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Is it NBA Finals or bust for the Toronto Raptors this season?

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Expectations have never been higher for Toronto’s basketball team. How will they measure success in 2018-19?

2014 NBA Finals - Practice Day And Media Availability Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

At the beginning of Lakers training camp, LeBron James said that winning a championship is not the only way to measure success at the end of the season. “There is only one championship,” James said. “That doesn’t mean you’re not successful.”

I tend to agree with LeBron, and in the past I’ve certainly felt this way about the Toronto Raptors who, despite their recent success, have never had a team that felt like a true championship contender.

But this year feels a little different.

Kawhi Leonard: Masai Ujiri’s All-in Move

When the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Masai Ujiri accomplished two things: He created the best roster (on paper) the Toronto Raptors have ever had, and he hung a giant axe above the season in the form of Leonard’s impending free agency.

These two things, along with James heading west to the Lakers, have increased the expectations on this Raptors squad to levels they’ve never been before. In the past the Raptors could claim those other measures of success: Their record improved, they won playoff series, advanced farther than ever, developed young players, etc. (And then they’d run into James and shrug and say “we had a great year, but we’re up against the best player in the game.”)

I don’t think those measures hold up this year.

This Year There’s More on the Line Than Wins and Losses

The way I see it, there are two goals for this Raptors season:

  1. Win enough games/make a deep enough playoff run to convince Kawhi Leonard to stay
  2. Make the NBA Finals because if Leonard doesn’t stay, they’ll never have as good a chance as right now

The two, obviously, are interconnected. But if Leonard stays, the second somehow feels less important—in other words if they don’t make it to the Finals in June, but Leonard re-signs in July, then goal #2 can be pushed back to next season.

I also don’t think winning the title is necessarily a realistic goal—the Golden State Warriors still exist, after all—but it’s clear that, for this season to be a success, Toronto has to win more and go farther than ever before.

Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing...

It’s generally accepted that the team has to win to have a chance at keeping Kawhi Leonard. He said it himself: Win games and star caliber players will want to play here. Ujiri’s gamble, and this season, will likely be seen as a failure if the Raptors don’t win enough games and Leonard leaves.

Leonard is used to winning. Check out the results the San Antonio Spurs have had since Leonard came into the league (not counting last season, in which Kawhi was injured) :

  • 2011-12: 50 wins, Conference Finals
  • 2012-13: 58 wins, NBA Finals
  • 2013-14: 62 wins, NBA Champs
  • 2014-15: 55 wins, First round
  • 2015-16: 67 wins, Second round
  • 2016-17: 61 wins, Conference Finals

He’s won 60 games three times—something the Raptors franchise has never done.

All the other stuff—cold weather, no ESPN, going through customs—melts away with wins. But the Raptors will need a lot of them to convince Leonard to stay. If they only (only!) win 50 games and Leonard bolts, then who’s going to blame him?

... But Winning Still Might Not Be Enough

Let’s say Leonard doesn’t stay. He may have his mind already made up on heading to California or someplace else; even if it’s not currently made up, other things might sway him. In other words, winning a lot of games may not matter for goal #1.

In that case, you could argue the season is still in some small way a success: the Raptors will have done everything they could have to convince Kawhi to stay, and if they win a lot of games and Leonard still leaves, then that’s on Leonard.

Which brings us to goal #2. If Leonard leaves in July, and the Raptors—with their best roster ever—didn’t make the Finals in June, then I think the season will have to go down as a failure. It doesn’t mean the Leonard trade was a failure, but it means something went wrong during the year—Nick Nurse wasn’t the right coach, Leonard wasn’t healthy, Lowry and Leonard couldn’t play together, the young guys regressed, etc. Because this team is talented, experienced, well-balanced and extremely deep. They’re a Finals contender right now.

Next year, if Leonard leaves, this roster without him certainly won’t be a contender.

And because we won’t know if Leonard’s leaving until after the NBA Playoffs...

I think it is a Finals-or-bust season for the Toronto Raptors.