When Kawhi Leonard bid au revoir to Canada for Southern California last July, fans and media members thought the Toronto Raptors did the same to their chances of repeating as NBA champions.
The math seems pretty simple: NBA superstars are essentially required to winning the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy. This prevailing thought led both Los Angeles squads to add one or more stars this past summer.
Canada’s Team, sans Kawhi, was toast. Or so everyone said.
But the Raptors have seen Pascal Siakam become a star in his own right, and the team has simply subverted expectations by ripping off wins and making it known they are dark horses to win it all over again.
Making up for Leonard’s lost production has been no easy feat, of course.
The Klaw is an elite one-on-one perimeter defender who disrupts passing lanes. He scores at all three levels (26.6 points per game last year). He leads through grit and example. He fought through a bum quad to help slay three tough teams to win the 2019 championship, coming up big in key moments during each series along the way.
But Kawhi Leonard didn’t do it alone, and his remaining Raptors teammates like Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and plenty of others have shown they’re up for this new challenge.
Siakam proved last season’s Most Improved Player Award previewed what’s to come. The Cameroonian made another significant jump in production, boldly becoming the No. 1 option. The 6’9” power forward increased his scoring from 16.9 points per game to 23.5 ppg, shots per game by 7.1 (18.9), free throws by more than one (5.0 from 3.9), and usage rate (28.6 percent from 20.8).
Siakam can effortlessly score in transition with his speed. He takes defenders off the dribble from the perimeter, possesses a mini-Dream Shake and can nail catch-and-shoot threes above league average (36.0 percent with 5.0 attempts per game).
This versatility is why team president Masai Ujiri bet the farm on inking Siakam to a four-year, $130 million extension. That megadeal looks better with each passing game.
VanVleet made a jump from reliable sixth man to a surprisingly above-average starter. The Wichita State folk hero forms a skillful, albeit short, backcourt with Kyle Lowry. He upped his scoring from 11.0 to 17.6 ppg and his assists from 4.8 to 6.6 apg. He increased his three-point percentage by a point (38.8) while shooting more threes (7.0 from 4.6).
Reserve wing Norman Powell is a viable offensive threat now, getting buckets at a 15.7 ppg clip (last year he averaged 8.6 ppg). Kyle Lowry has returned to his No. 2 scoring role with 19.2 ppg, five more than last year. His scoring and passing savvy (7.7 apg) take pressure off Siakam while keeping the ball moving.
Many wondered where the Raptors would reliably get their points from once Kawhi left.
Credit coach Nick Nurse’s creativity as well as more than a half-dozen teammates who have stepped into greater roles. Because the answer has become: from everywhere.
Defense wins championships. The Raptors know that better than anyone else.
Toronto collected the fifth-best defensive rating (107.1) and opposing field goal percentage (44.9 percent) in 2018-19. They were sixth in blocks (4.5 bpg) and eighth in three-point percentage (34.5) per Basketball-Reference.com.
They ground their way to a championship by holding offensively talented teams like the Philadelphia 76ers (98.9 ppg down from 115.2), Milwaukee Bucks (106.7 ppg down from 118.1) and Golden State Warriors (105.8 ppg down from 117.7) significantly below their seasonal averages. Having Leonard, one of the best NBA defenders in the game, certainly didn’t hurt the cause.
This season’s Raptors have somehow been even better.
11 Toronto players currently sport more than 1 Defensive Win Share, which is almost unprecedented in today’s offensive-oriented game. Coach Nurse has his team posting the best opponent points allowed (106.4 ppg) and three-point percentage (33.9), along with ranking second in defensive rating (105.1), forced turnovers (17.0 pg) and field goal percentage (42.9). Sure, they’ve fallen to 21st in blocks, yet still average 5.3 per game.
Toronto leverages strong, smart and long defenders to their advantage. Savvy defenders like Serge Ibaka (2.2 DWS) and Marc Gasol (1.8 DWS) present matchup problems for the East’s superior bigs like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Both clog the post and give no easy roll to the basket, getting All-NBA talents uncomfortable away their spots. The duo recovers to the perimeter and effectively challenges opposing shooters, allowing Toronto to maintain a size advantage for long stretches.
Siakam (2.9 DWS) has the length and athleticism to flash quick traps and then recover to the new shooter as well. He’s largely taken over Leonard’s old role as Prime Disruptor on defense.
Lowry (2.4 DWS) and VanVleet (4.9 DWS) are high-energy, strong one-on-one defenders who anchor perimeter defense and provide physicality at the point of attack. OG Anunoby (3.1 DWS) was sidelined throughout last year’s playoff, but the 6’7” swingman can provide a needed boost for perimeter defense and the passing lanes (1.7 steals per game).
Newcomer Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6’6” and 1.7 DWS) allows Nurse to play small-ball lineups with RHJ as a center when they need to run and gun. Young players like Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Patrick McCaw have all stepped into bigger roles and proven they can work within the system.
Playoff competition knows Toronto will clamp down defensively, even without the Klaw’s assistance. There are still so many weapons to be used.
The Nurse Difference
Nick Nurse has taken the NBA by storm, and possibly already ranks as the league’s brightest mind. He certainly is likely its biggest risk-taker.
That’s a big accomplishment with media and fans likely still envisioning legendary Gregg Popovich or former wunderkind Brad Stevens. (Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is rightfully in this conversation as well.)
Regardless of where you personally rank Nurse, his strengths have been evident from Day 1, and they’ve only grown this season.
He constantly encourages and trains his team to work together as a unit. They clearly are prepared each game, knowing their defensive concepts well and constantly communicating on the floor. Credit also goes squarely to a well-balanced locker room of veteran leaders and hard-working young players who have bought in together and do things the right way.
CBSSports.com’s James Herbert wrote Jan. 7 about Toronto’s unique defensive system, which utilizes such curveballs as a Box-and-1, Triangle-and-2 and sustained full-court presses to confuse offenses. Nurse believes good defense leads to transition where his team can freelance.
“Defense isn’t nearly as sexy as jazz is, right?” Nurse told Herbert. “It’s certainly more about are you going to get your ass down and play it? Are you going to be tough? There is certainly some improvising when there’s problems, and that’s the great teams. And we do that well, too. …Most of that’s done with energy, toughness and some togetherness.”
Nurse’s Raptors are 43-17, one game off last year’s pace. They will pass Vegas’ 46.5-win line and 538’s 46 pre-season prediction. (The statistics site now revises the Raptors’ total to 56.)
What’s more impressive is Nurse has his team within striking distance of the No. 2 seed despite Siakam (11 games), Lowry and VanVleet (12 each), Ibaka (14), Powell (21) and Gasol (26) missing significant time.
In a tight playoff series, Nurse’s willingness to throw the kitchen sink at opponents could be the difference.
Heart of a Champion
Nelly’s Heart of a Champion reflects the Raptors’ current grind to maximize their talent even as others doubt them. Again.
They are the same team that, without Kawhi Leonard, recently ripped off a franchise-record 15-game winning streak. Only 38 other teams have won 15 or more straight games, with 15 of those winning the NBA championship and four others making the Finals.
Toronto possesses team continuity while other contenders such as the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers and Houston Rockets continue to fiddle with their new-ish rosters. Chemistry might be at a premium come playoff-time as Nurse’s squad plays like a fist.
All the Eastern teams are beatable. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons still can’t mesh together well enough to provide confidence, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ supporting cast remains inconsistent as well. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are credible threats with good coaching and plenty of talent, but neither has proven to be on a different level than Toronto. Both have some injury concerns of their own.
The Milwaukee Bucks have improved their roster, and the Greek Freak has taken another step. But the reigning MVP (and coach Mike Budenholzer) must prove they can overcome the help-defense wall that stymies Antetokounmpo’s drives and forces him to shoot free throws. Both must prove they can make in-series adjustments against a Raptors team that proved far more flexible last season.
Getting out of the Eastern Conference is not unthinkable, though it will be an incredible accomplishment if done. Toronto would then presumably play one Los Angeles team in the Finals if they make it that far. We’re talking about a long shot.
Just like last year.
Winning the first time is always the hardest. It proves all the hard work and sacrifice is worth it, and that the players have what it takes to overcome adversity.
Toronto is not the favorite as it lacks the requisite star power. But weirder things have occurred. Look no further than last year’s upset.
The Raptors still remain champions until someone proves otherwise.
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist and TBW staff writer who has extensive experience in news and sportswriting for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming… and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.