For years, the Toronto Raptors’ formula has remained the same. Kyle Lowry. DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valanciunas. Surrounding pieces. Lose in the playoffs (usually to the Cleveland Cavaliers). This year, they’ve done what fans have been calling for for years: they made a major change.
DeMar DeRozan and young center Jakob Poeltl were shipped off to San Antonio in exchange for Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.
There it is. The big splash you’ve all been waiting for. Kawhi Leonard, top-five player the last time we saw him healthy, is a Raptor.
Acquiring Leonard was obviously the highlight of the Raps’ offseason. Other signings were mostly insignificant:
- Re-signed Fred VanVleet to a two-year, $18 million deal.
- Signed Greg Monroe to a one-year, $2.2 million deal.
- Signed Deng Adel, Eric Moreland, Kay Felder, Kyle Collinsworth and Lorenzo Brown to partially guaranteed contracts.
- Signed Jordan Loyd to a two-way contract.
- Signed Chris Boucher to a training camp deal.
Bringing back VanVleet, a finalist for last season’s Sixth Man of the Year award, was huge. He’s a very capable point guard who had a great season for Toronto last year, averaging 8.6 points and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range, anchoring the Raptors’ elite bench unit.
Signing Monroe was an OK, but probably not super important, move. Monroe is really good at two things: rebounding and post scoring. The problem is, he gives you zero outside of that, which makes him a relic in today’s versatility-fueled NBA.
Another significant change for the Raps was their head-coaching switch. Assistant Nick Nurse was promoted to replace reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, who signed with the Detroit Pistons after being fired by Toronto. Nurse is unproven as an NBA head coach but is credited with leading the Raptors’ ameliorated offense. He’s probably no Casey, but we really don’t know yet.
The Raptors made their move in acquiring Leonard. If Leonard is healthy and present in mind and body (i.e. he wants to play and gives all his effort), then Toronto should be right up there with the Boston Celtics for the title of best team in the Eastern Conference.
The thing is, we don’t know if Kawhi is still Kawhi. Either we just saw him miss a year and a half with a mysterious injury, or we watched as he quit on and forced his way out of his team. Which, by the way, was the San Antonio Spurs. It wasn’t the Sacramento Kings. He forced his way out of a stable and intelligent organization, wishing to leave the greatest coach in NBA history. Both scenarios are pretty rough.
Obviously, the best-case scenario for the Raptors is that Leonard felt unhappy and isolated in San Antonio and is pleased that he was traded. We know Toronto wasn’t his preferred destination, but perhaps the Raptors can sell him on it the way the Oklahoma City Thunder got Paul George to buy in. It should be easier to sell a player on the Raptors than the Thunder; Toronto is a cool city, and the atmosphere at Raptors games, especially in the playoffs, is bananas.
The thing is, we don’t know Kawhi Leonard. Who even is he? He’s a quiet dude who has always kept to himself. He’s a superstar-level basketball player who seems to hate the attention that title brings with it.
But, like, also, what the hell was this?
Kawhi Leonard: "I'm a fun guy"
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) September 24, 2018
The jokes and memes over this are overplayed and, frankly, pretty dickish toward Leonard. But it’s weird, right? The laugh, the deadpan and straight-faced “I’m a fun guy.” It just feels forced and uncomfortable. Leonard legit might be a robot.
Raptors fans are all the way in on Kawhi Leonard. Which they should be! Fans tend to be optimistic. Taking this risk was the right move by Toronto, but it’s a risk nonetheless. It is fair to point out that it’s possible it doesn’t work out.
If it does work out, though, this could be awesome. Imagine the Raps making the Conference Finals – or even NBA Finals. Leonard is an MVP candidate. The Raptors are a deep, elite team on both ends. Leonard loves it. He re-signs. He’s an instant legend in Toronto. This could be really great for all parties involved.
With Leonard healthy, this team should be tremendous. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are all really good defenders or on their way to being really good defenders.
This is a really deep team, too. The Raps can comfortably go 10-to-12 deep with their rotation, which is really valuable during the regular season. Like, this is a seriously deep rotation:
Kyle Lowry/Fred VanVleet/Delon Wright
Danny Green/CJ Miles/Norman Powell
Kawhi Leonard/OG Anunoby
Serge Ibaka/Pascal Siakam
Jonas Valanciunas/Greg Monroe
The Raptors can run some extremely fun and defensively elite smaller lineups, like Lowry-Green-Anunoby-Leonard-Ibaka/Siakam.
Leonard buying in and being happy in Toronto is far from a sure thing; the guy’s an enigma, and we really don’t know how his brain works. But Toronto is, without a doubt, right to take a shot on him. He’s a top-five talent in the NBA, a legitimate two-way superstar. A Raptors team with Kawhi Leonard back at his borderline-MVP level could make the mighty Golden State Warriors seriously sweat.