Last season was the Toronto Raptors’ best in franchise history, with 59 wins and top spot in the Eastern Conference. But another sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers meant changes were almost inevitable.
First, head coach Dwane Casey was fired (he would subsequently be named Coach of the Year for overseeing the Raptors’ fine regular season).
Then on Wednesday morning the shake-up continued with a trade for Kawhi Leonard that sent Toronto’s beloved All-Star DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs along with Jakob Poeltl and a protected first round pick in 2019.
Spare a thought for DeRozan, whose loyalty to the Raptors and his off-season graft have been admirable. But this was a big swing that Toronto just had to take, even with the risk that Leonard can walk after the 2018-19 season.
Leonard’s arrival, assuming he is healthy and motivated, elevates the Raptors’ ceiling considerably. There are plenty of questions still to be answered, but Toronto are poised for a big year. Here’s why:
Leonard is now the best two-way player in the East
As an NBA champion and a Finals MVP, Leonard has proven his value on the biggest stage. He was regular season MVP candidate in 2017 too. Leonard’s well-rounded game makes him the most talented player in the Eastern Conference, ahead of Giannis Antetokoumpo and Kyrie Irving. His lockdown defense is unmatched and the Raptors will have the option of running the offense through him .
Toronto can set up some ferocious defensive line-ups
Things fell apart for the Raptors on the defensive side of the ball in the Cavaliers series. But Leonard will get things back on track – and he will be surrounded by other strong defensive presences. Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam all excel at that end of the floor, as does Danny Green who also moved from the Spurs. When Toronto goes small and plays just one big man, they have relentless wing defenders to overwhelm opponents.
The Raptors have closed the gap on the Boston Celtics
Had Toronto simply rolled out the same line-up as last season, their chances of winning a series against Boston (and even the Philadelphia 76ers) appeared slim. But Leonard changes that equation. The Raptors have the wing defenders to slow down the Celtics – and Leonard can switch onto anyone. His efficiency as a scorer will also help Toronto in the postseason.
LeBron is gone
This obviously helps too. Toronto’s great nemesis will not be a factor in the first few rounds as James is going to be plying his trade in the West for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors would not see him in the playoffs until the Finals themselves.