What championship hangover?
The departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, expiring contracts for Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, plus the (perceived) perception that the East is a two-team race, had lots of pundits brushing aside the Raptors’ chances for success this season.
One Kyle Lowry extension and a Raptor-free Go Daddy spokesperson announcement later, Toronto’s back on the map, baybeeeee!!
If we learned anything from last season’s playoff run, it’s that matchups matter. Against Orlando and Philadelphia, Gasol was the matchup advantage over Nikola Vucevic and just enough of an advantage to slow down Joel Embiid. With Milwaukee, Kawhi guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo was the matchup that swung the series in Toronto’s favour. In the Finals, the Raptors arguably matched up better with Golden State than either of Milwaukee or Philly.
But this is a new season. The smell of champagne is gone. The sound of Kawhi’s laugh can only be heard echoing in the deep recesses of our minds. The sight of Danny Green sprinting for a chase-down block (as a Raptor) is only viewable in Youtube form. Looking forward to this season and how the current roster matches up, let’s examine how other East playoff hopefuls have done this summer.
In - Wes Matthews, Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez, Thanasis Antetokounmpo
Out - Malcolm Brogdon (IND), Pau Gasol (POR), Thon Maker (DET), Tony Snell (DET), Matthew Dellavedova (CLE), Nikola Mirotic (EUR), John Henson (CLE)
It seems harsh to type, but the Bucks really blew it last season. Milwaukee quickly turned lukewarm preseason expectations into post-season title dreams, thanks to a hot start (8-1), combined with an outstanding offense (#1 Offensive Rating and #2 in three-pointers made), and sublime defense (#4 Defensive Rating). They had the roster construction to get by Toronto and Golden State. Alas, they couldn’t get it done and the Larry OB now resides north of the border. Not only do the Bucks enter the season with heightened expectations, the Summer of 2021 — when Antetokounmpo is an unrestricted free agent — looms large.
Milwaukee figures to be a regular season juggernaut again. While Korver’s shooting and the veteran presence of Matthews and Lopez (the other one) should be welcome additions, Brogdon was, arguably, the second-best player in the ECF and the losses of Snell, Maker, and Mirotic cannot be overstated. The Raptors may not have Kawhi to throw at Giannis, but Anunoby could have held his own (and the additions of Johnson and RHJ don’t hurt either). The players that really caused fits for Milwaukee — Ibaka (regular season) and FVV (post FVV Jr.) — are still here. In a hypothetical playoff series, the Bucks should prevail because they’ll be able to get more stops than the Raptors. But it would not surprise this Raptors Homer if Toronto pulled off the upset — making Antetokounmpo consider, if you can’t beat ‘em...
In - Raul Neto, Trey Burke, Josh Richardson, Al Horford, Kyle O’Quinn
Out - Jimmy Butler (MIA), T.J. McConnell (IND), Mike Muscala (OKC), Greg Monroe (N/A), J.J. Redick (NOP)
Ooooooo, the Sixers added Al Horford and Josh Richardson.
Don’t get me wrong. The Sixers were four bounces away from forcing overtime in a Game 7 where they had the momentum. Yes, adding Horford elevates an average defense (#15 DRtg) to a great one, while also affording Joel Embiid the chance to manage minutes.
However, where’s the scoring coming from? Their gains on the defensive end will be met with struggles on the offensive end — at the very least, they won’t be 4th in points per game again. Just as Kawhi was Toronto’s release valve on offense, Jimmy played the same role in Philadelphia. You could say the same with the departure of floor-spacing three-point threats, Green and Redick. Similar to Milwaukee, I’ll go chalk and pick the Sixers to win a hypothetical series, but these teams match more closely than people believe. Philly’s ability to throw big guards on FVV is negated by Toronto’s flexibility to have OG / RHJ / Pascal defend Ben Simmons. A rematch in the playoffs would be tons of fun... and age me by 15 years!
In - Kemba Walker, Carsen Edwards, Enes Kanter, Tacko Fall
Out - Aron Baynes (PHX), Al Horford (PHI), Kyrie Irving (BKN), Marcus Morris (NYK), Terry Rozier (CHO)
Let me get this straight. Boston replaced a dynamic offensive force with defensive limitations... with a dynamic offensive force who has defensive limitations. Their centre rotation has gone from Horford/Baynes to Kanter/Theis. The Celtics also under-performed at 49-33 (projected win-loss was 52-30, according to Basketball Reference). Brad Stevens has earned himself a mulligan on last season’s coaching, but we just got a good look at this team during the World Cup. Walker / Jayson Tatum / Marcus Smart / Jaylen Brown all had their moments, but a 7th-place finish in a tournament that most NBA players skipped is... not ideal.
This is the playoff matchup we’ve always been pining for and would definitely be worth the price of admission. Last season, they split the four games, with the home team prevailing each time. The loss of Horford, especially with their questionable front court depth, will hurt Boston’s chances for success this season - especially against Toronto.
In - Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren
Out - Bojan Bogdanovic (UTH), Darren Collison (Retired), Tyreke Evans (Banned til 2021), Wes Matthews (MIL), Cory Joseph (SAC), Thaddeus Young (CHI)
If you’re doing a double-take on the Pacer departures, you’re not alone. Losing a sharpshooter like Bogdanovic and a defensive stalwart in Young would be tough on any team (and a very familiar narrative for Raptors fans). But add in the retirement of one guard and banishment of another, and you’ve got quite the damaging off-season. Picking up the forgotten point guards of the top two East teams is very helpful. Warren can fill the Bogdanovic role as shot-maker who gives up just as many points on defense. Lamb, well, let’s not talk about him.
All in all, Indiana’s success will depend on Victor Oladipo — how long the Pacers can survive without him and how they’ll fit when he returns. Even when ‘Dipo returns, Toronto should have the upper-hand. The loss of Young — one of the only players to really bother Siakam last season — forces Indiana to play more Domantas Sabonis (hello layups/dunks) and reduces Myles Turner’s effectiveness. One of the best defensive teams last season (#3 DRtg; #1 Opp PPG) will take a step backwards this season... and the Raptors will pounce.
In - Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard, Tyler Herro
Out - Tyler Johnson (PHX), Josh Richardson (PHI), Dwyane Wade (Retired), Hassan Whiteside (POR)
Here’s another defensive-minded team that saw quite the overhaul this summer. The difference here is the loss of Miami’s defensive beast isn’t as pronounced, considering Whiteside’s questionable work ethic and Bam Adebayo’s ascension. Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league, but even he couldn’t work any offensive magic with the roster (#26 ORtg and PPG). The addition of Butler reaps multiple rewards. The Heat now have a go-to scorer when the offense stalls (and also in the clutch), and a gym rat whose leadership will push the team to greater heights. Having a star like Butler could also bring another into the fold.
Overall, this is a deep team (solid backups at each position) that has a strong defensive identity (#2 Opp PPG) and superstar to lead the way. Toronto may have won six of their last eight matchups, but six of those games have been decided by three points or less (or went to overtime). Again, Spoelstra is good and we’ve seen what Butler can do in the clutch (don’t forget his Raptor killer days in Chicago). Toronto will end up with a better regular season record, but this is the first round matchup I’d be dreading (assuming Milwaukee and Philadelphia were in the later rounds). [whispers] Miami in 7.
In - Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Taurean Prince, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler
Out - DeMarre Carroll (SAS), Allen Crabbe (ATL), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (TOR), D’Angelo Russell (GSW), Ed Davis (UTH), Jared Dudley (LAL), Kenneth Faried (N/A)
Now this could be a dangerous team... in 2020... if Durant is 80% what he used to be... and Jordan isn’t starting over Jarrett Allen... and Irving isn’t stunting the growth of Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie like he did with Tatum and Brown. (Would you like to know how I really feel?) There is good reason to be excited in Brooklyn, especially with the strides Dinwiddie and Levert made last season and the added shooting Prince can provide.
In all honesty, this was a middling team (#14 DRtg; #15 PPG; 42-40 record) that upgraded their All-Star guard, but sacrificed depth at the wing - the most important position in today’s NBA. Toronto matches up well with Brooklyn’s squad, especially with their stable of long, athletic, defensive-minded guards / wings. If this were a playoff series, Toronto could finish them off in 5.
In - Al-Farouq Aminu
Out - Jerian Grant (N/A)
While most (all?) teams experienced varying degrees of activity, the Magic basically said, “nah, we good.” That was fine for the (then) defending champion Golden State Warriors, but not so inspiring for a borderline East playoff team. Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac are generating some buzz and Aaron Gordon is looking like a prime candidate to make the leap this season. But you can say the same for Anunoby, Powell, and even Terence Davis. Toronto handled this lineup quite easily after a Game 1 hiccup during the playoffs. The script should play out the same this year (maybe less D.J. Augustin and more Markelle Fultz), with Gasol owning Vucevic and Siakam figuring out the Magic defense.
In - Derrick Rose, Tony Snell, Joe Johnson, Thon Maker
Out - Reggie Bullock (NYK), Jose Calderon (N/A), Wayne Ellington (NYK), Stanley Johnson (TOR), Glenn Robinson (LAL)
#11 DRtg; #7 Opp PPG; #25 PPG
Detroit’s acquisition of Joe Johnson and Tony Snell — seasoned Raptor killers — further validates what we’ve known for a year. The karma gods will bless Dwane Casey with all the wins against Toronto, while the Raptors will forever have a championship!