Toronto’s dream finally came to fruition last season as the Raptors were able to win their first ever NBA Championship.
What followed was the most eventful offseason in NBA history, and to say the landscape of the league has changed may be an understatement. Entering this season, 12 teams will be taking the court with completely new identities, one of them being the Raptors.
A portion of the core that brought us our first banner, namely Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and shooting guard Danny Green, has departed for Hollywood, however, the Raptors have moved on, and the new season will bring on exciting challenges, decisions and opportunities.
Lets dive into some of the biggest Raptors headlines heading into year 25.
Who steps up to fill in for Kawhi?
Leonard’s departure creates an opening of around 20 shot opportunities per game, and the reigning NBA Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam should receive the largest chunk. The 25-year-old forward is primed to take the next step into becoming an all-star, and the Raptors have shown they are ready to invest in him long-term, inking him to a four year, $130-million maximum contract extension.
Aside from Siakam, don’t be surprised to see Norman Powell be another player who takes advantage of the opportunity. After an amazing playoff run and solid season, Powell will look to breakout as a scorer and put up around 15 PPG. He’s impressed many in the preseason, including Nick Nurse, who recently said Powell is “hitting everything.” OG Anunoby should see the remainder of the shots as he looks to bounce-back from an injury-riddled season.
What will be the team’s biggest strengths?
Last year, Toronto’s stellar defence won them a championship, and after being a top-5 in defence each of the last five years, there is no question that the Raptors will look to take on a defensive identity this season.
Toronto’s core is full of scrappy players who excel both ways, such as Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and OG Annunoby, who was one of the league’s best perimeter defenders before falling to injuries last season.
Toronto is a team that will look to shut opponents down on the perimeter and dominate the boards in order to launch into transition attacks. After hearing stories of Nick Nurse calling out Rondae Hollis Jefferson in practice for his lack of defensive effort, don’t be surprised to see the Raptors fully assume the identity of doing the dirty work to win games.
What will be the team’s biggest
Entering the 2019 season, the Raptors have downgraded when it comes to their bench. This is the least depth Toronto has had in 4 years, however, this does not necessarily mean it is bad depth.
It will be exciting to so see how the Raptors use Fred Van Vleet off the bench, especially if Nick Nurse wants to prepare him for a potential Lowry departure. Expect more minutes for him and an increased offensive load.
Although just turning 30, Serge Ibaka has shown no signs of slowing down and appears to still have good years ahead of him. He will be a huge defensive presence off the bench at backup centre. Coach Nick Nurse may also experiment by putting out a supersized lineup with a Gasol and Ibaka frontcourt to combat the size of the top teams in the East.
The biggest depth player to look out for this season will be Chris Boucher. The Québec native is a former G-League MVP and Defensive Player of the year—in the same season. He will be a great fit for the Raptors’ defensive identity.
More importantly, with Powell being inserted into the starting lineup, Boucher has the potential to replace Powell’s role off the bench and provide solid two-way play. Look for Boucher to be the bench player that rises into a fan favourite à la Bismack Biyombo.
What’s going to happen with
The truth is, Masai Ujiri will likely look to trade away pieces from the championship core, as a lot of them are on expiring deals. Although competitive this season, the Raptors are going through a slight retooling as they look to plan for the future around Siakam and Van Vleet.
Kyle Lowry signing a 1-year extension means two things: first, it pushes back his free-agency by a year, and second, it makes him more attractive in the trade market. The fixed term and cost will get plenty of teams calling to inquire for his services.
Lowry’s stock is currently the highest it’s ever been thanks to his playoff brilliance, and with Fred VanVleet waiting for the opportunity to start, moving Lowry may be a strategical move to prepare for the future.
Look for Ujiri to shop Lowry to a team in need of a point guard, who is willing to overpay. A possibility could be the Miami Heat, as they have expressed interest in acquiring a point guard to pair with Jimmy Butler and ascending shooting guard Tyler Herro. Regardless of how he plays to start the year, it seems as though Lowry’s days as a Raptor are coming to an end.
No, the Raptors are not entering the season with a big chance of repeating as NBA champions, however, year 25 will be defined by one word: opportunity. Toronto’s roster is loaded with players who have been waiting for the opportunity to take big leaps this year and show the world how skilled they are.
In a season where the city looks to honour the franchise’s roots, the Raptors have the opportunity to shock the world, albeit a small one. The abundance of trade assets also means that Masai Ujiri once again has the opportunity to make moves that shake the league.
No, it’s not year 24 anymore, but there’s no doubt that year 25 will be special, and it all begins when Toronto raises the championship banner on Oct. 22.