The Toronto Raptors are currently in first place in the NBA closing in on December; now before you go rolling your eyes hear me out. I am a huge believer in the regular season only having so much weight on how a team truly performs in a season and that goes even greater for the only NBA team in Canada. The Toronto Raptors have been arguably a top 5 team in the NBA for the past 5 years, however, they lose any and all magic when the playoffs come. Last season the Raptors had their best season in franchise history with 59 wins, winning the East, but it was all for naught as they got swept by Lebron. Lebron James has tortured and given the Raptors fans nightmares. Some would even say he caused the breakup of several pieces of the organization. The Raptors moved on from head coach Dwane Casey and arguably the best Raptor (statistically) of all time in Demar Derozan. In replacement the Raptors promoted Nick Nurse to head coach and brought in 2014 NBA Finals MVP and 2015 Defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard along with veteran Danny Green.
Looking at it, there really were only two changes from last season but these have had a huge impact on the team as a whole. Without Demar Derozan in the lineup the Raptors have moved away from the ISO offense and have shared the ball more than they have in years past. It starts with Leonard and Lowry and then it moves down the lineup. If the team can share the ball, and play defence especially when Leonard is not in the lineup (he has missed 4 games for rest this season) then they really do have a shot to make a run this season towards a championship.
The Lowry/Leonard connection:
When the argument arises of how well the Raptors will play this season the main two to look at are Lowry and Leonard. Lowry has been playing better than I have seen him play in a very long time; there could be many reasons for this. He may think he has something to prove, or he may want to stay here long term, thus the better he plays the better it will be for all parties involved. The huge question mark is on Leonard as he is in the final year of his contract. When healthy he can be a top 3-5 player in the NBA. He has stated that he is not 100% comfortable with the Raptors offence thus far, though he is currently averaging 24.2 points per game. Once he is more comfortable then he could be in the MVP conversation. The Toronto Raptors are currently doing everything they can to sell themselves to him to hopefully sign him to a long term contract come the offseason. At this point the best thing to do is to enjoy that he is here. The best word for him is a “freak” as he is great on offense and even better defensively. He could be the superstar the Raptors need to make the next step, which would bring a championship to Toronto.
The biggest surprise for the Raptors early this season has been Pascal Siakam. He has been an absolute monster for the Raptors this season. He won East player of the week a few weeks back and has been a huge factor for the Raptors in his 3rd NBA season. Pascal most nights has looked like the best player in the lineup even with Leonard on the floor. He is coming into his own style of play, and in a few seasons he will be one of the top men in the NBA. He has become significantly faster and stronger. Last season he usually came off the bench, but don’t be surprised if he takes over and stays in the starting 5 as the season goes on. Based on his numbers so far he is thriving in getting the extra minutes. Look to him to be the x-factor this season.
Veering away from Valanciunas?:
With the team the Raptors have assembled and the type of game they play, slowly but surely they seem to not have much of a need for Jonas anymore. The game is too fast and most nights he struggles to have an impact on either end of the floor. It may be okay now, but if they want to make a significant impact in the playoffs I think they need to move him for a more agile, and faster player in that position. He is a great player and personality but I believe his time has run out. In most significant and important situations he is usually sitting on the bench while the Raptors play Anunoby, Siakam or Ibaka in his place. That fact alone should show that perhaps it is time to move on from him and make a move which will better this team going forward.
The Bench Mob:
The bench again will be a huge factor for the Toronto Raptors. They had one of the best benches in the league and helped them solidify a 1st place in the East last season. They may be the only reason The Raptors made it out of the 1st round against the Wizards in the playoffs. They need to be strong again for the Raptors this season and perhaps maybe even more impactful than last season. Players like Van Vleet, Ibaka, Powell, Anunoby, Miles and Wright will all be called upon to put up big numbers when the starters aren’t having their best night, or if the Raptors see some injuries during the season. Without the bench the Raptors will not be able to get very far, however with the players they have on the bench they may have exactly what they need to land a knockout punch to their opponents.
It has only been about a quarter into the season but the Raptors have already faced a number of injury problems which makes their current record even more impressive. It hasn’t been any of their stars but Van Vleet missed some time at the start of the season along with Delon Wright. This had the Raptors in a bit of trouble as they were severely lacking point guard depth when the season started. Thankfully the Raptors had Lowry running on all cylinders out of the gate. The Raptors then lost Powell last week and will be without his services for about a month due to a partial shoulder dislocation. Finally Ibaka, Green and Miles have all been day to day recently with various injuries. If the Raptors can overcome these injury problems now it makes their team even stronger. With a healthy team they will be even better and help to push the team over the top. Most teams would rather deal with injuries early in the season than closer to the playoffs.
Beasts of the East:
The Raptors have looked great early, but they aren’t going to run away with the East this season. Even with the weaker eastern conference there are still a few teams that could challenge for top spot. Boston has not yet played to their potential, the surprising 2nd place Bucks may make a push but I don’t see them holding at that spot in the standings come playoff time. The 76ers just picked up Jimmy Butler which makes their team much stronger, so they could challenge the Raptors for top spot in the East. However, I don’t think the Raptors should focus on the East. It would be nice to win the conference but they’ve done that, it is time to focus on winning the championship. As long as they get home court advantage, I don’t think the Raptors would be that unhappy with 2nd or even 3rd in the conference. There are still a bunch of good teams in the East that could knock them off if they’re underestimated but the Raptors have such a good and deep team that they should be able to stand their ground and go deep into the playoffs. As the team’s chemistry improves, and as Leonard gets more comfortable, this will make for more playoff success for the team.
The Lebron Lesson:
Lebron is gone to La la land, (I’ll pause for you sigh of relief or scream of joy) which makes the East a little calmer but does not make it any easier, it just provides less excuses for this team. The past several seasons have ended at the hands of Lebron James, he has pretty much single handily beat the Raptors. The Raptors no longer have that excuse or shadow looming over them, therefore a NBA Finals appearance is a must or bust for the Raptors this season. With the team they have there is no excuse for them to not get to the Finals.
The Open Gate Leads to Golden State:
Having a good season is great, making it to the NBA Finals is even better but there is a 90% chance or greater that whomever from the East that gets to the Finals will be taking on the Golden State Warriors even with their struggles of late. Golden State still seems as the team to beat, as they look for their 3rd title in a row and 4th in 5 seasons. They are approaching dynasty status, as one of the best teams the NBA has ever seen. The Raptors need to better them, which requires figuring out their weaknesses. If you have a plan to beat the Warriors, then that plan should get you past most other teams. As the cliché saying goes; if you want to be the best you need to beat the best. That should be the number one goal for the Toronto Raptors this season. Studying a team that can be a great offensive threat, as well as a smothering defensive threat. As good as the team is, I would not be surprised to see them make a few moves to strengthen their team depending on how the season goes.
The Toronto Raptors owe it to their fans to push for a title for this city, they deserve it. A fan base that felt abandoned by McGrady, Carter and Bosh and felt the frustration of losing with Bargnani and Derozan, now look to a team led by Leonard and Lowry to end the pain they have felt for so many years. It is a good season to be a Toronto sports fan, so my advice to all involved is to enjoy it between the Raptors and the Leafs; Scotiabank Arena could be raising a few banners next fall. Only time will tell if the Kawai Leonard trade was the catalyst for the team making that next step, or if it will fall silent to the same narrative that has cursed this team for over 20 years.
One last thought to throw out, has anyone seen the new “City” jerseys for the Raptors? They look phenomenal and I love the black and gold floor. Thanks to Drake for that one as he would put it best “This that OVO, that SZN, this that new Toronto”.