The Toronto Raptors, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, enjoyed their first conference and championship title successes recently. But with both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green leaving for Los Angeles, can this great record be maintained, or are the Raptors going to come crashing down to earth?
Last Season – First Titles
The 2018-19 season saw the gradual progression of previous years blossom into full-fledged success for the Toronto Raptors, who won their first titles when they won the Eastern Conference and the NBA Championship itself. A large part of this success came from the recruitment of defensive superstar Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green.
Leonard in particular proved an inspired move for the Raptors, who narrowly edged out the Philadelphia 76ers in the semi-finals of the play-offs, winning 4-3. In the conference finals the Raptors beat Milwaukee Bucks, for their first ever conference title, and met the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. There the Raptors claimed their first NBA Championship title, winning 4-2.
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A Difficult Season Ahead?
So far, so good. But departing players can make a huge difference to a team’s prospects (jumping across the ocean, just ask a Leeds Rhinos fan about how things went when Sinfield, Peacock, and Leuluai all retired at the same time). Losing key players in the off-season is not the ideal way to start a season, particularly a first title defence.
Pre-season, Rick Zamperin firmly predicted that the Raptors would take a big step back this season. Indeed, Zamperin emphasized that the loss of Kawhi Leonard was a major blow for the team and one that would make retaining their title very difficult. And the Raptors’ loss is the Clippers’ gain (and they’ll be hoping to do better than the first round dismissal they suffered last time around).
That said, a person is not a team, and although he remains downbeat on the Raptors’ prospects, Zamperin did concede that, on paper, the veterans the team retains are good enough to perform well.
How are they doing so far? At the time of writing, the Raptors are second in the Eastern Conference, immediately behind the Philadelphia 76ers (who have played one fewer game). For a team apparently down and out due to star talent departing, that’s not a bad start.
The consensus of expert opinion (for what that’s worth) is that the Raptors will make the play-offs again but fail to repeat the fairytale success they enjoyed in the last season. It’s certainly difficult for them to match last season’s heights, but sometimes being underestimated is psychologically helpful for a team.
Dealing with Losing Leonard and Green
It’s not just a question of losing Leonard and Green as a negative for the Raptors, it’s a gain for the LA Clippers and Lakers respectively, both of whom will now have rather stronger defensive capabilities. It’s because of this that the Raptors tried their best to hold onto their two stars, but ended up failing to retain them.
Ensuring the defence holds up without last year’s players is going to be critical for the Raptors, going further into the season. Many have described Leonard as carrying the team and winning matches practically solo, and if the Raptors’ challenge wilts this season then such accusations will end up looking pretty accurate. Early days so far, but right now they’re doing a lot better than the calamitous collapse others have predicted.
New recruit Matt Thomas and Ogugua “OG” Anunoby were both in action for the Raptors’ recent win over the Bulls. Thomas has some room to improve but every début could be better. OG, on the other hand, is significantly improved on the previous season (much of which he missed due to an emergency appendectomy).
Coupled with the team’s existing talent, including veterans Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell, the future may bode better than many pundits are predicting.
Smart transfers and strategy matter too. Resting key players can be important, particularly when managing injuries, but handled correctly (as happened with the enforced absence of OG for much of last season) this can not only help the player but motivate them to repay the considerate and caring treatment of the team on the court.
On the transfer front, we’ve already mentioned signing up Matt Thomas (July 2019), and in January 2019 Patrick McCaw joined the team. Ironically, he helped defeat his former team, the Warriors, in the final. I’m not expecting wholesale changes because the team’s opted to continue with and develop the existing squad rather than toss half the players overboard and embark on a rebuilding campaign. Whether this approach works, time will tell, but in the intervening period the transfers are going to have to augment the existing setup, rather than try and create a whole new team.
The thing to remember is that people didn’t expect the first titles to come last season for the Toronto Raptors. One of the universal truths of sport is that commentators and pundits often talk a lot of guff, going along with the consensus and only changing their mind when it’s obvious they’re wrong. Maybe I’m making a mistake, but I wouldn’t count the Raptors out for a good year.