome team in the league not playing in the Bay Area. It’s only two weeks into the season, but what they are doing isn’t based on flukey early-season breaks. They won’t go undefeated the rest of the way, obviously (they probably won’t go another week undefeated), but their fundamentals are strong and they are carving out the kind of identity that turns skeptics into believers and also-rans into Finalists. For the first time the Raptors have a player of the calibre to make statements like that sound reasonable. That is the power a superstar brings to an NBA franchise, and that’s why the Raptors are good. Like, really good.