The Toronto Raptors are perhaps the longest reigning champions in NBA history, thanks to the 2020-21 season pausing play for four months. But as the teams arrived in Orlando last week, head coach Nick Nurse told Double Clutch that his team had a quiet confidence at retaining their championship crown.
It will be difficult, as the Raptors will return to the playoffs without two of the biggest reasons they won it all last season: dependable defensive wing Danny Green, and top three player in the NBA Kawhi Leonard, who just might be the best defensive stopper in the game. Despite their moves to LA, to play for the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, the Raptors have gone from allowing the ninth-lowest points per game last year, to the stingiest defense in the league this season.
Nurse said: “We’ve played well at home, we’ve played well away. I think our guys are in good shape and with Kawhi and Danny gone that’s two holes to fill, but Pascal [Siakam] has taken his game up another notch, OG [Anunoby] has slid in there nicely, Norman Powell has improved, Fred Van Vleet has improved, Serge Ibaka – these guys keep getting better.”
Replacing one of the best players in the world was not going to happen, but Leonard’s 26 points per game last year could almost be replicated by the ever improving Siakam, who improved his scoring output by nearly 7 points to average 23.6. He’s played so well this year that he featured in the final Double Clutch’s Top 5 MVP rankings before the coronavirus pandemic stopped the race in its tracks.
While making up for Leonard’s scoring is doable by giving Siakam more responsibility, the team needed someone to step up and replace Siakam’s role last year. Lowry, VanVleet, Powell and Ibaka all increased their scoring, but Anunoby was ever-present. Not only has he scored the ball more effectively, he’s one of only two players on the team to manage at least 60 games.
Nurse said: “He’s having a great season. He had a disrupted year last season – there was some personal stuff, some health things, and appendicitis the day the playoffs started, so he was in and out a lot and had a disjointed season. But he had a good summer skill-wise, and fitness-wise.”
Being one of the most durable players also helped the only British-born player in the NBA to finish in the top three in Win Shares on the team, behind Siakam and Lowry. And his coach believes there is still room to grow: “He came back a much better player. He’s really one of our unsung heroes at the moment, we’ve got so many other guys that people talk about, but he’s out there every night taking shots and improving on defense. He’s getting better right before our eyes. He’s such a great person and fun to be around, and he’s got a high ceiling because he’s big and athletic. It’s just a case of minutes and experience to be able to watch him grow.”
With Anunoby’s development and the rest of the team firing on all cylinders, the team is confident, and the Raptors will not be backing down from the challenge of repeating. Nurse said: “Our guys believe we have a legitimate shot. I’m not sure many guys in the league believe we do, but I believe we have a legitimate shot of doing it again. Of course, we’re going to have to get a look at what we look like after the layoff but we have a smart, tough-minded team that has a lot of togetherness.”
Last year was unique for the Raptors. Leonard was brought in to give them a leader, Nurse revolutionized the offense as a first-year NBA head coach, Green offered another proven NBA winner and FIBA World Cup winner Marc Gasol was brought in to put them over the top. A lot has changed this season, and they might be the first NBA champions to attempt a repeat without the best player on the team since Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls for the 1993-94 seasons. But almost everyone else on the team is better and it is a roster packed with champions. Simply put: do not count them out.