Raptors are interesting, not contenders | Lowry out at FIBA; thumb still hurts | Schedule released; looks…good?
One other key in all this: Toronto may not have to score all that much. Yes, Leonard and Danny Green were huge contributors to the Raptors, who ranked in the top five in effective field goal percentage defense. But even without those two, Toronto enjoys a pretty solid defensive core that can still orchestrate switches (they were this postseason’s most efficient switch defense by a mile) and reliably step up in help scenarios, while Lowry is one of the best charge-takers in the game. OG Anunoby, who missed the playoffs after an emergency appendectomy, will be integral in replacing Green on that end. Aside from him, Toronto picked up a pair of free-agent wings in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, who underwhelmed in their initial stops after being taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, but are low-risk gambles for a team that’s looking for more young talent to put around Siakam.
In a way, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson being under the microscope is emblematic of the team as a whole. Team president Masai Ujiri is going to want to take constant stock of just how good this team is to get a sense of how he should handle things come February, when his phone figures to be ringing off the hook ahead of the trade deadline. Lowry, VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are all set to be free agents next summer,5 and could appeal to teams seeking to make the sort of magical run Toronto did last season.
Barring an injury or something else unforeseen, the Raptors should still have more than enough to make the playoffs this season. FiveThirtyEight’s projection model gives them an 85 percent probability of reaching the postseason, and a 4 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals. But it will be even more interesting to see exactly where Ujiri’s dividing line falls, between deciding that it’s worth pursuing another deep playoff run versus selling off assets to pivot toward the future.
Two: Raptors vs. Clippers — Dec. 11 (7 pm ET)
Leonard’s return to Toronto promises to be another emotional roller coaster, as the beloved hero from the Raptors’ championship run will be making his first and only appearance up north to collect his ring.
Given his Jordanesque contribution to the title, it’s a safe bet that the home faithful will give Leonard the rousing ovation that he deserves. There might be a dissenting handful in attendance with spurned feelings from the way Leonard and his representatives dragged out the free agency process, but they will likely be in the minority. For the most part, Leonard will be showered with gratitude, and it will not be a repeat of his vitriolic return to San Antonio.
The Raptors will be extremely motivated to win this game. As Fred VanVleet vowed during the free agency process, Leonard can either stay and defend his title, or he could leave and his former teammates will be looking to “kick his ass.” Toronto will be the underdogs, but expect pride to kick in as the rest of the Raptors will want to show that they also played a hand in delivering the title. Here’s hoping that Leonard doesn’t load manage this game (this one doesn’t fall on a back-to-back, but the Clippers will be in the midst of a six-game road trip).
The Raptors’ only visit to Washington, D.C. comes on April 7, presenting a fine opportunity for Donald Trump to invite them to the White House, allowing the Raptors to refuse, setting up the President to say he never invited the Raptors in the first place. The Raptors will have no neutral-site games in Ottawa this year.
March promises to be a month of reunions. March 5 will be an NBA Finals rematch, as the Raptors pay their first visit to the Golden State Warriors’ new home. 11 days later, the Warriors fly north of the border to renew hostilities. On March 24, Danny Green and the aforementioned Lakers pay their only visit to Scotiabank Arena. March closes out with a home-and-home on March 28 & 30 with the Memphis Grizzlies. Jonas Valanciunas and Bruno Caboclo will be receiving warm ovations from the SBA crowd – and possibly a championship ring for one of them (poor Bruno)!
For the first time in franchise history, the Raptors will play at home Christmas Day, hosting the Celtics. Other noteworthy home games include the sixth annual Giants of Africa Game, celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, on Dec. 5 vs. the Houston Rockets, and the return of former Raptor Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 11. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2018-19 NBA Most Valuable Player, and the Milwaukee Bucks will make two trips north of the border – Feb. 25 and Apr. 3, while the lone visit from Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors happens Mar. 16. The Los Angeles Lakers make a late-season appearance at Scotiabank Arena on Mar. 24.
The longest homestand of the season is four games from Feb. 21-28. The longest road swing is five games which occurs twice: Nov. 8-16 and Mar. 1-9.
The Raptors’ busiest month is December with 16 games, followed by January with 15 contests. The busiest home month is December with 11 games, while the busiest road month is January with the Raptors facing 10 games away from Toronto.
The busiest day of the week for the Raptors this season will be Wednesday with 18 games, followed by Sunday with 14 games. Sunday and Wednesday are also the busiest days at home with eight contests apiece, while Wednesday features a high of 10 road games.
The Raptors will have 13 back-to-back games this season (one more than last season). Seven of those back-to-backs are road games followed by another road game. The 2019-20 schedule features 11 U.S. national television appearances. Toronto has six games on ESPN and five contests on TNT. The Raptors’ 2019-20 local television schedule will be released at a later date.
The champs will be busiest on Wednesdays (18 games) and Sundays (14) and though the number of back-to-back contests have been reduced by the NBA for the fifth consecutive year as a whole (from an average of 13.3 to an average of 12.4), Toronto will actually play 13, up one from 2018-19. Seven of those back-to-backs will be consecutive road games.
The number would surely have been higher had Kawhi stayed, but the Raptors will still appear 11 times on U.S. national television, including six on ESPN.
Dec. 25 vs. Boston Celtics
Yes, the Christmas game many fans have long pined for is finally here.
The Raptors and Celtics will tip-off the NBA’s annual Christmas Day marathon beginning at noon ET. More than a tip-of-the-hat to the Raptors’ success in recent years and subsequent rise in popularity, this game could actually hold some real significance given the uncertainty in the East where the Raptors and Celtics could be fighting for playoff seeding all season long, rendering every matchup between the two important.
While Toronto will look similar to last season — save for the whole missing-their-best-player part — but the Celtics underwent a more dramatic overhaul that saw the departure of stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, with all-star point guard Kemba Walker signing with Boston as a free agent.
The rest of the Christmas schedule will feature the Bucks vs. Sixers, Rockets vs. Warriors, Clippers vs. Lakers, and Pelicans vs. Nuggets
3. Do the champs slide back to the pack?
The Toronto Raptors made a Faustian bargain last season, trading popular DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs to get Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
General manager Masai Ujiri later swung a deadline deal to get veteran big man Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies and new coach Nick Nurse managed the rotations — and the load management of the fragile Leonard — well enough to get the Raptors their first NBA championship.
But now Leonard is gone to the LA Clippers, with Green joining the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Raptors are left to figure out who the next go-to guy will be.
Kyle Lowry, the All-Star point guard, is 33 and coming off thumb surgery. It’s not likely he’s prepared to be the No. 1 option. Gasol, who will be 35 in January, has always been more of a second- or third-option sort of player.
So Toronto’s ability to get points in a pinch may rest on the ability of Pascal Siakam to take his game up yet another notch.
Spicy P stepped up in a big way last season, growing from rotational piece to solid No. 2 option, earning Most Improved Player honors after averaging 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 31.9 minutes per game while shooting 54.9 percent overall and a respectable 36.9 percent from deep.
Siakam’s efficiency was a delight, but he might have to sacrifice some of that for volume if the Raptors are to remain in the fight at the top of the Eastern Conference.
As far as aptitude goes, Siakam was an efficient — and busy — scorer at New Mexico State, averaging 15 shots a game as a sophomore and putting up 20.3 points a night while shooting 53.9 percent overall.
The NBA, though, is a long way from the WAC and it might be hard for the 25-year-old native of Cameroon to produce another huge leap in productivity. If that’s the case, Nurse may be hard-pressed to scheme enough creative ways for Toronto to put points on the board consistently.
6) Toronto Raptors (44-38); playoff probability 70 percent; +5000
Allan Houston came up big for the Knicks with a game-high 34 points and Mark Jackson flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. For the Raptors, Morris Peterson led the way with 22 points, followed by 18 points from Alvin Williams.
The problem for the Raptors? Their leading scorer struggled. Latrell Sprewell helped the Knicks limit Carter to two points in the first half. He finished with 15 points, which was almost 10 less than he averaged on the season.
“Every time I drove to the basket there was a man there,” Carter said. “They did play defense tremendously and with high intensity. We didn’t match it.”
The Raptors ended up having a better season than the Knicks, finishing with 42 wins compared to 30 for New York. It was enough for the Raptors to make the playoffs, although they ended up losing to the Detroit Pistons in five games in the first round.
Adding to the intrigue of Toronto’s second Christmas Day game is that it’s against a Boston team that, like them, is expected to finish near the top of the Eastern Conference standings next season. So not only is it the franchise’s second Christmas Day game – the first on their homecourt – it’s a potential playoff preview, headlined by two All-Star point guards in Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker, as well as potential first-time All-Stars in Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The interest in the Raptors throwback ‘dino’ jersey was always high, but after the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship, it exponentially increased that interest. So much so that Kyle Lowry and Jeremy Lin attended the championship parade in the purple throwbacks with red, black and gray trim, but they had to be customized.
We all owe an apology to the Toronto Raptor’s purple dinosaur jersey.
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