The long wait is over, and the playoffs — what every Raptors fan has been waiting for since the team acquired Kawhi Leonard last summer — are finally here!
Well, almost. The NBA always gives its teams a few days of load management before the dance begins, which gives us some time to collect our thoughts on the regular season.
Here are five things that, in my mind, really defined what this Raptors regular season was all about:
Change is Hard. Change is Good.
When the aforementioned trade went down, many Raptors fans were conflicted: We all loved DeMar DeRozan as a person, and for his commitment to the Raptors, but we could certainly see the upside that bringing in a player like Kawhi Leonard — even as a one-season hired gun — offered.
Making that transition wasn’t easy for us as fans, but imagine how much harder it must have been for Kyle Lowry, DeRozan’s best friend; Jonas Valanciunas, who’d played with DeMar from his very first game; and everyone else who’d been part of the Raptors’ most successful stretch in franchise history. Adjusting to the new players must have been difficult.
And what about the coaching change? And then what about the massive mid-season change that saw Valanciunas, C.J. Miles and Delon Wright shipped out and Marc Gasol come in — and eventually take sole possession of the starting centre spot from Serge Ibaka?
That’s a lotta change! Yet the Raptors weathered the storm (and a bunch of injuries, more on that below), won 58 games, ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating and have home court in the playoffs against everyone except Milwaukee.
The changes were hard, but ultimately very, very good.
Health Can’t Be Overstated
The Raptors were dealt multiple injuries this year that kept key players out for stretches, and much like the roster overhaul, it’s impressive they were able to play as well as they did and win as many games as they did dealing with so many injuries.
But it really does make you keenly aware of the importance of health on a team’s success. The Raptors have been lucky in this era; Lowry lost 20+ games in 2017; Jonas Valanciunas missed 20 in 2016; DeRozan lost 20+ in 2015; and DeMarre Carroll and Delon Wright also suffered serious injuries in their time here. But, that’s pretty much it. Over a five-year span, that’s... damn near incredible! Of course there were other small injuries here and there, that’s the nature of the business, but that’s an amazing stretch of health.
So we should be pretty grateful for that, and even for this year — for all the missed games, for all the frustration we all felt at hearing about the latest thumb injury, the team is healthy now (minus Patrick McCaw), and none of the injuries were catastrophic or season-threatening.
And hopefully, the team has exterminated the injury bug and can look forward to a healthy postseason.
So “Load Management” Is Now a Thing
The Raptors were very careful to cater to Kawhi Leonard’s health needs this season, which gave birth to the phrase “load management”... which in turn gave birth to six million jokes about it on Twitter.
I remain torn on the whole thing. On the one hand, I support Kawhi the player (or any player) that doesn’t feel right, that needs rest or time off or whatever, to get right — to protect themselves and their careers.
On the other hand, I feel the frustration as a Raptors fan because I want to see my team healthy, because I worry that Leonard missing so many games has affected the chemistry of the team, that they’re not connected enough as a group heading into the playoffs, that if he’d just played in thee or four more games, maybe the Raptors would have earned home court over the Bucks...
In the long run, though, even if the Raptors were to lose a hypothetical Game 7 on the road against Milwaukee, I have to think the load management approach was a good thing. It showed Leonard how important he was to the team, that they wanted to do everything take care of him and protect him; the organization made him feel comfortable and valued, and he should be fresh as a daisy for the postseason... and maybe, even if Leonard doesn’t stick around, it showed other future free agents that this is a team that knows how to take care of star players. That can’t be a bad thing, right?
At the start of the year, I indicated that what I was most looking forward to seeing from the new-look Toronto Raptors was improved perimeter defense and improved three-point shooting. You know, the Anti-DeRozan package. (Love U DeMar!)
It took a while — and, you know, a pretty big mid-season trade — for the latter to materialize, but it sure did in the second half of the season. Since the All-Star break, the Raptors are the number one team in the league in both three-point shooting and true shooting; in what is certainly a connected stat, they’re also fourth in assists and fifth in assist percentage. We’ll see if it holds up in the postseason, but the Raptors are a greater threat from downtown than they’ve ever been, and that should free them from the sluggish, one-dimensional offense we’ve seen them turtle into in past postseasons.
As for the defense, if you asked me to grade the team based on eye test, I’d probably give them a C. It just seemed like there were too many nights where the Raptors gave up too many open three-point looks, and far, far too many nights when their defense broke down at the point of attack and quick guards got into the lane to knock down easy floaters or kick passes out to open shooters.
But as noted above, they rank fifth in defensive rating at 106.8, and they’re also fifth in opponent field goal percentage (44.9%) and fourth in opponent effective field goal percentage (50.2%); they’re even a not-terrible 11th in opponent 3-point percentage (34.5%). So perhaps they’re not as bad as they look — or, more likely, my brain is predisposed to focus on the negative and that’s all I remember.
All of which is to say — the defensive and shooting improvements I was looking for all came to pass, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
A Season-Long Coming Out Party for Pascal
Every time I wrote a Five Thoughts column this season, I could have included a thought about Pascal Siakam. In fact there were multiple columns that could have been Five Pascal Siakam Thoughts! I did not have this in any preseason prediction or expectation; I didn’t even think he’d be a starter! I didn’t see this coming at all.
The stats are all incredible and you should check out Dylan’s rundown of Siakam’s MIP case for a deep dive on those. For me, what I’ll remember most is how much fun he’s been to watch. The run-outs and the touchdown passes from Kyle Lowry that the defense just can’t react to in time. The unguardable spin moves. The consistent three-point shooting! (A sentence I most definitely didn’t expect to be typing.) 44 points! A game winner! Seeing the attention he got from media here and in the U.S., and never losing that giant smile of his...
Kawhi Leonard has been fantastic. Danny Green has given us more than we could have possibly expected. Kyle Lowry is the heart and soul of the team. But Pascal Siakam... he just brings a level of joy that no one else does. It’s been amazing to watch.
Now we head off into the most important postseason in franchise history. The team is in great shape, with a mostly healthy roster and, all things considered, a favourable seeding in terms of matchups. The team appeared to come together as it beat up on poor competition the past few weeks (Charlotte prayers being answered notwithstanding), with both the offense and defense humming nicely.
Any dread or unease that I feel — and I do feel it — is entirely in my own mind, a result of past poor playoff performances. This team... is not those teams. It’s better. I should feel more confident in this group than any other Raptor team... but until I see those demons exorcised, I don’t think that unease will ever go away.
Nevertheless, I am excited (and maybe a little scared) (like maybe 98%?) for the postseason to begin. Let’s go!