The Toronto Raptors begin the defense of their NBA title without Kawhi Leonard but with a formidable roster built to enable them to make dramatic changes next summer.
2018-19 record: 58-24, won NBA championship
Key additions: Cameron Payne (free agency), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (free agency), Stanley Johnson (free agency)
Key departures: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Jeremy Lin
Sometimes the planets are aligned, the breaks fall your way and the basketball gods show a bit of favouritism. And, of course, you work hard and use the magic provided by a franchise player to put yourself in position for all of the above to happen.
Such was the case for the 2018-19 Raptors, who cashed in with their one and only year with Kawhi Leonard and reached the NBA promised land. It was a transformational year in every way, as the franchise finally made good on another great regular season, quickened the basketball pulse of an entire country and won their historic first title.
The championship seed was planted by general manager Masai Ujiri, who wisely severed the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan combination the previous summer, adding Leonard in a gutsy move that changed the mindset of the club. Kawhi brought championship experience from the Spurs and remained healthy following a frosty break-up and persistent injury which put his image in question.
He delivered on all counts, playing strong enough (and long enough) to help Toronto win 58 games, then chopped down the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference playoffs, saving enough to oust the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Leonard collected another Finals MVP, joining elite company in the process.
Toronto also received a breakout season from young swingman Pascal Siakam, who became a primary option and improved across the board. Lowry meshed with Leonard, averaging 8.7 assists, while Serge Ibaka had not looked better in years. A mid-season trade brought Marc Gasol, whose shooting helped space the floor. Reserve guard Fred VanVleet showcased clutch shooting against Milwaukee and in the Finals, especially in the Game 6 title-clincher.
Yes, the Raptors were indeed aided by injuries to Kevin Durant (who missed all but a handful of minutes in the Finals) and Klay Thompson (who missed one game and suffered a knee injury midway through another). For a team that always found a way to come up short in the past, however, the Raptors made no apologies.
Yes, they knew. Despite all the goodwill he generated and the championship he helped win, despite a country’s pleas and the chance to return to a contender intact, Kawhi’s stay was brief. Deep in their hearts, the Raptors suspected as much when they traded for him last summer.
Could he have stayed? Well, sure. Toronto is a world-class city, the Raptors’ medical staff catered to his needs and Ujiri is a superb team builder. What’s not to like? Except, Leonard was always heading home to southern California. It just made too much sense. Los Angeles had a pair of teams built to win now, the sunshine (of course) never hurts and the money was there waiting.
So Leonard, after carefully weighing up his options in free agency, thanked the Raptors and Toronto on his way out the door for all the good times – however short and sweet they were.
His departure left a massive void that Toronto could not possibly fill this summer. Where else would they find a player strong enough mentally and physically to carry a team?
The Raptors – who were not really in position financially to make a strong bid for another A-list free agent – chose to keep the club intact. They added a few pieces on the margins to take their chances in the East against the usual contenders.
Besides, the Raptors are built to make dramatic changes in the summer of 2020. That is when nearly every big contract (except Norman Powell’s $10m) expires and they can build around Siakam.
He is sure to get an extension at some point, maybe before the season begins, and maybe for the max. Essentially, the Raptors will run it back with Siakam assuming the role of Leonard and see how far it takes them.
Gasol chose to exercise his option year for 2019-20, which was a no-brainer since he stands to make $25m next season as his career wanes. The Raptors knew they would be on the hook for two years of Gasol when they traded for him.
A few reports surfaced about the Wizards potentially poaching Ujiri this summer from the Raptors, but that was never actually the case; Ujiri holds massive sway within the organisation, is paid handsomely and enjoys Toronto.
Ujiri is in a unique situation anyway. Two summers ago, he pulled the trigger on a trade that helped win a championship.
This season he will still have a strong and cohesive club that could win the East again.
Next summer, he will have plenty of flexibility to remake the roster.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Powell2daPeople
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