The Toronto Raptors have for so long been considered outsiders in the NBA and even after achieving the unthinkable last season and becoming the first team to be based outside of the United States to lift the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, their geographical and cultural differences have yet again hindered their ability to keep franchise superstars.
Kawhi Leonard’s exodus has once again changed the trajectory of We The North, but this is a franchise used to change.
Now, entering the 2019-20 campaign, the Raptors look to defend their title against all odds. But that won’t bother them. Not one tiny bit.
A first title in franchise history ensured last season will be one that lives long in the hearts of Raptors fans across the world. The sight of Drake on the sidelines goading opposing players throughout the playoffs provides a great anecdotal subplot to a season which offered so much.
While it was tough for fans to say goodbye to the ever-loyal Demar DeRozan, the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard will always be looked upon as the catalyst for their success in 2019. Having taken a chance by trading for a player who would be free to leave the following summer, the Raptors had taken a huge risk – a risk which ended up paying dividends.
Having a supporting cast of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam ensured that should Leonard leave in free agency there would be no need to hit the panic button straight away. In fact, Siakam showed that he is the future of the franchise, performing at a level which earned him Most Improved Player honours.
Losing a player of Leonard’s calibre is a major blow for any franchise, the Raptors knew this was a possibility and if they had to do it again, they wouldn’t change a thing. This season, the roster remains almost unchanged barring the aforementioned departure, with the only other player leaving the roster being Danny Green who will be suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
In terms of incoming personnel, the Raptors re-signed Patrick McCaw, whilst bringing in Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis to fill out their roster. Of the free agent signings, Johnson stands out as the player tasked with replacing the output of the sharpshooting Danny Green. Marc Gasol also returns having exercised his player option.
No longer considered a powerhouse in the East, the Raptors will be focusing on making moves to rebuild their roster whilst developing younger talents such as OG Anunoby, Siakam and Fred VanVleet, all of whom are 25 or under and figure to be the next phase of the Raptors’ legacy.
1. Marc Gasol is a force
One of the best stretch big men in the game, Gasol brings solid defense coupled with deadeye accuracy from range on a nightly basis.
Last year, Gasol ranked in the 98th percentile of big men shooting the three-ball, hitting 44 percent of his attempts whilst in a Raptors uniform. Coupled with his rebounding where he pulled down 22 percent of available rebounds, and he projects to be a big factor for the Raptors on both ends of the floor this year.
2. There is no replacing Kawhi
They knew the risks when they traded for him last year, and while it paid dividends in the form of a championship there will be no feasible way of replacing Kawhi’s influence and output moving forward. That is the price you pay when losing one of the best players in the world.
A generational talent who will now be plying his trade for the LA Clippers, while the Raptors try to fill the hole left behind. Nick Nurse is an excellent coach, especially on the offensive end and it will be interesting to see how he schemes for games without the comfort blanket of Kawhi
3. Player development is critical
While the front office has not yet embraced a full rebuild, it is becoming inevitable. Gasol is only on the books for one more year with a high chance of being traded before the deadline, whilst their star point guard, Kyle Lowry, is also entering the final year of his contract with unrestricted free agency looming its head.
With the ageing players all entering the final stages of their contracts, they will be possible trade pieces throughout the season or will be allowed to leave at the end of the year. While guys like Siakiam and Anunoby will be given more responsibility this upcoming season to enable the coaching staff to see what level of responsibility they can shoulder.
Marc Gasol | 13.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.4 apg
Firmly in the twilight of his career, Gasol projects as a high usage big man on the perimeter spacing the floor for his more athletic teammates to cut to the hoop from the wings. Expect to see Gasol used in a lot of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop action along with being used as the spot-up shooter and roller in horns sets. He is that versatile.
On the defensive end, Gasol will anchor the paint affecting shots from all angles whilst being a cannibal on the glass. A former All-NBA Defender, Gasol is more than capable of leading a team to multiple closeouts per possession if required.
Pascal Siakam | 16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.1 apg
The player most likely to line up alongside Gasol, and he is just as versatile. Finishing last season with a 36.9 percent three-point average, he is able to spread the floor, which is a prerequisite of the modern pace and space NBA.
Having both Spicy P and Gasol in the frontcourt allows for multiple play types to be run whilst keeping defenses guessing. If he can add more elements to his defensive repertoire while improving his timing when cutting off drag screens, he will be a force in the league for a long time.
Kyle Lowry | 14.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 8.7 apg
Lowry proved all his critics wrong last season, having entered the playoffs with a reputation as a choke artist. Performing admirably throughout the postseason while playing a key role in the team’s championship run.
Entering a contract year, Lowry will want to prove he can guide a contending team to a deep playoff run again in the future – be that Toronto or some other team. His all-action selfless type of play is a coach’s dream. Couple that with his ability to score in bunches, Lowry is poised to make people take notice this year.
OG Anunoby | 7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.7 apg
Having played back-up to Kawhi last year, Anunoby’s production took a big hit. He went from starting 62 games in his rookie season to only 6 last year, now he has a point to prove.
The 6ft 8 small forward is long and athletic, given more reps at this level, he should improve his all-around game. While he will not be a big influence this year, he requires this exposure in order to take his game to the next level.