With just over two weeks into the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Toronto Raptors stand second in the Eastern Conference with a 6-1 record with their only loss coming last night from the Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks, losing 109-124. Though it is extremely early to start planning the parade route in Toronto, it’s evident to see that this team is different. Given the monstrous off-season, things were expected to change so let’s quickly run through what’s different.
Let’s start with the obvious…
Though the Toronto Raptors started their season without their beloved DeMar DeRozan, nothing felt better as a Raptor fan than hearing Kawhi Leonard’s name announced during the starting line-up. This writer, may or may not have gotten goosebumps hearing that Kawhi was one of us. To actually see him play in a Raptor uniform and playing at the Scotiabank Arena as one of us put fans at ease knowing that things will be just fine. One criticism that we’ve seen all over #NBAtwitter is the amount of rest that Kawhi has been getting so early on in the season. So far, Kawhi has played five out of seven games, averaging 34.8 minutes with 26.6 points, 3.0 assists and 50% from the field. There’s no doubt that his playing time will be closely followed by the coaching staff given that the mishandling of his minutes is what ruined the relationship with his former organization. As much as we want to see our biggest acquisition of the off-season play every single night, we have to understand that this man has not played competitive basketball for over a year, playing only nine games for the 2017-2018 season, and so it will take some time for him to ease back in to things. But even in his minute restrictions, there’s no denying the difference that Kawhi makes when he’s on the floor. In the 5 games he has played, Kawhi’s plus/minus is +12.8. Say what you will about this plus/minus stats given that it doesn’t account for several factors, but having Kawhi on the floor gives this team a sense of confidence that translates in their style of play. Players look more confident in their shot and are more aggressive, shooting an average of 47.7% from the field and 34.6% from the three. They are willing to share the ball more, averaging 25.1 assists per game so far and it’s evident that they are giving up the good shot for great shots. With all of the said, there have been moments where the squad had reverted back to their hero-ball style of play, relying on isolation plays. This will be something that they have to get used to given how new this relationship is. Part of basketball is the chemistry between players and this will come with time and so it’s something that we shouldn’t be too worried about. Overall, the risk that Masai opted for seems to benefit this team but we’ll have to wait and see how it pans out.
Along with Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors were able to acquire Danny Green, which for the most part has been down-played given the hype around a guy like Leonard. Remember when we got that guy DeMarre Carroll who was supposed to be our 3-and-D guy but it never really worked out? Or that time we picked up CJ Miles hoping he would be a better fit for the role but that has yet to be proven so far? The Raptors front office is not blind to the fact that we have been missing that spot-up shooter who can play both ends of the court and so getting a guy like Danny Green fills that void. Given that CJ Miles averaged 10 points per game and shot 36.1% from the three, we thought we had it good but picking up a guy like Danny Green has been eye opening. Not only does he bring a reliable shooter, he also brings with him the veteran presence that this team is desperate for. For the 2018-2019 season so far, Danny Green has contributed an average of 10.7 points and shooting 44.6% from the field, 46.5% from the three. Some may argue that Danny Green is not what he used to be given his age but, with the pieces that the Raptors already have with guys like Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and CJ Miles, his contributions thus far nicely compliments with what this team already have.
Lastly, the biggest difference we’ve noticed is how Nick Nurse has been playing to the match-up rather than sets. Given the amount of different starting line-ups we’ve seen in the 7 games and the many variations throughout the game, it’s clear to see that Coach Nurse is willing to make changes before, during and after a game. He continues to make it known that he’s willing to try any line-up as long as it makes sense to the match-up, saying that he’s willing to play big, small and really small. Most noticeably is how Coach Nurse has used his bigs. As Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis said during an episode of the Free Association Podcast, separating Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka already makes Coach Nurse a better coach than Dwane Casey and we couldn’t agree more. We are fully aware that this is likely just Coach Nurse’s way of seeing how guys play with different lines and things will very likely tighten up throughout the season but, if Nick Nurse stays true to his willingness to play to the match-up, we except to see constant changes with each game.
It’s still very early to conclude anything about this team but one thing that many can agree on is that this team is expected to make a deep playoff run. As long as Kawhi continues to work at his conditioning to be up to par with the rest of the team and Nurse continues to explore what his new team is capable of, we have no doubt that this team will be a powerhouse come playoff time.