- The Toronto Raptors landed Kawhi Leonard in a blockbuster trade that vaults them into Eastern Conference contention.
- The Raptors appeared to be ready to blow it up this offseason after losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for a third straight time in the postseason, but instead, they waited it out.
- With James now out of the East, the Raptors have gone all-in on one season around Leonard and a deep, versatile roster that could help them compete for the Finals.
The Toronto Raptors have opened a path to the NBA Finals that seemed impossible two months ago.
After landing Kawhi Leonard in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and watching LeBron James leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Raptors have suddenly vaulted into Eastern Conference contention.
Two months ago, when the Raptors suffered an embarrassing sweep at the hands of James and the Cavs, their third straight playoff exit to the Cavs, the Raptors seemed to be heading for a blow-up. The combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan was proven to be insufficient at powering the Raptors to the Finals. Even after a franchise-best 59-23 season, at a certain point, even the best also-ran teams hit their expiration date.
Instead, the Raptors fired head coach Dwayne Casey, promoted assistant coach Nick Nurse to head coach, and decided to keep the team together. It looked as though they might try to make another run, a defensible decision, especially from a financial standpoint. At the very least, they could bide their time, see how the dust settled in free agency, and then make their moves.
What mostly happened is the Raptors waited out LeBron. James leaving the Eastern Conference could prove to be a watershed moment for the Raptors. By not blowing up the team, the Raptors had the star player in DeRozan that would be needed to land an even bigger star in Leonard. According to reports, the Spurs were not interested in trade packages that got them multiple picks and young players and projects in return; they wanted to compete.
It’s not a knock on DeRozan to say Leonard is an upgrade to the team. The Raptors also landed versatile 3-and-D wing Danny Green in the trade, giving them more shooting and perimeter defence.
The Raptors are inarguably one of the deepest, most talented teams in the East. Leonard gives them a scorer to replace DeRozan and one of the best defenders in the entire NBA. When healthy, he’s considered a top-3 player in the league.
Around him, the Raptors have a fellow All-Star in Kyle Lowry. Players like Green, second-year wing OG Anunoby, third-year forward Pascal Siakam, and big man Serge Ibaka can provide perimeter defence and rim protection. The Raptors could be one of the fiercest defensive teams in the entire NBA, assuming everyone is healthy.
It’s also a one-year gamble. According to ESPN’s Chris Haynes, Leonard doesn’t want to play in Toronto. ESPN also reported that Leonard insists he is going to join the Los Angeles Lakers next summer as a free agent.
The Raptors are immediately on the clock to sell Leonard on Toronto. If not, it will be a one-year rental, and the Raptors won’t have much to show for the trade.
Green will be a free agent next year. Lowry will be 33 next season and in the final year of his contract. Ibaka will be 30 next season and in the last year of his contract. The team will be approaching a fork in the road, and if it doesn’t work this year, it may be time to blow it up.
So for one year, the Raptors are all-in. The East is wide open – the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are presumed to be the other contenders, but neither has any significant advantage over the Raptors if Leonard is healthy.
Whether the Raptors can capitalise this year or not, they’re proof of why you don’t just blow up a team because they failed to get to the Finals. Opportunities emerge out of nowhere. In the Raptors’ case, James left the conference, and a superstar became available at a price that didn’t significantly hurt the team.
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