The Raptors Now Have a Shot at the Finals

July 20, 2018 - Getty Images: Masai Ujiri addresses the media following the trade for Kawhi Leonard

July 20, 2018 - Getty Images: Masai Ujiri addresses the media following the trade for Kawhi Leonard

The Toronto Raptors have put themselves in an interesting situation. Considering the recent history, with their polar performances during the regular and post season in mind, the team was looking to stay competitive this off-season. The blessing or the curse, depending on how you look at it, is that the Raptors will be judged solely on their post-season success. On the one hand, a long-struggling franchise has finally reached that glorious stature of relevancy in the NBA. More importantly, the Toronto Raptors has become a team that Toronto and all of Canada can be proud of, which should not be taken lightly. If it were easy to make five consecutive playoffs, then the Kings and Timberwolves would have done it already. On the other hand, the Raptors have fizzled out during the playoffs in the same fashion each of the five years. Regardless of the fact that they were the higher seed during the regular season, that momentum didn’t translate into the post-season. Credit to them for trying to adapt. At one point, they shifted towards a defense-heavy scheme. That didn’t work. Then they reset their culture. That didn’t work either. Many were calling Masai Ujiri stubborn for holding onto the core group of Dwane Casey, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan when he could have easily let one of them go for underperforming in the playoffs – but he stuck with them. Finally it was two sweeps in back-to-back years to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that became the catalyst for true change. Embarrassing loss after embarrassing loss now led the Raptors to enter a new chapter in their franchise.  

Despite the drastic changes in this summer, Raptor fans should not be angry, bitter nor be fearful! Many fans are quick to look back at the "We the North" era as time wasted, but in contrary, the highs of the past five years far outweigh the extreme lows of the first 19 years of irrelevancy. That’s all thanks to Masai Ujiri as he was the one that helped change the narrative in Toronto. With the recent moves, Masai is betting on himself once again to take the next step towards that elusive goal: winning a championship. What the Raptors have established is outstanding but the organization still lingers with the “Toronto can’t have good things” odor. No matter how much honor there is in losing to LeBron James (who has a chance to go down as the greatest ever), the Toronto Raptors barely put up a fight losing 10 straight playoff games to the King. The fact that the one obstacle that seemed to have stood in the way of the Raptors has moved out west to Los Angeles, gives further hope to Toronto. Masai is making the best of this opportunity. Even if this season the Raptors make it to the finals, they would come face-to-face with the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the Golden State Warriors. Again, that’s a much better place to be in than the mid-2000’s when botched lottery selections were the only constant for this franchise.

Raptor fans have to realize that their team has a real shot at making the NBA finals. Sure the Celtics and Sixers are likely favored in a playoff matchup but the Raptors will have the best player in either series. We forget that Kawhi Leonard was a huge reason the Spurs were up by 25 in the third quarter of the Western Conference Finals back in 2017. Zaza Pachulia’s ankle-hunting set the Spurs franchise into a tailspin which has led us here, where Kawhi Leonard is now a Toronto Raptor. Let that sink in. The Raptors managed to acquire a player who is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 2014 finals MVP, two-time All-Star, four-time All-Defensive team, and two-time All-NBA team. At his best, he is easily considered one of the top-3 players in the game. If you were Masai Ujiri, would you not have jumped on the chance to get a guy like Leonard? Given what the Spurs were asking for from teams like Boston and Philladelphia, many believed that the Raptors needed to give up guys like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby in order to be considered a viable trade partner. Somehow Ujiri did it again and all the Raptors had to do was give up one of their young prospects in Jakob Poeltl.

Getty Images 2018

Getty Images 2018

The addition of Leonard and Green gives the Raptors an even deeper lineup of versatile two-way players. Fans are salivating at the small-ball combinations of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, OG Anunoby, Normal Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. All are plus defenders that will clamp down even the best back-courts in the NBA. Trading away Jakob Poeltl stings. He was a serviceable big man for the Raptors with nimble feet and the kind of hands that would make Kawhi Leonard bat his eyes. Jonas Valanciunas and CJ Miles are the team's worst defenders, but it shouldn't be too difficult to hide them come playoff time. The team is so versatile that pinpointing the closing five is nearly impossible and quite frankly, not a bad problem to have. With most teams, it's a problem, but the Raptors have the deepest roster in the league. If they need more playmaking, they can play VanVleet or Wright as the second guard with Lowry. If they need more defense, they can play Anunoby as the small ball power forward. If they need more rim protection, they can play Ibaka at the five. If they need more size, they can play Valanciunas to feast at the rim. If they need more energy, they can bring in Siakam as the small-ball five. The combinations are endless. I legitimately feel bad for Nick Nurse who has to manage the minutes of this ultra-competitive group. It's worth mentioning that's where Dwane Casey will be missed - for his ability to manage those personalities. But no need to think about the could-haves and would-haves, the Raptors are onto bigger things.

The best case scenario is the Raptors will have a top-5 defense for the second-year in a row. They finish with a top-two seed in the East, beat the Celtics in the Conference finals and steal a game or two from the Warriors in the NBA finals. Optimists might believe they have surpassed the Warriors but let’s pump the breaks on that for now. On the flip side, worst case scenario could be really bad. Not like, out-of-the-playoffs bad, but what-do-we-do-now kind of bad. Let’s say Kawhi Leonard isn’t healthy. This team could still make the playoffs in the East even without Leonard but their ceiling is seriously capped with only Danny Green to show for DeRozan’s departure. Let’s say Leonard refuses to play for Toronto which at this point seems unlikely as it would it would seriously hurt his chances at receiving any max offers in the coming off-season. Not only would Kawhi lose money in the future if he did choose to sit out but the Raptors could fine him for each game all the way up to his $23.1M owed this season as reported by Zach Lowe. But really, how much could Leonard afford to lose? His reputation has taken a hit and for the first time in his NBA career, he has become the NBA’s new super-villain… well at least in San Antonio. His teammates and coach publicly scrutinized him and he will be viewed as a bad teammate no matter how the Spurs organization tries to spin it.

Getty Images 2018

Getty Images 2018

If Kawhi really wanted to, he could end all the speculation by releasing some kind of statement - a tweet, an Instagram post, a Player’s Tribune article, anything! But that’s not really his style. If what he truly wants is to play in Los Angeles above all else, then he’ll have to wait until next summer. For now, he has a real shot at something special. And if he wants to be the franchise cornerstone, or to be in a major market and have a chance to win, then doesn’t Toronto offer all those things?

His Uncle Dennis may just force him out of Toronto the first chance he gets and all of this wooing won’t even matter but at least the Raptors are taking a shot. This is the biggest move of Masai Ujiri’s Raptors tenure and all parties are entering unchartered territory. Who’s to say the Raptors will mess this up? Even if Leonard walks, Ujiri still has control of a strong, young roster capable of staying relevant in the East. The 3-year window so often referred to in Toronto is still very much open. It’s actually not a terrible fallback option considering the progress of their youngsters. Then the Raptors can use the money Leonard left on the table to offer a max contract to another superstar and just like that, their outlook changes again.

The decision to compete now is bold, no doubt. The East is evolving and the Raptors can’t afford to fall back into the dark days of this franchise. The Celtics are peaking with several high-end offensive talents and a coaching savant in Brad Stevens. The Sixers may end up with two top-10 players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and that’s with Markelle Fultz barely scratching the surface. Then again, what is the alternative? Keep DeRozan and see if he can overcome his playoff woes? His time came, he couldn’t perform when it mattered most. Raptors fans still believed in him – that’s why this trade hurt so many. In reality, this move was the only choice. The Raptors have opted to compete now for a chance to write their names in the history books. If they were to overcome the Celtics and later the Warriors in this era of elite super-teams, then the Raptors may be the most impressive championship team in NBA history wouldn’t you say?