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2018-19 Season Preview: Raptor Redemption

AP Photo-Brandon Dill

After a demoralizing end to the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Raptors have retooled for a deep playoff run

Following two consecutive playoff ejections at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, last season’s Toronto Raptors were marketed as the roster “built to unseat” LeBron James’ team. Unfortunately for Dwane Casey’s Raps, history was doomed to repeat itself, as Cleveland swept Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

The devastating collapse erased the good will accrued by team’s 59-23 season (the best finish in the Raptors’ 23-year history) and its capture of the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors responded to their playoff ousting by firing their head coach and trading away the team’s biggest star (aside from Kyle Lowry). This offseason has brought comprehensive changes to The North, but will it translate to playoff success?  

By far, the most newsworthy event of the offseason, second only to LeBron’s move westward, was the blockbuster trade that saw the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan swap uniforms. The exchange of franchise faces stunned the NBA community, and the move certainly shakes up the expectations for the Raptors 2018-19 season. The acquisition of the All-NBA forward indicates that team president Masai Ujiri is swinging for the fences in bringing the DeRozan era to an end. Despite marginal improvement every season since Ujiri’s hiring in 2013, perhaps a culture shock was necessary to take that next step toward serious championship contention.  

Speaking of culture shock, another front office move that drew some criticism was the dismissal of 2018 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey in favor of first-time NBA head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse, winner of the 2011 D-League Coach of the Year, had success in his (then) D-League coaching stints, though his promotion from Casey assistant to head coach seemed somewhat reactionary in the face of the Raptors’ playoff embarrassment. 

While the egregious sweep called for serious reassessment in the Toronto front office, many found Casey’s firing to be questionable, to say the least. While Nurse boasts a strong resume and was credited with shifting the Raptors’ offensive schemes toward three-point attempts (2,705 3PA in 2017-18, compared with 1,996 in 2016-17), it may be unfair to saddle the rookie HC with a roster in flux and burdened with high expectations.

Indeed, with LeBron James winging westward, the Raptors have a legitimate chance at securing the one seed in the East again, with their Atlantic Division rivals the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers shaping up to be their closest competition. Although fans reacted negatively to the (unceremonious) departure of DeRozan, the addition of Kawhi Leonard is a power move in the open East. Although DeRozan is an All-Star talent, the addition of Leonard and three-point sharpshooter Danny Green will be an improvement to their roster, especially on the defensive end. 


  

Kahwi Leonard’s defensive prowess is well documented, as he is perhaps the second-best two-way player in the league after LeBron James. Leonard’s hardnosed defense should be an upgrade over the more offensive-minded DeRozan; last season, Leonard posted a 38.8% defensive field goal percentage to DeRozan’s 44.6%. The 2017-18 Raptors ranked fifth in defensive rating, and it should improve further with the additions of Leonard and Green. Danny Green has improved greatly on the defensive end over the course of his nine-year NBA career, culminating in an All-Defensive Second Team nod in 2017. Pairing an improved Raptor defense with last season’s third-best offense in the league should all but guarantee a playoff berth this season.

  
However, this season is not without potential peril for Toronto. Perhaps the biggest concern is the health and mindset of Kawhi Leonard. After trading away DeRozan, their season likely hinges on Leonard having a bounce-back year after an ineffective, drama-filled nine games in 2017-18. 

The Raptors also face strong competition from Boston and Philadelphia. With the return of Gordon Hayward, the Celtics should get a major upgrade over last season’s roster. Additionally, the Sixers are also projected to improve with a healthy roster of young up-and-comers. The East may contain a number of bottom-feeding teams, but it should boast a number of 50-plus win teams jockeying for position at the top.


  

Now that LeBron is in L.A., the Raptors have a serious chance to make a deep run in this year’s postseason, perhaps even a Finals appearance. The 2017-18 season was a bad PR year for Kawhi Leonard, so if he is 100 percent healthy and motivated to silence his critics, the Raptors could have an MVP candidate on their roster for the first time since the Chris Bosh era. After last season’s embarrassing playoff performance, motivation should not be a problem for the Raptors, so expect them to be dangerous once they figure everything out.

Edited by Emily Berman.

SQuiz
In what year did Kawhi Leonard take home his first Defensive Player of the Year Award?
Created 9/11/18
  1. 2014
  2. 2015
  3. 2016
  4. 2017

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