July 24, 2018, 4:26 pm
Their most successful regular season in franchise history was marked most by the Toronto Raptors living up to Masai Ujiri’s pointed offseason edict of overhauling an offense that always failed them come spring. Stressing pace, space and activity while mitigating its stars’ long-time penchant for pounding the ball into the ground, Toronto finished third in offensive rating last season, not far behind the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, two of the most devastating offensive outfits in league history. More importantly, and pretty much forgotten after another humiliating defeat at the hands of LeBron James, the Raptors sustained that success in the playoffs, scoring 110.1 points per 100 possessions – just below their season-long number, and nearly nine points better than their putrid mark from the previous postseason.
On the court, the upshot of last week’s stunning trade revolving around Kawhi Leonard can be distilled to something like this: The Raptors not only got better offensively, but also added the best perimeter defender of his generation and another upper-echelon defensive wing to the fold while retaining O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. Ironically, Toronto finally got the pieces needed to keep James in check after his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers ensured it wouldn’t have to – at least in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Finals are another story, one that surely won’t include James for the first time since the turn of the decade, but could very well feature these new-look Raptors for the first time ever.
“On paper we feel we have a team that can compete in the East, and maybe, hopefully compete for a championship in this league,” Ujiri said at his post-trade press conference. “And that’s all we…that’s why we play. That’s why we play sports is to win, to compete for a championship.”
Despite Toronto winning a team-record 59 games en route to the East’s top playoff seed, on the back of an offense and defense that both ranked top-five in the league, no one considered Dwane Casey’s squad legitimate contenders for the Larry O’Brien trophy. The looming presence of James, in some ways better than ever, certainly had an effect on public appraisal of the Raptors’ title hopes, and so did a pair of juggernauts out West. More than anything, though, their presumed lack of a championship ceiling was about the relative limits of their stars. Great regular-season teams, no matter how deep. versatile or effective on both sides of the ball, don’t even get to June without world-class talent at the top of the roster.
Leonard fits that bill. At his press conference, Ujiri was asked about his take on a Toronto city counselor’s suggestion that the greatest Raptors, including the departed DeMar DeRozan, should be honored with statues outside Air Canada Centre. His response not only showed real appreciation for the first star to truly embrace everything it meant to be the face of Canada’s team, but also reflected the reality that the Raptors have never employed a player quite on Leonard’s level.
“I’d do anything in my power,” Ujiri said. “DeMar is the greatest player that’s played, ’til now, for Toronto.”
Remember Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals? It’s easy to forget how much the league has changed as a direct result of Zaza Pachulia recklessly, or intentionally, sliding under Leonard’s left foot on a baseline jumper, forcing him to the sidelines for good after a pair of free throws put the Spurs, heavy underdogs, up 23 points on the Warriors midway through the third quarter. Leonard had tormented Golden State up to that point, getting whatever he wanted offensively en route to 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting and a perfect 11-of-11 from the line. The Warriors, of course, promptly romped to an 18-0 run after his departure, eventually beating San Antonio 113-111 for the largest Conference Finals comeback in 15 years.
There’s no telling how the rest of that game would have played out had Leonard been able to finish it. Golden State’s was the most combustible offense in league history back then and remains so now, and it’s not like the Spurs had the firepower to keep up if the home team caught fire. Even if San Antonio had managed to steal the opener, the Warriors would still have been favored to win the West. But a select few players in the league always allow for the possibility of their team punching above its collective weight, and Leonard, just like LeBron, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, is among them.
Toronto will have to do just that to reach its full potential. Even with Leonard in place of DeRozan, the Raptors won’t have the luxury of relying on raw star power to play deep into spring – one afforded to Golden State and Houston, obviously, but also the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Nick Nurse will try and account for that relative deficiency through pushing his roster past its assumed limits by embracing the tenets of modern basketball. Heading up the G-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers several years back, Nurse was almost as much a scientist in Daryl Morey’s analytics test lab as a basketball coach. His first year on the job, 2011-2012, saw the Vipers hoist 5.5 more triples per game than any other team and lead the G-League in pace by a wide margin.
Don’t expect Nurse to embrace the Moneyball ethos quite to that extent in his first NBA head-coaching gig. The Raptors don’t have the personnel to launch threes like the Rockets or run like the Warriors. Still, the offensive revolution that began taking place in Toronto last season should be expedited in 2018-19, with Nurse putting an even greater emphasis on expected shot efficiency, playing early in the shot clock and continuity of ball and player movement. And when those ideals crumble under scrutiny of crunch-time or the postseason, the Raptors can revert back to the bygone style that DeRozan, improved as he was last season, is taking to San Antonio – only with Leonard, one of seven players this decade to post a true shooting percentage north of 60.0 while using at least 30 percent of his team’s possessions, per basketball-reference, in his place.
Toronto’s offense will indeed be better, especially come playoff time, but it’s not what has Ujiri talking titles. Only Golden State and Boston come close to matching the Raptors’ depth of quality defenders capable of guarding multiple positions. Leonard, Anunoby and Siakam can match up with anybody. The latter held John Wall to 28.6 percent shooting on 43 possessions in the opening round of playoffs, according to NBA.com/stats, while Anunoby made life far harder on James one round later than any of his teammates. Leonard’s defensive bona fides need no explanation, but it’s always instructive looking back to the 2014 Finals, when James, in between free throws, saw Leonard checking back into the game and couldn’t stop himself from expressing frustrated dismay.
This team’s embarrassment of defensive riches doesn’t stop there. Green, though a half step slower than he was two or three years ago, still has the requisite size and quickness to guard the likes of both Curry and Durant without getting abused. Kyle Lowry‘s commitment to menacing and low center of gravity makes him a viable switch defender. a trait he shares with the similarly dogged Fred Van Vleet. Delon Wright routinely guards every perimeter spot throughout the course of the game. If Serge Ibaka rediscovers just some of the athletic verve that was troublingly absent throughout the playoffs, Nurse can concoct a defensive scheme that allows his team to switch across five positions with little negative recourse. Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles, not the average defender many make him out to be, are the only players in Toronto’s 10-man rotation who most oppositions could feel confident targeting over and over, an offensive gambit never more prevalent than last May and June.
Also worth remembering: The Raptors, after ranking fifth in defensive efficiency during the regular season, surrendered a whopping 121.5 points per 100 possessions to James and the Cavaliers, worse than Cleveland’s mark against Golden State in the Finals.
“I think defensively, there’s so much,” Nurse told The Sporting News’ John Arlia earlier this summer. “The game’s changing so much. There’s so much switching going on. You’ve got to figure out double teams, rotations, how you’re taking away the 3-pointer, how you’re challenging shots, how you’re protecting the rim. I just think there’s a lot more creative ways being done right now and I think there’s some creative things to do that we can figure out.”
That was back in June, before the Raptors added two more defensive chameleons to their roster, both of whom force defenses to respect them from beyond the arc and one of whom is a season removed from deserving Most Valuable Player. Just imagine the innovative two-way concepts ruminating in Nurse’s head since the trade, one that mitigates the risk of Leonard walking away in free agency next summer with a potential reward the Raptors have never been more likely to reap.
The Warriors might be the greatest team of all time, and the Celtics and Sixers are in the early stages of budding dynasties. Bringing in Leonard and Green hardly puts Toronto over the top. But the games must be played before anything is decided for certain, and the Raptors – with Leonard healthy, it goes without saying – boast the type two-way personnel that gives them a fighting chance to beat anyone with the season on the line.
“We have everything here except a championship,” Ujiri said, a crowning achievement that so recently seemed impossible, yet is suddenly within the Raptors’ hopeful reach.