2018-19 Toronto Raptors
Projected Record: 55-27 (2nd in East)
2016: 59-23 (1st in East)
- Kawhi Leonard (Trade)
- Danny Green (Trade)
- Greg Monroe (Free Agency)
- DeMar DeRozan
- Jakob Poeltl
- Alfonzo McKinnie
- Potentially the best defense in basketball
- Healthy Kawhi is the best player in the East
- Roster remains exceptionally deep
- Kawhi needs to be 100%
- Last season’s squad was perhaps unsustainably healthy
Of all the predictions I’ve made in this preview, this feels like the one I could look the most foolish for. The Raptors won 59 games last year, after all, and swapped out DeMar DeRozan for one of the five or six best players in basketball. Some of you will be yelling at me that 60+ wins and the top seed is the more correct placement for the Raptors, and you could very well be right.
Still, as I discussed with in my Celtics preview, the equation is never quite that simple. Swapping DeRozan for Leonard is not strictly a one-to-one proposition. We haven’t seen Leonard operate at the peak of his powers since Zaza Pachulia undercut his jumper in the 2016-17 Western Conference Finals, and even then, he was playing with nagging injuries that had limited him throughout those playoffs. His nine game cameo with last season’s Spurs did little to inspire.
That’s the focal point of my concern with Toronto: health. In a lot of ways, the last season’s Raptors were the anti-Celtics. Advanced metrics adored Toronto while suggesting Boston was over-performing (they were), and while the Celtics had seemingly rented out a hospital wing to themselves by the end of the year, the Raptors dealt with remarkably few injuries.
I can’t imagine that sustains itself this time around. Even setting aside the Leonard uncertainty, it’s very much likely that Toronto will have to deal with injuries to key players at some point or another. Kyle Lowry has always been particularly physical for his size, and he’s 32 years old now. The departure of Poeltl will mean that Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka will become all the more essential — as last postseason showed, Greg Monroe likely can’t survive as a key rotation piece. Their vaunted bench units slowed down when VanVleet was less than 100% in the postseason.
Toronto is still well-prepared for these possibilities. VanVleet and Delon Wright provide some of the best guard depth in the league, and the wing unit is absolutely loaded with Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green and C.J. Miles. They’re going to be one of — if not the — best defenses in basketball, and the offense should reach a new level now that it’s free from DeRozan’s inefficient volume scoring. Their ceiling would make my projection look foolish, and it isn’t particularly unattainable for them.
Still, I can’t shake just the slightest hesitation. I guess I need to see them get there first. That’s always been the knock with the Raptors, right? Even last season, one of the best years in franchise history, the still went out on an ignominious sweep. It’s not necessarily fair to hold this Raptors team to the standards of its predecessors, especially with how significant the changes are — not the least of which being the absence of LeBron James — but that nurtured sense of distrust still lingers. It’s up to the Raptors to prove it wrong.
Most Valuable Player / X Factor: Kawhi Leonard
I’m lumping these two together, because no matter how you slice it, Kawhi Leonard is both the Raptors’ best player and the razor’s edge on which their season rests. Tilt to one side, and they’re a bona fide Finals contender, arguably one of the three or four best teams in basketball. Tilt to the other, and they’re stuck in Boston’s wake, staring down their most difficult offseason since Chris Bosh left town.
If we see the best of Leonard, the Raptors are going to be formidable. He can replace DeRozan’s offensive workload entirely, and streamline it, too — though Leonard does shoot a fair few more midrange jumpers than you might remember, his game is far more modern. DeRozan’s biggest improvement last year was his playmaking ability; he showed far more willingness to move the ball and create for his teammates. Though Leonard is far from an elite playmaker himself, he replicate that. Oh, and he’s the most destructive perimeter defender in basketball. Can’t forget that part.
On the other hand, though, we still can’t have complete confidence that we do see that Leonard this season. How could we? He managed only nine games last year while mired in one of the weirdest injury sagas in recent memory. Leonard has never managed 80+ games in an NBA season in his career, and he’s played in 70+ only twice — though, those were also his two most recent seasons before last year.
The middle ground here is that the Raptors see something like 60-65 games of Leonard at 80%-90% of his best self. That’s the result I’m projecting here, because it seems like the safest bet until we see otherwise. If that’s what happens, the Raptors will be… pretty good! Arguably better than last season. But if Leonard isn’t playing at his apex, it’s possible this team’s lofty ceiling might be a little out of reach.
Don’t Forget About: Pascal Siakam
Last season, Toronto’s greatest strength was their bench mob, who overwhelmed opposing second-units and created valuable opportunities for the starters to rest, particularly for Lowry. Of that second unit, Siakam is the youngster I find most intriguing.
Siakam’s a bit of a weirdo. He looks the part of a traditional power forward, standing 6’9″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, but he doesn’t seem to really play like one — he likes to move, flying around the court with or without the ball. Siakam almost seems to think he’s a guard, and he’s frankly not that far off — he’s an athletic marvel, perhaps the fastest in the league among players his size.
Though he didn’t necessarily post the most stunning counting stats in his limited role last season, every Raptors game was good for at least one eye-popping play on his part. On the fast break, he’s an absolute terror, and he’s also a uniquely skilled passer both on the run and in the half court. The lineup possibilities he presents are endlessly interesting, and no doubt Nick Nurse will explore every single one. If he can ever drag his miserable three-point shooting (22% on 132 attempts!) closer to acceptable, watch out.
Pascal Siakam makes no sense, and I love him for it.
Anthony Doyle, Raptors Republic (@Anthonysmdoyle)
The Raptors enter the 2018-19 season with a team that is on paper very similar to the squad that won 59 games last year, but the differences are critical. With Kawhi Leonard said to be ready to go for the start of the season, and Danny Green on board, the team should be a more modern squad this year, with more shooting up and down the roster and improved defensive versatility. This is a team that had a lot of success last year on the basis of a strong starting lineup and a bench group that dominated their minutes frequently throughout the season, and they returned that bench intact this year.
The best indicators of where this Raptors season is headed will be to keep an eye on rookie coach Nick Nurse’s rotations, and how he manages this deep roster. Finding minutes and roles for everyone could be challenging to navigate, and would be one of the most likely places the Raptors may run into trouble. If they can find their lineups to get rolling though, it should be a pretty smooth season. The depth should allow them to keep their leaders from playing too many minutes and help keep guys rested and healthy going towards the postseason, which is where the focus obviously will be after years of struggles in the playoffs, there has to be hope within the organization that changing over the coaching staff as well as bringing in one of the top talents in the league in Leonard that they can change that this season.
Also, it’ll be important to see if Fred VanVleet can maintain his high level play from last season, and if they can get significant growth from OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam to help improve the team further. Both of those players should potential last season to be game changers in the future, and that could be important for the Raptors to become a true contender.