Contrary to what so called NBA experts in the US sports media and odd makers in Las Vegas are saying, our 2019 World Champions The Toronto Raptors actually have a path to repeating in 2020 despite the departure of Kawhi Leonard. That is, barring any injuries and not taking into consideration blockbuster trades by teams before the February 6th 2020 trade deadline, which at this point are hardest to predict and can branch into endless variations too speculative for meaningful projections. (I have learned my lesson from Paul George demanding a trade to the Clippers which nobody saw coming and totally scuttled my compelling reasons why Kawhi Leonard had no choice but to return to the Raptors)
On the question of where the Raptors will finish this season, there are many angles from which to do an educated, realistic assessment. I chose to look from two of the most important principles found in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War namely: Know thyself and Know thy enemies. Under "know thyself" I will discuss in detail how to fill the big hole left behind by the departure of Kawhi Leonard.
Know thyself is knowing what you got.
If you carefully follow the Raptors' progress from the first game of the playoffs, you should see that by game 6 vs. Golden State when they clinched the title, that was the defining moment the rest of the team finally moved on from over relying on big brother Kawhi, grew up and held their own. They stood their ground, bent but did not break. In that game Kawhi had a relatively "subpar" game by his standards and yet the other Raptors did not cave in, everyone stepped up to collectively dethrone the Warriors. They were tested in those final moments when Danny Green turned over the ball and they passed the test. From that point on they were the NBA champions, doubts about themselves were replaced by championship DNA. This season, what they got is that "bring it on" swagger. This is especially true not just for the young players like Fred Van Vleet and Norm Powell, but all the more for long suffering veterans like Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. They have finally tasted blood and they want more. Rudy Tomjanovich’s famous line "never underestimate the heart of a champion" is now finally talking about them.
On the case of the big hole created by Kawhi’s departure
So what are the aspects of the game Kawhi brought to the table that now Nick Nurse has to look elsewhere?
I won’t be surprised if there are those who thought that with Kawhi going to the Clippers, the Raptors are now like the Cavaliers without LeBron. But those are two very different situations. Cleveland without LeBron is like an orchestra that lost its conductor. While in my opinion LeBron can never supplant Jordan as the g.o.a.t. (since unlike MJ or even Kobe or Kawhi, he couldn’t make his team win all by himself), his presence in a team like Cleveland enhances ball movement and makes a bunch of mediocre players look good. If LeBron is a musical conductor, Kawhi on the other hand is like the linchpin of a street gang in a turf war, he was the stud. He makes all the difference by himself. But his presence too, makes the ball stick and runs counter to fluid ball movement on Masai's new culture playbook. Which takes us to the first aspect of Kawhi's game that the Raptors will miss -
During the playoffs, other Raptors had to stand in deference to Kawhi. I argue that was why it took Fred so many games to shake off the slump. I humbly argue that this year without the big dog getting to eat first, all of the Raptors’ other players will find it easier to score points, this will be true for Siakam, Lowry, Van Vleet, Anunoby, Gasol, Ibaka, Powell, maybe even Boucher. And if they decide to really move the ball and not use tenure as an excuse for not seeing open teammates, expect Terence Davis II and perhaps even Matt Thomas (if his defense is good enough to give coach Nurse good reason to use him) to already contribute more to scoring than Powell, Van Vleet and Siakam ever did when they were rookies.
Kawhi’s lock down one on one defense on the opponent’s alpha dog
To most other teams this will be a challenge but not so much for the Raptors. For alpha dog players who are either big, strong, can drive to the basket like Lebron, Harden, Westbrook, the Raptors have OG as the primary defender with help from Siakam and Ibaka. For those players that won’t stop running without the ball, and are quick release sharp shooters like Steph Curry, they got Van Vleet. Now that Danny Green is also gone and with Van Vleet starting assures that Van Vleet will be on the floor to end the game and Lowry won’t have to chase the like of JJ Redick.
Kawhi’s rebounds a.k.a. the boardman get paid
Now this is the area that is in my opinion the hardest to replace. Neither OG or Siakam had in the past shown they were particularly good in plucking rebounds, especially the offensive variety. Gasol’s contribution is mostly the defensive board. So that leaves Serge Ibaka as the best boardman gets paid candidate. The trouble is, basketball is not like football where they can play one set of players for offense and another for defense. So if Nick Nurse leaves Ibaka in there too long to replace Kawhi as the boardman, rebounds will go up but team scoring will suffer. I surely hope what Ibaka showed in terms of better scoring during preseason games as well as Siakam getting 17 rebounds in season opening game against New Orleans are not aberrations but the new norm as this will solve the boardman’s problem. Wishful thinking?
KNOW THY ENEMIES
Among the other teams in the NBA, which teams present the biggest challenge to the Raptors repeating?
Actually it can be argued that all the teams that are expected to make the playoffs have become weaker than last season.
Boston lost Kyrie and replaced him with Kemba Walker but they’ve also lost the glue that held them together in Al Horford.
And to think about it, Horford left for a Sixers team that’s in need of a go to guy style leader to replace Butler and a catch and shoot volume scorer like JJ Redick, not the team glue type leader that Horford is. The adding of Richardson is not enough to do the job if Ben Simmons does not start scoring which he won’t.
The Indiana Pacers might have gotten better with Brogdon now with them but still they don’t have enough to become elite. Same can be said of the Heat getting Butler as well as Brooklyn signing Irving and Durant for as long as Durant has not returned to 100% healthy it’s all premature.
That leaves Milwaukee as the biggest hurdle both in the east as well as in the entire league the Raptors must overcome. I would argue if they can win the east over the Bucks and get to the NBA Finals, they’d find it easier to win it all just like last season. In other words their true test is the Bucks. The biggest reason for optimism is the Bucks let Brogdon go. Soon they will find out the game is 48 minutes and too long to leave in the hands of the likes of Eric Bledsoe and George Hill. It will be very difficult for the Raptors if the Greek Freak really develops a jumpshot, not the kind when he’s left open, but the kind that entails dribbling and creating the scoring situation to pull up for a jumpshot. Actually it’s a race between the Freak and Spicy P, whoever develops that shot first automatically puts his team ahead of the pack.
Overall, I like their chances regardless of which team they face in the finals.
Golden State? Been there, done that. Houston? OG and Van Vleet can take Harden and Westbrook. If they have no problem winning over the Warriors, they should find it even less challenging to beat the Rockets with their championship DNA. Change Rockets to Blazers and the same holds. The Nuggets? They can go far but in the finals, Jokic is the perfect guy for Gasol to take on. Other than Jamaal Murray, the Nuggets don't have enough real threats to cause a problem, including the perennially overrated Paul Milsap. The Spurs might give them a problem but they are a long shot to even get to the finals. The Lakers, they are dysfunctional and will implode. That leaves the Clippers as the one they will likely face in the finals. Assuming the Clippers have their present lineup, Kawhi or Kawhi not, even with Paul George, if they don’t bring in a better point guard than Patrick Beverley and a shooting guard with better defense than Lou Williams, I like the Raptors’ chances in a best of seven series against them.