The 2019-20 NBA season tips off tonight with two games: the defending-champion Raptors (still feels weird/great to say that) vs. the Pelicans, and an all-L.A. battle between the Clippers and Lakers.
Besides being two exciting matchups, it’s a fitting pairing. Before the first game, the Raptors will receive their rings and raise the banner commemorating their improbable title run last spring. Then, in the second game, everyone can watch the man who delivered that title play his first meaningful game for his new team.
Kawhi Leonard’s decision to leave Toronto for the Clippers back in July all but killed the Raptors’ chances of repeating as champs. But they can still be pretty good this season. How good may depend on the answers to these key questions:
Can Kawhi’s old supporting cast step it up?
Toronto went 17-5 in the games Leonard sat out last season. So it’s not like the remaining Raptors can’t win without him. But most of those games were against teams with losing records. As calculated by Mike Bossetti in the Raptors Rapture blog, Toronto went 4-5 against teams with records of .500 or better when Kawhi sat.
And that’s probably still understating his impact. Kawhi is a one-man gang who creates his own shots and anchors the defence. When he was in the lineup, sidekicks like Kyle Lowry could afford to take it a little easier or even sit out altogether if they were banged up or needed rest. Kawhi would take care of things. Now everyone has to be at their best a lot more consistently for the Raptors to remain an elite team.
Will Pascal Siakam make the leap?
The Raptors think so. They just gave him a four-year, $130-million US max extension that signals he’ll soon be the face of the franchise — if he’s not already. Siakam’s rise to stardom is stunning. In 2016 he was drafted 27th overall, which isn’t a spot you expect to get much from. Two seasons ago, he started only five games and averaged seven points. Last season, he seized the opportunity of becoming a full-time starter, averaging 17 points before raising that to 19 in the playoffs.
The biggest x-factor for the Raptors now — and the one that could make or break their season — is whether Siakam can graduate from secondary scorer to go-to guy.
Can the Raptors find the next Siakam?
They didn’t really add anyone important to make up for the loss of Kawhi, so any improvement will have to come from within. Toronto has high hopes for OG Anunoby. The 22-year-old wing from the U.K. got plenty of hype at this time a year ago, but he never really got off the ground before a late-season appendectomy knocked him out for the entire playoff run. Still, the Raptors like him because he’s long and strong enough to defend other teams’ stars, and he looked like a promising shooter as a rookie two years ago.
Can Nick Nurse make do with less?
His rookie season as an NBA head coach couldn’t have gone any better. That may seem obvious because Toronto won the title. But plenty of teams have carried a questionable coach to a championship. That wasn’t the case with Nurse. He was no passenger. His flexibility and creativity were on full display in the Finals when he deployed the rare (at the pro level anyway) box-and-one defence to slow down Steph Curry after a rash of injuries left him as the Warriors’ only dangerous scorer.
Nurse also showed a great feel for knowing when to stick with guys and when to tweak the lineup. On the other hand, it’s hard to fully judge him yet because a transcendent player like Kawhi makes everything easier for everyone. We’ll learn more about Nurse this season.
Would Masai Ujiri consider blowing this up?
The Raptors’ president doesn’t worry about what people might say. If he thinks a move is right for the team, he’ll pull the trigger. The ultimate example, of course, is when he traded fan favourite DeMar DeRozan for one year of Kawhi. It paid off in the biggest way possible, which might give Ujiri the leeway to make some painful moves if he thinks they’re necessary.
Say Toronto is muddling around or below the .500 mark at the trade deadline. A contender calls with a good offer for Marc Gasol and/or Serge Ibaka — aging vets whose contracts expire at the end of the season. Or even Lowry. In that case, Ujiri might decide to give up the ghost on another playoff run and start rebuilding toward the Raptors’ next championship team.
How good is the competition in the Eastern Conference?
In short, not very. The general consensus is that Milwaukee and Philadelphia will be the top two teams (in either order). After that, there’s a lot more debate. Some people like the deep, well-coached Boston Celitcs to bounce back after swapping out locker-room ruiner Kyrie Irving for good-guy Kemba Walker. But they lost a key defensive player in Al Horford, who’s now in Philly.
Indiana was the No. 5 seed last season, but they still don’t know when their best player, Victor Oladipo, will return after rupturing his quad in January. No. 6 seed Brooklyn made a huge splash by signing Irving and Kevin Durant, but the latter will probably miss the whole season as he recovers from a torn Achilles and we already know the former can’t carry a team. Miami should be better after signing Jimmy Butler away from Philly, but they missed the playoffs last season.
So what’s the bottom line?
The Raptors still feel like a solid playoff team. There’s enough talent — and enough pride — that a fourth-place finish in the East (behind Milwaukee, Philly and Boston) seems like a good possibility. That’s respectable after losing arguably the best player in the NBA for nothing. It would mean the Raptors put up a real fight in defence of their title. Which is all you can ask.
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