People have forgotten how good Kawhi Leonard is. He is an NBA Champion, a Finals MVP, and a top-3 player in the league when healthy. He carried the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals in 2017 and had his team up by 20 points in Game 1 against the star-studded Golden State Warriors before going down with an unfortunate injury. This past season, he wasn’t the same, as his injury kept nagging him. He controversially decided to sit out the season, creating chaos and miscommunication between the Spurs front office and Leonard, leading him to get traded to the Toronto Raptors.
With Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors are going to win the Eastern Conference and compete with the Warriors to win the NBA championship. The addition of Leonard caused the Raptors championship odds to jump to 5th in the league. Although, they are not ranked as high as the Boston Celtics, the Raptors are built to beat great teams like the Warriors and the Celtics.
They will be a top-5 defensive team in the league. Of course, Leonard is a 2-time Defensive Player of the Year. He can be put onto a Kevin Durant or a Gordon Hayward or a Kyrie Irving and make life tough for them. Kyle Lowry remains a very good defender at the guard position, as he boasted a defensive rating of 104 last season. For reference, Draymond Green, who is widely acknowledged as one of the most versatile defenders in the league, had a defensive rating of 105 last season.
The Raptors have many capable players on the defensive end. The DeRozan-Leonard trade included Danny Green, who is still a solid “three-and-d” player. OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Jonas Valancunias, Serge Ibaka, Fred Vanvleet, and Delon Wright can all stay on the court because of their defensive ability.
Last year, without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors had the 7th best defensive team in the league. The team is versatile and can throw different defenders on the same opponent at different periods in the game. The Boston Celtics “death lineup” of Irving-Brown-Hayward-Tatum-Horford would have difficulty scoring on the versatile defensive lineup of Lowry-Green-Anunoby-Leonard-Ibaka.
That lineup can get buckets on the other end. We know how great Leonard is. While he wasn’t 100% last season, he still averaged 25 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes. Kyle Lowry can score in spurts next to Leonard and can continue to play off-ball like he did with Demar Derozan. Danny Green is still a very capable three-point shooter, and Serge Ibaka is a good three point shooter who can space the floor and defend other 5s in the league.
OG Anunoby didn’t put up great numbers in his rookie season, but if you watched his game, you could tell he is going to be a needed piece on a championship team. He improved in the playoffs, shooting 44.8% from three, and hit a game-tying three-pointer against the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Raptors also have the depth to get through the exhausting 82-game NBA season and get to the playoffs. They had the best bench in the league last season, and that will only continue. Fred Vanvleet surprised a lot of people with his three-point shooting. Pascal Siakam is an athletic forward that can play some small ball 5.
The Raptors biggest question mark, aside from Kawhi Leonard’s return from injury, is their new head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse was the Raptors assistant coach since 2013 and is credited for changing the Raptors offense to increase passing and three-point attempts last season. No one really knows what Nurse is capable, but he has a great opportunity to show what he can do with the Raptors.
The Raptors have the defensive versatility, depth, and youth to win the Eastern Conference and challenge the dynastic Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. They will make their first NBA finals appearance in the 2019 playoffs and may hoist the Larry O’ Brien trophy for the first time in franchise history.