Reason for Optimism in Jurassic Park
(Image courtesy of sportingnews.com)
The NBA off-season is at last reaching its conclusion. With just a few weeks remaining before training camp begins, every big name free agent has found his new home and with trade rumours essentially being non-existent, fans can finally begin to envision what their teams will look like this season.
One team that particularly shook up the basketball world this summer, was the Toronto Raptors. After trading away their franchise leading scorer and heart of the team, Mr. I Am Toronto himself, DeMar DeRozan, to acquire super star, Kawhi Leonard, the media focused all of its attention on the lone Canadian team. The buzz around the team throughout the league was quite exciting considering the usual lack of attention the Raps get from their neighbours to the south. There is absolutely no doubt that this coming season will be one to watch, and one that’ll be exciting for both long-time fans and casual fans alike.
In fact, this much media attention hasn’t surrounded the team since the Vinsanity years, which, for those who know, was quite a while ago. Regardless of the regular season accolades the Raps achieved, the world continued to see them for one thing and one thing only: Playoff Chokers... It got to the point where even Raptors fans were skeptical any time the Dinos hit the post-season court. This season, however, is a completely different story. Unlike in seasons prior, this year may end up being one of the more riveting and eye-catching seasons since their establishment in 1995. There is no reason for any fan to lack excitement with all the fortune this year brings.
Now, I know I’ve rambled for long enough, but it’s time I put my money where my mouth is. Here are my six reasons as to why the 2018/2019 season will be one of the most exciting and highly anticipated seasons for the North.
1) The Kawhi Effect
This goes without saying! Anyone who knows anything about anything when it comes to the NBA knows that the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard was one of the biggest headlines around the league.
Although it cost the Raptors one of its most beloved players in DeRozan, the team did manage to do something they had never been able to do in the past; obtain a superstar! It’s been a struggle for the lone Canadian team to attract big name free agents due the prejudice players hold for playing in Canada. Now, however, through the finessing skills of GM, Bobby Webster (along with his mentor and team president, Masai Ujiri), the team was able to trade for a top 3 player in the league.
The only downside to this transaction is the fact that there is no guarantee Kawhi will re-sign with the team after this season (as he has a player option in 2019 which he will more than likely opt out of). This shouldn’t hold too much concern over fans’ heads, however. Regardless of where Kawhi ends up next year, the fans should be looking forward to what this season may hold.
A lot of people forgot that when healthy, Kawhi is universally recognized as a top 3 player in the association, and one of its best defenders. His incredible 2-way play, and ability to completely take over a game should not be taken lightly.
Many reports have surfaced as of late, saying that the superstars off-season training has been great, and that this may very well be the healthiest he’s been in a long time. The hiring of Kawhi’s best friend Jeremy Castleberry (the Raptors new player development coach) is just another reason why we expect to see a rejuvenated, healthy, and happy Kawhi this season. He’ll definitely be looking to convince the rest of the league as well as the Raps why he deserves a max deal for the start of the following season.
2) The King is Gone
If you asked what the Raptor’s Kryptonite was, no matter where you’d go, you’d find the answer would universally be LeBron James. For the past three consecutive years, the Raptors playoff journey was ended by the same man. Even with the statistical advantages the Raptors had this past year, King James and his crew of misfits were able to demoralize the Raptors in yet another sweep. Now that the King is gone, the Dinos no longer have to fear what some were starting to consider inevitable.
Whether it was psychological, physical, or simply not being good enough, the Raps always found a way to bring out the worst in their game when it came down to defeating the Cavs and their leader. Thankfully this season there is no need for that fear (granted they don’t meet in the finals, but that is a very unlikely scenario for various reasons that I won’t delve into in this article), so, going into the playoffs, the Raptors can worry less about inevitably hitting the King’s wall, and more about being the true alpha dogs of the East.
3) New Rivals
With players changing teams in the league as rapidly as they do, it is hard to cement a true rivalry similar to those of the past. Rivalries now stem from a personal on court hatred for one another, rather than two teams as a whole. It can be seen through examples such as the Westbrook and KD rivalry, as well as the entire Warriors having a rivalry with LeBron James.
This may not be the case going forward for three particular teams in the Eastern Conference. With LeBron making camp in the west coast of the basketball world, the playing field has opened up for three teams: the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors.
These three teams are already predicted to garner the most success in their respective conference this upcoming season, but it’s what the future holds for these teams that is most exciting.
Each of these teams currently sit as a few of the youngest teams in the league, with the Raptors average age being 25.13, the Boston Celtics at 24.82 and the 76ers at 24.68, these three teams are destined to rival one another until their young guns eventually hit free agency (if they happen to choose to test the free market). This gives the aforementioned teams the next 2 to 4 years to build around their young core before their players reach UFA eligibility.
With this type of control, expect to see the Raps, Celtics, and 76ers duke it out for Beast of the East bragging rights for the next handful of years, which will finally add some excitement to a conference that was previously seen as LeBron’s warmup grounds.
4) A Change in Culture
This isn’t quite as flashy, but it deserves attention nonetheless. For as long as one can remember, playing in Canada was not a situation many players wanted to find themselves in. Whether it’s the higher tax rate, the inconvenience of crossing the border for literally all of your away games, or simply the crummy weather factor, NBA stars simply did not want to find themselves employed north of the border.
From an early stage in the franchise’s career, it was seen that stars did not envision themselves playing in Canada long term. The team saw its greatest players leave at such early stages in their careers to further themselves in U.S markets.
It started with the likes of Tracy McGrady wanting to leave to get out of Vince Carter’s shadow, and was quickly followed by the departure of Vinsanity four years later. The Raps then found themselves in possession of another great talent with a big name; Chris Bosh... unfortunately, Raptors fans again had to suffer seeing a beloved star leave to play for a bigger market, south of the border.
Thankfully that mindset has changed. With the recent consistency of success, the Raptors find themselves climbing the ladder of attractive playing destinations.
It all began in 2012 when the Toronto Raptors made a trade to acquire PG Kyle Lowry. After the trade with the Houston Rockets was made official, the media quickly speculated that Toronto was just a pit stop for the point guard and that he would look to move his talents elsewhere at the end of his contract. Contrary to that, six years and four all-star appearances later, Lowry will go down as being a part of Raptors royalty thanks to his devotion to the team and its fans, as well as his ability to take a game by hand and run with it.
So what changed his mind?
A winning culture. One that has achieved consistent regular season success and is now hungry for the same success when it really matters - the playoffs!
It’s clear to see the culture shift taking over when we look at all outspoken excitement we’ve seen from newly acquired G/F Danny Green (especially via his podcast). Not only that, but when you look at his huge immediate involvement in the team this off-season, it’s clear that the Canadian basketball market is changing.
Hopefully the change is significant enough to convince Kawhi to play for the Dinos past this year...
This is the big one! If there is one thing that sends every Raptors fan into crazed sense of excitement, it’s the postseason.
Forget the last 3 years of falling short to LeBron. That era is over, the Raptors’ Achilles heel has moved on, and so should the Raptors doubters.
Now that Cleveland is a shadow of its former self, the Cavs should no longer be an issue for the drastically improved Raps. This leaves them with only two teams that show any indication of being a true rival: The Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. Both teams are truly talented and will surely put up a fight against the Raps this season, but don’t expect them to come out victorious in a 7-game series.
Speaking of those two giants, most would argue that the Boston Celtics are the superior team to that of the 76ers, but they still don’t have the right pieces to overcome the depth of the Raptors. With the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, players such as Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will have to take a back seat this season, which means that the superstar sophomore, along with Brown and Rozier, will have their playing time significantly reduced. It is still unknown how well they will perform in a smaller role, and therefore could cause problems for the team deeper into the season.
A lot would argue this is a great problem to have, but a team tends to crumble when it possess too many alpha dogs, something the Raps don't have to worry about going into the 2018 season.
With the departure of DeRozan, the team loses one of its greatest scorers, but also one of its weakest defenders. The Raps averaged a 105.9 DR (defensive rating) in the 2018 playoffs (yikes), expect that number to drop with the additions of 3&D man, Danny Green, and two-time DPOY, Kawhi Leonard. The two are great perimeter defenders, and are able to switch on their man with ease, giving the Raptors a totally bolstered defensive game that flows better than any Raptors team in years past.
On top of those two additions, you can add a more seasoned Pascal Siakam, sophomore OG Anunoby, and a one-two punch of Wright and Van Vleet, as well as the rest of the bench mob and it goes without saying the Raptors' defence will be their strong suit. When you look at all of the improvements the Raps have made, you can see why that level of defending will ultimately get them the win at the end of the night.
Honestly, can there really be any defensive doubt anymore? With all those reasons listed above, there should be no doubt that the versatile defence of the Raptors starting 5 (as well as their bench guys) will be more than enough to shut down the explosive power of the Boston Celtics. Remember, the Raps split the season series with the Celtics last year and that was with a less than stellar defence. The squad this year is much different and definitely ready to swing the series in their favour with the newly revamped defence.
If there was ever a year for fans to be excited, this is it. Expect the Raps to make a convincing push for the NBA finals!
Alright, let's pump the brakes a little bit. This might be a stretch as the Raptors need to get to the finals before we even begin to talk about silverware, but if they are able to, the suggestion that they have the potential of raising the Larry O’Brien trophy should not be overlooked.
Let us delve into why this isn't the most preposterous suggestion.
As the current state of the NBA looks, all respect should be given to the three-time champions of the past four years, The Golden State Warriors. This is their league, and every team in the association seems to build their team to counter the 3-point monster that the Warriors are.
So what do the Raptors have that sets them apart. What can they do to have more success than any other team in the league against the Warriors? The answer: Great all around defence! This is finally the year that the Raptors will be respected for their defence.
To start, they have one of the best all around defenders in the league. Note that Kawhi was tasked to shut down LeBron, D-Wade, and Bosh in 2014 and came out victorious, helping the Spurs take the championship in an astonishing five games. He was also having a field day with the Warriors in 2017 until Zaza Pachulia’s questionable shot contest took Leonard out for the remainder of the series.
Kawhi has shown time and time again that he has the capability to shut down the best of the best in the league without breaking a sweat, and now he’ll look to do the same for Canada’s team. On top of that, the addition of Danny Green (who is a drastic improvement on DeMar in the defensive end as well as a better 3-point shooter) means the starting 5 now has two prominent defenders to help shut down the likes of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
Don’t stop there though, the depth of the defence goes further. Just take a look at OG Anunoby. After an impressive rookie season, OG will be tasked with shutting down the stars of opposing teams after seeing the respectable job he did against LeBron during last year's playoffs. Combine that with the ever improving Pascal Siakam (who will jump into the rotation of players tasked with shutting down the big shooters) and you’ve got a winning formula. These four players give the Raps the best chance to do what no team has done against the Warriors in the past 2 years, and if the ever-polarizing Serge Ibaka can find his game again, there is no reason why the Raptors can’t at least challenge the Warriors to a better finals than the past few years.
This being said, if all goes well for the Raptors this season (and they aren't battered by lengthy injuries), there is no reason why NBA fans should continue to doubt and berate them this season. Team management did everything they could to help give the team the best chance for a run at a championship, and now it’s in the players’ hands to bring the fans one of the most exciting seasons for Canadian basketball in decades.