This is it. The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors hit the floor tonight. Kawhi Leonard is on the team. We’ve been looking forward to this moment for months. There are also many more months to go — and all the possible ups and downs they contain.
So, before we dive in, let’s get a sense of our feelings with the help of some questions and answers from Josh Kern, Sean Woodley, and Daniel Reynolds. It’s almost time.
1) What are you most excited about with the Raptors?
Josh Kern: The defense. I’m no NBA defensive expert, but even I can tell that this team has the potential to be special on defense. The perimeter D in particular — a sore spot in the past as we watched countless wings, from Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson to Kyle Korver and J.R Smith, simply obliterate Toronto from all over the floor — should be a delight to watch, with the likes of Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green and Delon Wright locking down opponents and disrupting passing lanes. And that length on the perimeter should go a long way to masking any deficiencies in Jonas Valanciunas’ and Serge Ibaka’s abilities to defend in space.
Sean Woodley: Something different. Don’t get me wrong, I loved and will always cherish the Raptors teams of the last five years. They’re what roped me back into liking basketball after a few years hiding from Linas Kleiza in the woods. I was even a pro-run it back guy, barring the possibility of landing a star in the off-season. But facing the prospect of a sixth-straight season in which the Raptors were predictably good in the regular season a just as expectedly disappointing in the playoffs was a little bit of a bummer. Not because the regular season wouldn’t be full of pockets of joy, but because the script seemed old hat. Kawhi coming to town and injecting the team with new storylines and characters and tensions and tensions is going to cleanse the system for everyone whose followed along since 2013.
Daniel Reynolds: The versatility. Unlike in years past (how many times are we going to qualify sentences with that?), the Raptors of this season have a roster with few holes. Yes, they’re a bit thin up front, but have you watched the NBA lately — that’s far less important. They’ve got more shooting, more length, more speed, more ball-handling, more everything. And built into that are all the small and “big” lineup combinations the Raptors can trot out to give them what they need in a given moment. C.J. Miles having an off-night? Send in Danny Green. Not feeling it from OG Anunoby? Go small with Fred VanVleet? Frontcourt match-up problem? Let Jonas Valanciunas go to work. My personal favourite lineup idea right now is Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, OG, Kawhi, and Pascal Siakam. Please, please, try to score on that lineup — I double-dog dare you!
2) What are you most worried about with the Raptors?
Josh: Fitting everything together. This team looks special on paper, but there’s a new (first-time) coach and a new clear number one option who may or not be a vocal leader, and a point guard who may or not be playing angry (and who doesn’t always channel his anger in the right way). Few players on this team have ever played with an NBA player who has the gravity of a Kawhi Leonard. And the team is still a little unbalanced up front. So whether it all looks as good on the court as it looks on paper remains to be seen. But honestly? It’s not a big worry and I’m pretty confident they’ll figure it out by the new year, and will have a strong second half.
Sean: I can’t even conjure up a concern outside of Kawhi Leonard’s health, which is too low-hanging to use as my answer. And even then, he’s looked good in the preseason and not at all afraid to hunt contact, so I’m not even sure I’m earnestly worried about that. It might just be the competition. Boston, as painful as it is to admit, is really talented; one of the only teams that can even claim to be as deep as the Raptors. Kawhi at Full Leonard is the best player on either team, but depending on Lowry’s form, Boston might have players two through four. They’re annoying try-hards that scrape out wins. Here’s hoping Jayson Tatum has Kobe-poisoning and rots the thing from its innards. If that doesn’t happen though, Kawhi might not be enough to beat Boston, in turn making the Raptors not enough for Kawhi.
Daniel: I’m not worried about Kawhi. But I have already steeled myself for the millions of posts about Kawhi, and all the commentators dissecting his every move like the Zapruder film. Did you see his stare after that game? How about when he didn’t answer that one guy’s question? Is he happy? Look, my feeling on Leonard is this: he’s going to play, and he’s going to play very well. As the season goes on, it’s not hard to envision him gradually getting better and better as he gets back into the basketball groove and more comfortable with his Raptors teammates. Again, I don’t worry. I just hate (hate!) that we have to qualify everything with “if he stays in Toronto.” It puts a weird mental pall over things for me, and I wish it would go away. It’s maybe not worrisome, but it is a pain. Let Kawhi do his thing, don’t worry, and let’s just watch the Raptors kick ass. (And yes, I realize the more I say I’m not worried, the more worried I sound.)
3) How do you think the Raptors will do?
Josh: I think the Raptors will make the Finals. I’m on record as saying I think they’ll go 56-26; I think there is 60-win potential on paper, but as noted, I think it’ll take a little time for this team to gel (and for Leonard to finish shaking off the rust). They’ll be humming on all cylinders by the time the postseason rolls around, though, and I’m confident that—whether the Raptors are the top-seed or not—they’ll beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and will make their first trip to the NBA Finals. Hopefully I don’t have a heart attack along the way.
Sean: They’re going kick the shit out of everyone! As the preseason has worn on, my win prediction has crept higher and higher. I think 60+ wins is as almost as likely as it isn’t. They’ll be a top-two seed, Kawhi will be in the top-3 of MVP voting, and the Raptors will make the Conference Finals with refreshing ease, at which point my worries documented in Question #2 will rear their head. God, it feels dirty to predict good things happening to Boston.
Daniel: As per annual tradition, the Raptors are being underrated again. Two seasons ago, they were supposed to be a middle of the pack team. Last season, they were supposed to regress. This season, it’s supposed to take them time to acclimate, get comfortable, find themselves, blah blah blah. The truth is, Toronto’s franchise is now about as stable as it’s ever been. Yes, there’s been upheaval (hello DeMar and Dwane!), but the whole point of Masai Ujiri’s culture-building ways was to get the Raptors to this point, with the ability to do all the things they want to do in competing for a championship. That they haven’t won one isn’t quite the point yet — at least now they are legitimately in the conversation. So, I’m in for the Raptors at 57-25 (with 60 wins in play) and, deep breath: a trip to the dang NBA Finals.