It’s been a defining season for the Toronto Raptors’ management team. In what has been the culmination of over five years’ experience — including a traded home-grown star, a coaching change, countless playoff heartaches, and some encouraging storylines — Masai Ujiri has assembled a team that looks poised to succeed in nearly every facet of the post-season.
With a lethal combination of experience and talent, Toronto now has as complete a team as they’ve ever had for the playoffs. It’s what first-year Raptor Kawhi Leonard has been preparing for all year. With fresh legs, Leonard has proven over his career that he is more often than not the best player on the floor. And as Raptors fans know — having fallen victim to teams with better elite players in the past — this aspect of the playoffs is so often key to winning a series, and going all the way.
Now the Raptors and their fans have just two more days to catch their collective breath and ask some soul-searching questions about the transition from regular season to post-season.
How Will the Raptors Handle Success?
It seems like an odd question to ask — to assume success and everything, considering — but it’s one that needs asking. In the past, the Raptors oftentimes found themselves complacent with simply competing and putting forth a good effort instead of reaching for the ultimate goal of winning each and every series in the playoffs.
This was the main focus of Ujiri over the course of the season, beginning last July with the franchise-altering trade for Leonard and Danny Green, a battle-tested duo that were the driving force behind some of the greatest moments in recent Spurs’ post-season history. In the new acquisitions, coach Nick Nurse has poise and experience among the talent those players brought with them. Ujiri then pulled the trigger with this same model in mind at the trade deadline, bringing in Marc Gasol, a truly cerebral centre in the modern NBA whose years in Memphis leave little doubt on his resume.
The question then centres on the players returning from last year’s run: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam. How will they react when the Raptors are up 3-1, facing a team with its back against the wall, fighting for their playoff lives? Will they relax? Or will the combined fighting will and playoff experience of Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and, yes, even Serge Ibaka, provide enough support to stay focused and put the series away convincingly?
How Does Nick Nurse’s Experience with Toronto help them through Adversity?
Nurse’s moment has arrived. After steering an injury-riddled team to 58 wins; after five years steering the team’s most talented and promising players behind the scenes; after whispering in Dwane Casey’s ear prior to taking over, Nurse is now in control of the Raptors. And those five years have afforded him the trust of his players, something a fresh face would’ve never had the benefit of in just a single season.
Nurse is famously the architect of the Raptors pass-happy, mid-range eliminating, three-point obsessed offense that seems to fit the current roster perfectly. Nurse appears to have the ear of Ujiri, who has made the moves to support his head coach in ways that will ultimately help Nurse come playoff time. Nurse now has the tools to put together the rotation of his dreams — dangerous both in transition and the half-court, with speed and smarts combining in a way we’ve never seen in Toronto.
Being with the organization for going on six years is absolutely a positive. Assimilating new players to established tradition is easier when you have the type of infrastructure built up over that time. More importantly, it gives Nurse the confidence to believe in what he’s doing, that it’s something that actually works. When coaches second guess their methods, nobody wins. For a first year coach, Nurse’s pre-existing experience in Toronto will certainly be beneficial when his players are looking for answers.
Who are the Necessary Players beyond Toronto’s First Seven?
The consensus on the playoff rotation surrounds seven players right now — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka will all see big minutes. VanVleet obviously works extremely well in closing lineups, and Serge Ibaka provides, among other things, a critical piece in pick-and-roll defense if things get sticky.
With seven players, however, minutes will be high for everyone on board. The team need will need eight or nine to stay fresh for 16 wins and as many as 28 games. OG Anunoby is the next pick to get minutes based on his natural abilities as a defender, his small-ball four utility, and his periphery shooting ability — something that’s dropped off enough recently to warrant concern. Aside from shooting, OG has proven to be great as a cutter when sharing the floor with Gasol as well. But not to the extent of the next guy — and possibly the most important bench player after VanVleet — on the roster, Norman Powell.
If OG provides defense, Powell will need to provide offense, and it’s exactly what he’s been doing brilliantly since the All-Star break. In 23 games since the late February return, Powell has been a lightning rod for offensive efficiency. Posting a field goal percentage of .497, he’s drilled 31 of 64 three pointers — good for nearly 49 percent. The most encouraging sign of Norm’s potential post-season success hasn’t been what he’s doing on the court however; it’s what he’s not doing — or more specifically, what he isn’t forcing.
Powell struggled mightily last season in attempting to emulate DeMar DeRozan as the bench’s version of a high-usage ISO scorer. This wasn’t his natural game, and his play suffered all season long because of it. This year, Powell’s been dialling back that desire and instead is funnelling his energy into taking his offense in stride. Just based on a simple eye test, the difference is monumental. Norm’s decision making has made a full 180-turn and he’s now helping the bench in ways that were markedly absent earlier this season.
How Much Will the Raptors Need Kyle Lowry’s Scoring?
In last season’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry did a lot of heavy lifting in getting points on the board. In fact, outside of he and DeRozan, just Jonas Valanciunas scored over ten points per game. For most of this season, Lowry’s scoring has taken a back seat in lieu of a pass-first approach to leading the offensive attack. Along with a few more reliable scoring options (including a revitalized Serge Ibaka), Lowry has more ball-handling and play-making partners next to him in the starting lineup to help facilitate the offense.
No longer will opposing team defenses focus on trapping the Raptors’ two guards in the back court. Instead Lowry will have a reliable front court that can take immense pressure off him to get open on the perimeter. It’s tough to top the shooting efficiency he displayed last year (he posted a .659 TS%), but only 53 percent of his shots were three point attempts. Expect that number to rise in this year’s post-season.
Toronto also now has two more triple-threat scorers the team can rely on in Leonard and Green (plus Gasol, VanVleet, and, sure, Siakam), so Lowry’s scoring will be a luxury rather than a necessity. That means if he’s scoring the ball, it can only mean good things for the Raptors.
What are the Expectations for the Raptors?
Let’s just get this one into the open: expectations are astronomical for Masai’s new-look Raptors. He’s proven to be a master-class executive — possibly one of the best in the league — and he traded one of the most beloved stars in Raptors’ history on a fantastic “swing for the fences” type deal with the goal of winning in mind. People rightfully had mixed feelings at that moment. However, each move Ujiri has made since last summer’s strike out against LeBron James has been in that same vein, from signing depth in the form of G League stars to trading a huge chunk of the team’s young core for Marc Gasol.
I trust Ujiri. I trust his track record, and his record as an executive — which sits above .640 for his nine-year career in Denver and Toronto. Therefore, if he pushes his chips into the middle of the table, I’m along for the ride. Personally, I love what I see on this roster. It came at a huge cost, as all great things do, but we have a legitimate chance at witnessing a title shot in Toronto, in 2019. Masai did all of this with the knowledge that his best player could very likely leave this summer, and in his wake pull the entire structure down to the ground with him.
Instead of playing it safe with Leonard, Masai went full-frontal, in a true “F--- Brooklyn” type moment of ballsy-ness, and bet on himself. He bet on his ability to give Leonard everything he needed to rehabilitate in ways San Antonio couldn’t; for the weather to turn in just the right ways come spring; for an almost entirely new team to be just as good, if not better, than last season’s record-breaking squad; and for Kyle Lowry — the last remaining leader from the golden age of Raptors Basketball — to return with a focused mind and a desire to play and win for Toronto. In short, Masai bet on an NBA championship.
It was all a monumental bet, but here we are. It’s ten months later, and we’re looking ahead at a promising playoff run. There are in fact a million questions that we all have, but these are just a few that I think a lot of fans will be asking between now and the start of the 2019 NBA Playoffs.