On the eve of the Raptors opening the 2018-19 season, there is more excitement or angst about their fortunes than in any other year. The reason is Kawhi Leonard. Some are upset that his arrival in Toronto maybe short lived and some are annoyed that his addition to the roster signaled the end of DeMar DeRozan’s tenure as a Raptor. Either way, the Raptors right now are better than they have been for a number of reasons.
First the Raptors are now minted, for the first time with a legitimate top 5 perhaps top 3 NBA star. We are talking about the same franchise that has drafted Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. Neither player really lead the Raptors to any great success. Carter was an all star with Toronto and starred in the Raptors first ever three playoff experiences from 2000-2002 and McGrady’s greatness was on display for Orlando and Houston after he left Toronto in 2000.
Toronto also at one point signed Hakeem Olajuwan after his prime and that experiment did not even last a year. Toronto also traded Carter for Alonzo Mourning, who never suited up for the Raptors.
Kawhi, though, is a one time NBA Champion, an NBA Finals MVP both in 2014 a two time all star, a two time all NBA first team a 3 time all NBA Defensive First Team, a All NBA 2nd Defensive team, an NBA All Rookie First Team and NBA Steals leader (2015). All this from a guy drafted 15th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Its an impressive list of accomplishments that needs little explanation. Kawhi is the type of player that can put a team over the top and after winning only four playoff series in the last five years Toronto finally has a game changer, in their line up, in his prime.
The deal which brought Leonard to Toronto included his San Antonio Spur teammate Danny Green joining him North in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick. The Raptors who wish to play a more perimeter game that is also up-tempo and requiring good transitional defense acquired what they need in this deal.
As mentioned above, Leonard is a splendid defensive player, but is offensively potent as well. While injuries and madness seem to have consumed all of but 9 games of Leonard’ s 2017-18 season, he is a career 38.6% from 3pt range and 42.7% in the playoffs. He actually gets better when the games are on the line.
You could not say the same of DeRozan who career is 28.9% and 23.5% in the playoffs from long range. Also consider how inconsistent Derozan has been in the playoffs and Toronto fans should be excited about Leonard. Poltl also did not fit the Raptors outside game, but Da nny Green is 39.5% from 3pt range and 41.4% in the playoffs. Further DeRozan’s defensive game is average at best and both Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are defensively sound and Danny Green is also a NBA Champion with Leonard on that 2014 Spurs team.
Consider the following line up: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. A starting line up then followed by, Fred Van Vleet, DeLon Wright, O.G. Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Greg Monroe. O.G. Anunoby, the Raptors 2017 first round pick is now coming off the bench, in his second year,and this second unit was extremely good last year.
There were stretches of games when the second unit either grew leads, or closed out games from mid-late 3rd quarter and the starters were not required again after that point. Also remember Anunoby was only available to the Raptors in the 2017 draft because of a knee injury and then out performed Norman Powell for a starting role. This team is deep very deep.
While I have mentioned the accolades and quality of Kawhi Leonard, clearly there are questions about his health and his desire to be in Toronto. Might I suggest that after forcing a trade out of San Antonio, only playing 9 games last year, losing millions on his contract renewal (had he stayed in San Antonio he could have signed a 5yr 219 million dollar contract Raptors can only offer $190 million), and losing a $20 million shoe deal, Leonard isn’t just playing basketball for the love of it?
If he hopes to maintain his earning potential, he has to be self motivated to have a good year. Whether those earnings are here in Toronto or elsewhere, it doesn’t happen if he plays a handful of games again this year. Logic then, dictates with all the intangibles that Leonard brings to the basketball court, the Toronto Raptors stand to benefit. A 59 win team last year could be a 55-60 win team this year and find themselves deep into the 2019 NBA Playoffs picture. Are the Raptors better with Leonard? Time will tell, but the numbers and health of number 2 say yes they are.