NBA Daily: Appreciating The Reigning Champs

The offseason is finally done. Training camp is officially underway. The 2019-2020 NBA season is mere weeks away from starting. As usual, we’ve all been waiting a long time for this moment.

And why shouldn’t we? There are so many exciting storylines to tune into this season. The league’s new-found parity. The new LA teams. The downfall of the Warriors. The growingly restless Bucks and the Greek Freak’s extension. Those are just a few of the many plot threads that should make this a season possibly the most entertaining one we’ve seen in ages.

Lost in all the hoopla has been the story of the one team that, no matter what they lost this summer, is still technically the one that stands above the rest of the league – the reigning champions.

The story of the Toronto Raptors winning their first championship should have been revered as a team that built a winner the right way. No stars joining forces with each other. No tank jobs leading to homegrown superstars coming into their own. Just a team that built itself with enough talent and a solid identity.

Instead, the first thought that came to mind when talking about Toronto was, “Will Kawhi stick around?” Even though no one was to blame for this, it’s sad that what should have been the happiest time for the Raptors franchise was overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding Kawhi.

Now that he’s gone, the Raptors’ chances of repeating are next to non-existent pending any unexpected trades or player improvement. That being said, with the season approaching, it’s time we give the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors the tribute that they deserve.

The Team That Had Lost All Hope

It was almost a year-and-a-half ago that Toronto – despite enjoying the most success the franchise had ever seen – had really hit rock bottom. For the third consecutive season, LeBron and the Cavs eliminated the Raptors, and pretty easily too.

The third time, though, was where it became more dumbfounding than ever. Cleveland came in at the height of its dysfunction with LeBron, and the Raptors looked primed for a trip to The Finals. When LeBron almost single-handedly swept Toronto, it was so embarrassing that the NBA Twitter decided to give the team the nickname, “LeBronto.”

It only got worse. They already had a long-standing reputation of blowing it in the playoffs, and this particular outing only asked more questions.

Was this far as they could go? At the time, there were no easy answers for Canada’s team. This writer argued that they should have kept it all together on the basis that they be patient a little longer with the roster, but after they fired Dwane Casey, it felt as though there were changes in order.

With Boston getting its best players back, Philadelphia’s young cornerstones another year older, and Milwaukee building the right team around Giannis, Toronto seemed primed to take a back seat to them.

But on July 18, 2018, their fortunes changed.

The Return of a Titan

Did you know that when Kawhi Leonard is an active player, the NBA is 150 percent more fun to watch? It’s a scientific fact. Just ask a dentist.

All jokes aside, many forget that at this time a year ago, the doubt surrounding Kawhi wasn’t primarily whether he was going to re-sign with the Raptors. It was whether he was going to be the same player we all came to know and love.

Following his disastrous fallout with the Spurs, Leonard was labeled as damaged goods, which is why other suitors like Boston opted not to pursue him as hard as they probably should have. Lucky for Toronto, not only did they have a good package for the former Defensive Player of the Year, they also had an offer that appeased the Spurs since DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl was a win-now package.

The Raptors swung for the fences when they acquired Kawhi, and this time, they went deep.

Kawhi was every bit the same player he was back when he was putting himself into the MVP discussion when he was a Spur. In fact, if he hadn’t missed 22 games – kudos to him for pioneering the term “load management,” which may or may not still be a thing for years to come – he probably would have had a better case.

It doesn’t matter though, because even though Kawhi put up some of the best all-around stats we’ve ever seen from him, what we got from the Klaw in the playoffs was a performance for the ages.

On his playoff resume, Kawhi already has outplaying LeBron in The Finals and single-handedly outplaying the super-Warriors (until he sprained his ankle) to boast. What he did for the Raptors may have topped everything he had done previously.

Over 24 games, Kawhi put up 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, almost 4 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks on 49/38/88 splits. When you compare those numbers to some of his other outings, some of those aren’t his career-best. That stat line is, however, one of the best individual performances we’ve ever seen from a player who went on an extended run, rivaling the likes of Michael Jordan’s performance in 1991, LeBron James’ performance in 2012, Shaquille O’Neal’s performance in 2000 and many of Tim Duncan’s performances.

Kawhi may have topped them all with his consistent dominance throughout the postseason, and to top it all off, he added one the most epic buzzer-beaters we’ve ever seen.

We already knew Kawhi Leonard was a future Hall of Famer. This performance cemented his legacy as one of the best of his generation and puts him in the discussion with the greatest of all time.

The Sudden Uprise of a New Star

Kawhi Leonard proved himself to still be one of, if not, the best player in the NBA, but even the best of the best need help. He alone would not be enough. That’s where more spectators became more skeptical of the impending Raptors who intended to be more impenetrable.

Kyle Lowry had yet to show that he had what it took to be one of the leading men of a championship team. If they just had someone else who could take the role of the No. 2 and run with it, their chances would suddenly get better. Nobody knew it at the time, but we’d come to find out that they had it all along in Pascal Siakam.

Siakam had already exceeded expectations when he went from throwaway draft pick to solid role player for Toronto the previous season. Finding an average player in the late first-round is satisfactory for anyone. What Pascal has become is something that was beyond Toronto’s wildest dreams.

A man who was once a backup wing suddenly became one of the better young power forwards in the game. In just his third season and at just 25 years old, Siakam evolved into an excellent all-around wing, averaging 17 points, almost seven rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game on 55/37/78 splits while also playing enough like a pest to garner him some All-NBA Defense recognition.

Toronto has seen its young talent shrink when the playoffs come around. Such was not the case with Siakam. While his three-pointer became a little less consistent, Pascal kept his production up, averaging 19 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 47/28/76 splits. Kawhi may have had an all-time playoff performance, but even those can be wasted – just ask LeBron in 2015. Pascal delivered for Toronto when they needed him to.

He became the Pippen to Kawhi’s Michael Jordan. Perhaps now we’ll find out what Pippen would have been like without Jordan now that Siakam is Toronto’s alpha dog.

The Breakthrough of a Diminished Star

At the front of Toronto’s failures leading up to 2019 was Kyle Lowry. He wasn’t solely responsible for the team’s past issues, but Lowry would routinely share the gist of the blame for the Raptors coming up short time and time again.

The addition of Kawhi Leonard put more pressure on Lowry to be the second-in-command, which was tough to ask from a guy who was going to be 33 when the playoffs came. Luckily, both Kawhi’s presence along with the uprise of Siakam minimized Lowry’s duties.

If you look at his stats from last season, you’ll see that both Lowry’s scoring and shooting numbers took a noticeable turn for the worse. However, because there wasn’t nearly as much of a demand for Kyle to score the ball, Lowry had his best season as a distributor, averaging 8.7 assists per game, which easily topped his previous career-high of 7.4 in 2014.

The Raptors’ offense was plus-10.4 when he was on the court, and he also was in the top-10 in charges drawn during the regular season. He may not have put up his usual All-Star numbers, but he still made an All-Star-like impact, which probably factored into how he made his fifth consecutive All-Star team.

Lowry again did not have the best outing in the playoffs, averaging 15 points on 44/36/80 splits while also averaging 6.6 assists and almost five rebounds per game. But again, the Raptors didn’t ask him to be their go-to scorer. They asked him to keep playing his game, and he did just that. He distributed the ball while also playing tough defense, even leading the playoffs by far in charges drawn.

By having a lesser role, Kyle thrived more for the Raptors by doing all the little things. His story proves more or less that a guy who can really be at his best when he’s in his wheelhouse. For Kyle Lowry, less was more for him.

The Offensive Re-Serge-Ence

This was also a nice little twist for the Raptors. Serge Ibaka was seen as a player on a rapid decline coming into the season. So much went right for Toronto that we overlooked that Ibaka had one of his best seasons in recent memory.

With the exception of his three-point shooting, which Toronto didn’t go to as much this past season, Ibaka put up some of his best offensive numbers since 2014. He put up 15 points per game while shooting 53 percent overall from the field and also corralling 8.1 rebounds per game. Those are numbers that rival the career-highs that the man put up with the Thunder. The only difference is that, in Toronto, he puts up those stats in six less minutes per game.

Serge’s defensive impact is probably never going to be what it once was when he played in Oklahoma City, but it’s not like Toronto was expecting him to do that.

When the Raptors added some more grit in the front at the trade deadline, Serge wasn’t nearly as impactful, but his efficiency for the season remained. Ibaka’s numbers weren’t something that Toronto necessarily asked for, but the fact that they got that kind of contribution from Serge when everyone though his best days were done is something that deserves more attention.

The Last Piece of The Puzzle

On February 7, the Raptors weren’t in dire need of making any drastic changes. They ranked in the top-10 in both offensive rating (112.3 – seventh overall) and defensive rating (107.4 – eighth overall), and had an excellent record of 39-16. Yet, it felt like something was missing.

As good as they were, the Raptors knew that facing the likes of Joel Embiid and/or Nikola Vucevic – two of the better centers in the game – was a likelihood if they wanted to go the distance in the postseason. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t the worst center rotation in the world, but that pairing could have used an upgrade.

The Raptors knew with Kawhi expiring and LeBron out of their life, this was a rare opportunity as ever to win it all, so they had to seize it at every avenue. At the trade deadline, they added the finishing touch to their roster by trading Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles for Marc Gasol.

Toronto didn’t want Gasol to be the two-way superstar he was in Memphis. All they wanted him to do was fill in the remaining gaps. Those gaps included spacing the floor, making the right pass and defending the post. The Spaniard’s numbers fell down the tubes, which at first glance would make trading for him look like a failure. If you watch Gasol when he was on the floor, you knew he gave them so much more flavor than they had before.

There were other stories worth mentioning, like Nick Nurse being up to the task of coaching a title team as a rookie head man in charge, or Fred VanVleet fall and subsequent uprise, or Danny Green’s steady influence or Norman Powell’s return to the rotation. Those guys definitely played a part in Toronto’s first title, but the previously five mentioned storylines were worth expanding on more. Feel free to disagree.

As inspiring as this team’s story was, one could argue that the stars aligned for the Raptors. They were lucky that San Antonio happened to be selling off Kawhi at the exact time Toronto had enough to trade for him. They were lucky that Memphis happened to be blowing it up at the exact time Toronto needed an upgrade in the frontcourt. They were lucky that Golden State, upon entering its fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, were fatigued to the tenth degree when they faced off.

And who knows if they would have gotten as far as they did if Pascal Siakam had remained as just a rotation player?

Luck is part of the equation for every championship team. You’re lucky if certain offseason twists go your way. You’re lucky if your team stays healthy throughout the whole season. You’re lucky if you get the favorable matchup in the playoffs.

More than anything else, the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors rise to the top felt organic. They were a team that made the right moves. They took the necessary risks. They even parted with players they grew attached to in the name of reaching their final destination, and it all paid off.

This season, there won’t be nearly as high expectations what with Kawhi now a Clipper and all, but ask anyone – whether it be a fan or an employee of the team or anyone – who is involved with the Raptors how they felt about the Leonard trade knowing what they know now, and they’ll say the same thing.

Totally worth it.

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