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Toronto Raptors Season Preview 2018-19: It’s time for Kawhi

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Kawhi Leonard takes centre stage as the Raptors begin perhaps their most significant season in franchise history. Here’s what you need to know.

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An underrated part of any new NBA season is simple: we can throw the results of the previous year straight into the trash bin of history. The 2017-18 Toronto Raptors got swept out of the playoffs for the second time in a row? Who cares! These are the 2018-19 Raptors, and they are a whole different story.

Before I wind myself up, please note, this is but one of 30 team previews coming out today as part of SB Nation’s start to the NBA season. Though I think you’ll agree: this is the one that counts.

Now, let’s get to the details, and answer the big questions heading into the Raptors’ 24th season.

Team Name: Toronto Raptors

Last Year’s Record: 59-23

Key Losses: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, head coach Dwane Casey, our collective innocence

Key Additions: Kawhi Leonard (who is a Toronto Raptor), Danny Green, head coach Nick Nurse

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1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.

OK, let’s back up. The move in its totality: the Raptors traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan, promising centre Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first round pick for, again, Kawhi freakin’ Leonard and Danny Green. The Earth could fly off its axis tomorrow, obliterating all life as we know it, and when the remnants of my body are found by aliens, my brains scanned and dissected for whatever knowledge or biomaterial they contain, the sentiment these creatures of the universe will discover is this: Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.

So yeah, it’s a significant move!

(Sure, there were some emotional downsides here. The Raptors had to jettison the face of their franchise in what appears to be one of the more cold-blooded moves we’re likely to see in the NBA at large, and definitely from the Raptors specifically. DeRozan gave his all in Toronto for nine seasons, and while it was clear we’d all reached our limit, it has to sting to be told: you are not good enough. Suffice to say, if you decide to boo DeRozan upon his return to Toronto — for any perceived slight after the fact — we will throw hands.)

But wait, there’s more! The Raptors also fired their long time coach Dwane Casey, the man who oversaw the team’s rise from perennial doormats to Eastern Conference contenders. We’re not going to debate Casey’s merits again—that’s been done (and overdone) already. Still, in what some would consider a different kind of cold-blooded move, the man the Raptors chose to replace Casey is Nick Nurse, who just happens to have been an assistant in Toronto for the past five years. (Did Casey thank him upon receiving the 2018-19 Coach of the Year? No, no he did not thank him.)

We know about Nurse’s reputation by now — he’s been a winner wherever he’s gone — but this will be his first NBA head coaching gig. He’s been around these players for awhile, but he’s also a rookie head coach at this level. All of this is to say: firing Casey and promoting Nurse is a significant move — we don’t yet know what kind of NBA coach he’ll be. Are you excited? I am excited.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Defensive versatility is the place we’re going to start (and end on). The Raptors now employ the best perimeter defender on the planet in Kawhi Leonard, and happen to have a cadre of players to go along with him who can guard multiple positions. Toronto could go small with Pascal Siakam at the 5, or go big with a Jonas Valanciunas-Serge Ibaka frontcourt, or try some multi-faceted lineups featuring three point guards, or, or, or... well, you get the idea.

When considering the leaps last year’s Raptors made offensively — both in executing better ball movement schemes and putting up way more threes — it was disheartening to see their franchise-best season be undone by a defensive collapse. Toronto has never quite been able to get both sides of the ball working for them when its counted. (This will be a theme for the year, I’m sure.)

So, when we remember Kyle Lowry is still one of the best shooters in the league (and the very best at pull-up threes) and one of the league’s smartest players, and that OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright are only likely to get better, and that Danny Green and C.J. Miles can both shoot the lights out, and the Raptors have two behemoths in Jonas Valanciunas and Greg Monroe who can work in the low and high-post if needed (plus the remnants of Serge Ibaka), and Kawhi Leonard is the best defensive player in the league and one of the more efficient offensive players around, well, it feels like a collapse is much less likely this year.

Put that entire one sentence paragraph on my tombstone.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Still, no team is perfect. The three biggest question marks surrounding the Raptors right now are as follows, brace yourselves:

Number One: Valanciunas and Monroe are the same player. Neither is that great at protecting the rim, neither can really switch onto smaller players and guard them on the perimeter, and while JV has been getting 3s up, neither is really who you’d want to go to when looking to shoot from range. (That said, I would not be surprised if Jonas really gets wild with the 3 this year.)

On top of that, they are the Raptors’ best rebounders. JV in particular showed a particular utility last year with his ability to eat up a lot of the paint, get his elbows in there, and get defensive boards. The Raptors need that from him, and they can only really count on him to do it. So yeah, that’s a weakness — outside of JV, bench minutes from Monroe, and whatever rebounding may be left in the legs of Ibaka, controlling the paint could be a problem for Toronto.

Number Two: This one is harder to define, but with the trade of DeRozan for an all-time Quiet Guy All-Star like Kawhi, the Raptors suddenly have something of a leadership vacuum at the top. Lowry is still very much the top dog in terms of veteran presence, and by dint of being the starting point guard, but he’s more a leader by doing — and he’s also a cranky fellow. Meanwhile, someone like Fred VanVleet commands respect, particularly when playing with his bench compatriots. Except this year VanVleet’s role could change, and his minutes still put him firmly in the reserve category. He’s earned that respect, but I’m not sure he can tell the entire locker room what to do, and when. (Toronto also has their pair of chatty sharpshooters, Green and Miles, who will no doubt gift the team with veteran presents.)

I admit this is an ineffable piece of business. Do basketball teams need vocal leaders? Can Kawhi, with his stone-faced immutability, lead the way by shear talent and will? Can the Raptors find themselves without DeRozan and rally around this cyborg?

Number Three: This connects with the previous concern — is Nurse the guy to lead this team from the bench? I touched on this in the first question up there (as I’m sure you read), but it bears repeating. Nurse has a bunch of things working for him: he’s been a basketball coach for multiple decades, in multiple countries. He’s seen a lot, dealt with a lot, and is likely to be surprised by very little. On top of that, he’s been around the Raptors for the past five years — he knows Lowry, Valanciunas, Ibaka, and the rest. Yes, he doesn’t quite know Kawhi yet, but that’d be the case for Casey too, or any other coach not named Popovich.

Still — still! — he’s a rookie NBA coach, in charge of a team with aspirations beyond anything they’ve ever achieved to date. The pressure will be unlike anything Nurse has dealt with before. On Media Day last week and so far in training camp, Nurse has been effective on camera, and continues to handle a room full of press quite well. That’s not nothing — now, is he ready for the rest?

4. What are the goals for this team?

Those aspirations I was alluding to up there are, uh, pretty big. The 2018-19 version of the Toronto Raptors have designs on the NBA Finals. That’s it. It’s not quite Finals or bust (yet), but that’s definitely the expectation. LeBron James is in the West on his bizarro vision quest with the Lakers of Misfit Toys, the East continues to be wide, wide open, with only the Celtics as true rivals to Toronto (apologies to Philly, Indiana, and Giannis), and, yes, the Raptors added a true MVP- and Finals MVP-calibre player in Leonard.

Combine those three things and allow me to repeat: the Raptors want to get to the NBA Finals this year.

(Other goals: facilitate more on-court growth from Siakam and OG, obviously; figure out what to do with Delon Wright as he heads into restricted free agency; stay... healthy?)

5. Can the Raptors actually make the Finals?

We’ve got a long, long, long way to go, but yes, let’s ask this question anyway. Can the Raptors do it? To be honest, yes, I think they can go all the way (to getting crushed by the Warriors in 5).

I’m not overly terrified of the Celtics because I feel like the Raptors match up with them extremely well (and their injury concerns are legit). The Sixers have two (or maybe three, or four?) powerful players, but there are some bad vibes floating around that franchise — call it the Colangelo curse. The Pacers could be underrated scary. They definitely had the juice last year to jump on some teams, and all of their young players (which is most everyone) will certainly look to improve this year. And the Bucks got Mike Budenholzer, which means they finally have a smart coach. Since I’m forever terrified of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this is worth noting.

All that being said, the Raptors have the offensive firepower, the defensive chops, and that upper echelon talent that’s needed to actually punch their way through to the highest level. Lots of things could go wrong, but it also just feels right.

6. Will Kawhi Leonard stay in Toronto?

This column is creeping past 1,700 words now so here: Yes, Kawhi Leonard will re-sign with the Raptors.

Through it all, just remember now and forever: Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.