The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors will begin life without Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday night when they host the New Orleans Pelicans, who no longer have Anthony Davis and will be missing injured future star Zion Williamson.
Leonard, so dominant in the championship run, left as a free agent to join the Los Angeles Clippers. The focal point of the Raptors will become Pascal Siakam, who signed a four-year, $130-million max contract extension Monday.
“I think people are done overlooking him,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Those days are done. Rightly so, he’ll be a focal point for teams to scheme against. … He’s been blessed with an incredible motor. He’s got a motor not only to play in games with tremendous energy but to do his day-long work with conviction and pace.”
The Pelicans traded Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks. Jrue Holiday figures to be the only returning player in the starting lineup Tuesday that is expected to include Ball, JJ Redick, Ingram and Derrick Favors.
The NBA debut of Williamson won’t come for another 6-to-8 weeks after the No. 1 overall draft pick from Duke underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Monday.
The Pelicans said Williamson went under the knife due to a torn lateral meniscus.
Williams starred at forward in the preseason as he shot 71.4 percent while averaging 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds.
“He’s a smart enough player that whenever he comes back he will be fine,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said prior to the surgery. “I don’t see him falling behind in a situation, where all of a sudden he’s got all of this makeup work to do. … It’s a pretty simple system anyway. He’s a solid, solid guy and very mature for a 19-year-old.”
Without Williamson, the Pelicans will rely on Holiday, Ingram and Ball for scoring with starting center Favors and reserve forward Kenrich Williams helping with rebounding.
“We will move some guys around,” Gentry said. “That’s one of the things about having depth and players who play different positions. We can move guys around and put ourselves in a position where, from a rotation standpoint, we are still pretty solid.”
The Raptors are expected to have a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Siakam and Marc Gasol in most games. Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell also should get some starting assignments.
“Playing with Kawhi was an extreme luxury but it was very challenging,” VanVleet said. “I’ve never played with a guy like that before who was just so good and just so dominant that you just have to get out of the way sometimes.
“When he didn’t play last year we had a lot of fun, I’ll say that. The ball moves, and obviously you want a guy like that when you’re trying to win a championship but … I think the ball moving, everybody sharing it, playing faster, it can be a little fun for sure.”
The Raptors are also without another key player from their championship team in Danny Green, who departed as a free agent for the Lakers.
“He’s very vocal. Very positive. He doesn’t take things personal,” Gasol said of Green. “He’s a veteran guy who has been around but has come up also through hard times and has been coached hard in his previous years (by Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs) and knows what it takes to play at the highest level. And he was very good for us.”
–Field Level Media