The Toronto Raptors had one of their most disappointing seasons in years, missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season. It was the first time in 10 years that the Raptors finished outside the top four in their division, finishing fifth this year in the Atlantic.
Many still think of what could have been had Kawhi Leonard decided to stay after that 2019 championship run, instead of going back home to Los Angeles to team up with Paul George on the Clippers. As of right now, it looks as though Leonard is happy with his team, especially since the Clippers have advanced to the Conference Finals for the first time in team history and did it without Kawhi for the final two games in the Conference Semis.
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Let us pretend for a minute that Kawhi Leonard decided to stay with the Raptors, and that they had the exact same winning percentage as in 2019, putting them in first in the conference this year, and bumping the Wizards from the playoffs. How far would the team go, and who, if anyone, would stop them?
If the Raptors finished first in the conference this season, they would have played the Boston Celtics in the first round. A healthy Celtics team with Jaylen Brown would have made this series much more competitive, but the Celtics that played in this year’s playoffs have no shot of beating that 2019 Raptors team.
The Celtics lost to the Brooklyn Nets in five games this year, with Jayson Tatum being the only reason why the Celtics were able to win that one game. I believe we would see a similar result in the series, as Tatum could be able to get the Celtics a game, but Kawhi and the rest of the Raptors are too deep of a team to lose more than the one game. The Raptors would take the series in five games to advance to the second round.
If played out like this season’s playoffs have, the Raptors would be playing the Atlanta Hawks in the second round. I believe this is an easier matchup for the Raptors than their second-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019.
It would be a difficult task for the Hawks to be able to defend Kawhi, Lowry, Ibaka, Gasol, and Siakam. The 2019 Raptors are a much stronger team than the 2021 version of the 76ers that lost to the Hawks in seven games. The 76ers do not have a point guard who can shoot, as Ben Simmons was a nonfactor most of the series against Atlanta, while the 2019 Raptors have two scoring point guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. I think the Raptors would take the series in five or six games to advance to the Conference Finals.
Eastern Conference Finals
The Eastern Conference Finals would be a rematch of the 2019 Conference Finals, where the Raptors won four straight to take the series 4-2 over the Milwaukee Bucks. I believe that this year, the series would be even tougher for Toronto. Although the Bucks barely beat a hobbled Nets team, with Kyrie Irving out and an injured James Harden, Milwaukee would still pose the biggest threat to the Raptors in 2021.
This Bucks team is better than that 2019 team because they have a lot more experience now. I do not see Giannis getting shut down like he did in 2019, and that could be an issue for the Raptors. I still believe though that in the end, the Raptors would have the best player in the series, and that is Kawhi Leonard. I see the Raptors clinching it at home in a game seven to advance to the NBA Finals.
Currently the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Clippers are battling it out in the Western Conference Finals. Since in this playoff scenario the Raptors would still have Kawhi, the Clippers would not and therefore have no shot of making it through the first round of the playoffs. So, for this purpose, it would be Phoenix against Toronto in the final.
Assuming Chris Paul is playing, this would be a really close series, as we all know that Kawhi, Booker, Lowry, and Paul would step up in the series and play like the stars they are. The key factors in the series would be Ibaka and Ayton, as whoever could be more dominant than the other could completely shift the series. Another factor is the bench players, as I think that the 2019 Raptors bench was one of the best the NBA had seen in a long time. I see that as the biggest challenge for the Suns, as they would not be able to catch up when both benches are on the floor.
I believe that in the end, the 2019 Toronto Raptors would be the best team in this year’s playoffs if healthy. If playing the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, I see the Raptors clinching the title at home in game six to capture their second NBA title.