The Toronto Raptors will go into the 2019-20 NBA season something no one thought they would be, the defending champions. They will be looking to make a run back at the playoffs and to defend their championship. Losing Kawhi Leonard leaves Toronto’s chances of reaching the finals again slim. But for the first time in their franchise history, they can say they have a championship-tested core.
Things were nothing short of perfect for the Toronto Raptors last year. Going into the season with high-standards, having traded their long-time star in DeMar DeRozan, along with a first-round pick and Jakob Poeltl to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The same Kawhi Leonard who only played 9 games the season before, so it was always going to be a risk trading for him.
With Kawhi Leonard at the helm, Toronto won 58 games, a shade worse than the 59 wins from the year before. With Leonard playing in only 60 games all season. Toronto managed to go 17-5 in the 22 games Leonard sat out but were no doubt at the peak of their power with Leonard in the lineup.
Toronto rode a 58-24 record to another Atlantic Division crown and second in the Eastern Conference. With the trade of Kawhi Leonard in the offseason, it was clear first in the Atlantic Division wasn’t enough. Toronto was finally making a run at a championship, losing at any stage and getting knocked out wasn’t enough. Not this season. So they lost their first playoff game against the Orlando Magic.
There was a flash of panic when the Toronto Raptors lost their first game of the playoffs against the Magic. On the back of a D.J. Augustin 25 point performance and game-winning three, the Magic were able to steal Game 1 on Toronto’s court. It was back to business as normal as Toronto swept the series from that point onwards.
What followed the Orlando series would be a tightly contested series with the Philadelphia 76ers. In a series that saw the series lead go back and forth every second game. The series would finish and be responsible for a shot that will go down not only in Toronto history but NBA history. Game 7, scores tied after a Jimmy Butler layup. Toronto comes out of the timeout with 4.2 seconds left, everyone knows where the ball is going, but how it happens no one knows. Kawhi Leonard gets the inbounds pass, dribbles around Ben Simmons, then around Joel Embiid and puts up a contested jumper. The ball bounces once. Twice. Three times. Finally, after the fourth bounce, the ball went it. From this point onwards, it seemed Toronto had all the momentum in the world. Everyone knew the Toronto Raptors season wasn’t meant to end here.
Toronto had all the momentum in the world going into the Eastern Conference Finals. They found themselves facing the Giannis Antetokounmpo lead Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo, nor the Raptors knew it yet, but he had an MVP season. But it was Brook Lopez whom the Raptors had no answer for. Letting Lopez go for 29 points in Game 1 and Antetokounmpo get 30 in Game 2, Toronto quickly found themselves down 0-2. Their destiny wasn’t to lose in the ECF though as the Raptors came back to win the next four games to reverse sweep the Milwaukee Bucks, sending the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever NBA Finals.
After 24 years, the Toronto Raptors made it to the NBA Finals. They were bound to have a tough time against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Warriors were coming off a 4-game sweep against the Portland Trailblazers while Toronto had concluded a grueling 6-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The rest seemed to do Golden State no favors as Toronto was able to win Game 1 on the back of Siakam’s 32 points. Golden State was able to steal back a game in Game 2 on Toronto’s floor to level the series at 1-1 heading to Oakland. What happened next was something no one saw coming. Toronto took both games on Golden State’s floor, fending off 47 points from Stephen Curry in Game 3 and on the back of Kawhi Leonards 36 point, 12 rebound performance in Game 4. This gave Toronto the opportunity to finish the series in Toronto on their home floor, but they couldn’t. All it took after that though was 1 more game in Oakland to wrap the series up 4-2 and secure Toronto’s first-ever championship.
The biggest changes Toronto underwent in the offseason were the losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. They weren’t exactly able to do the impossible and recuperate the value lost by Leonard and to a lesser extent Green.
The Raptors signed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson to respond to some of the defensive holes left by Leonard and Green. While re-signing Patrick McCaw and signing Matt Thomas from Spain gives the Raptors some offensive depth.
Overall the Toronto Raptors had a quiet offseason, working with what they could and what was in their power.
Losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will definitely leave a sore spot, especially come playoff time. The Toronto Raptors will have to adjust to life without Leonard, and they will probably adjust just fine. That’s it though, just fine.
What the Toronto Raptors did lose though, will leave for that space to be filled by someone. All eyes will be on Paskal Siakam to take the next leap in his evolution and command this team. He showed very bright glimpses of his potential during the NBA Finals, comfortable and capably showcasing himself on the biggest stage. Expect Siakam to standup throughout the season, same as Fred VanVleet.
Fred VanVleet proved himself to be a valuable piece during the Raptors playoff run, especially during the Finals. He should find himself once again in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year award, leading a Toronto bench.
Toronto will remain a strong team in the Eastern Conference based on their championship pedigree. At the end of the Toronto Raptors season, they will most likely find themselves in the middle of the standings, with the worst-case scenario being the 7 or 8 seed.
Toronto will most likely find themselves third in the Atlantic Division, behind the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. The Atlantic Division might produce the strongest teams from the Eastern Conference, with regards to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Paskal Siakam will take the next step and become the leader that this team needs with Fred VanVleet at his side. Expect 43-47 from the Toronto side and strong performances in the playoffs.
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