The Toronto Raptors just traded away their best player in franchise history, DeMar DeRozan, for Kawhi Leonard, in July. With condolences to Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, DeRozan is the Raptors’ all-time leading scorer and never actually wanted to leave Toronto. The same cannot be said about Carter or Bosh. So DeMar is the greatest Raptor ever, but I digress. If Kawhi Leonard decides he likes Toronto and re-signs with the NBA’s only Canadian team, he could easily take DeRozan’s place as the greatest player in franchise history. As much as Toronto loves DeMar, even the most die-hard fans admit Leonard is a much better all around player than DeRozan. He was simply a defensive liability. Leonard, 27, is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, has made the All-NBA first team twice, and was Finals-MVP when he was 22. When you think about the best two-way player in the NBA, The Claw is who comes to mind. He is the best perimeter defender in the NBA. So not only does Kawhi edge out DeRozan in scoring prowess, he is a huge improvement on the defensive end.
The Raptors seemingly swindled the San Antonio Spurs when they traded DeRozan, young big man Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected first round pick for Kawhi and 3-and-D wing Danny Green. Poeltl, the Raptors first round pick back in 2016, is the least coveted player in Toronto’s treasure trove of under-25 assets behind Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Speaking of Danny Green…
What a steal! This guy is still good! Somehow, the Raptors squeezed the Spurs for another starter in the Kawhi-DeRozan trade. Imagine a lineup of Delon Wright, Green, Leonard, Anunoby, and Siakam in a switch everything defensive monster where everyone is at least 6’5”. Good luck scoring on that. My money is on Green starting at the two along with All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, Leonard, OG, and Jonas Valanciunas. But the options for crunch-time line-ups are abundant. The Raptors are legitimately 10-12 deep, depending on how you feel about Norman Powell and Greg Monroe, who signed with Toronto last month. Does anyone really think this team won’t make the Eastern Conference Finals?
The biggest wildcard this season, besides Kawhi Leonard’s health (knocks on wood), is head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse replaces Dwane Casey, now head coach of the Pistons, who was coach of the Raptors for seven seasons. Nurse, one of Casey’s assistant coaches since 2013, is credited for revamping the Raptors offense that led the team to 59 wins and an offensive rating of 113.8 during the 2018 regular season, both second in the NBA. Nick is a first time head coach, and they are always hard to gauge in terms of likelihood of success with full reigns, but he certainly knows the team and its established culture well. He knows everyone on the roster already, outside of Monroe, Green and most importantly Leonard, who has sat down with his new head coach and discussed what his role will look like this year. So if things don’t pan out in Toronto, which is not likely, it probably won’t be because of Nurse.
I am not ready to believe in the Philadelphia 76ers just yet after their meltdown against a depleted Boston Celtics in May. They’re not ready. Their roster, short of internal improvement, got worse. As a fan of the NBA, I hope Markelle Fultz can be the player that was drafted first overall in 2017, but I’ll believe it when I see his jump shot again. His time working on his shooting mechanics this summer with Drew Hanlen has been well-chronicled, yet no footage of his shooting form has been released. And let’s hope Joel Embiid stays healthy (rigorously knocking on wood.)
Outside of Boston, who at this point is the favorite to win in the East and may actually pose as the Golden State Warriors’ biggest challenge, Toronto is a close second for best in their conference. I would be shocked if the Raptors are not playing Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals this spring. So there is no doubt to any Toronto Raptors fan, their ceiling has been raised this off-season.