With the NBA season set to return next month, all eyes are looking towards the NBA playoffs. Many consider the Milwaukee Bucks, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers as the top three favorites to come out of Disney World with the Larry O’Brien trophy. Meanwhile, other teams may emerge as dark horse contenders to emerge victorious in the “bubble” games in Orlando, Florida. One them is the defending champion Toronto Raptors.
When the Raptors lost reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers via free agency, not a lot of people gave them a chance to successfully defend their throne. However, with the way they have played this season, nobody should count out Toronto to repeat as NBA champs.
With Leonard’s departure, many expected the Canadian-based squad to, at most, hover around the middle of the pack. Nobody predicted them to maintain their standing as one of the elite teams in the NBA. Instead, under the leadership of Coach of the Year front-runner Nick Nurse, Toronto finished as the 2nd best team in the East and with the 3rd best record in the entire league prior to the season’s suspension. They are three games above the no. 3 seed Boston Celtics and will likely hold on to the no. 2 spot in the conference.
Losing Leonard in itself should have been a big blow to them. Instead, they are just as good as they were without the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. What makes them more dangerous is that majority of their key rotation players have missed time due to injuries at some point during the season. From All-Stars Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, to Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell, every one of their core championship pieces from last year have spent time on the sidelines.
The injuries have given their younger guys the chance to step up. Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all had opportunities to play sizable roles for them when some of the veterans sat out. They have adapted a “next man up” mentality that allows everyone to contribute when needed. This should come in handy in the event that someone goes down during the “bubble” games in Orlando.
Their “next man up” approach also shows that Toronto is very much aware of its identity as a team. They may not have a bonafide superstar such as a Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Raptors play as a tight-knit group. Every single player on the roster understands his role and plays it to the best of his ability.
All these factors should give them a further advantage with players from other teams reportedly opting out of the season’s return in Disney World. Other teams may need an adjustment period to bring in their new replacements. That shouldn’t be a problem with Toronto.
Though just a middle of the pack offensive team, the Raptors play as disruptive brand of defense that netted them the 2nd best defensive rating in the league, per NBA.com. Still, Toronto employs an offense that is heavily reliant on ball movement. They may struggle at times on that side of the ball, but their top-notch defense should be their main calling card to go back-to-back. As the saying goes: “Defense wins championships.”
In addition, the Raptors have reportedly already settled down in Orlando and already began their training camp. This extra time to adjust to the “bubble” lifestyle as early as now should give them an edge as well.
Moreover, it seems like every one of them is going to play. So far, no reports indicate that any one of them is going to sit out. Thus, it looks like the 2018-19 NBA champions are ready to defend their crown in full form.