The last time the basketball world saw Toronto, they were celebrating the Raptors’ first-ever NBA title and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard was wearing his “Bored Man Gets Paid” T-shirt at the city’s parade. The Raptors were on top of the world and the entire country of Canada was going crazy with its “We The North” pride.
Just weeks later, the mood was deflated as the new hero Leonard was already gone after having just arrived in town the previous off-season. Kawhi was L.A. bound with the hope of bringing the Clippers their first-ever NBA title, like he did with the Raptors – something for which no one can really blame him. Also gone from last season’s title-winning Raptors team is Danny Green as the sharpshooting ace also bailed Canada for Los Angeles – with Green picking the Lakers.
What’s left is a team that is still chalk full of veterans with the experience of winning the NBA crown just a couple months ago. But general manager Masai Ujiri, who after guiding the Raptors to the crown had a lucrative offer to take his management skills to Washington, also knows that the leaders Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam are all free agents in 2020 – meaning they could be trade bait for Ujiri if he looks to rebuild for the future.
That’s hardly an ideal situation for the reigning champions – who have clearly lost their heart and now Raptors fans are left wondering what will happen.
It’s not that the Dinosaurs are without a strong core. Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam, Gasol, Ibaka and Norman Powell are all back – six of the top eight players from last year. Head coach Nick Nurse is also back. And Ujiri has shown in the past he knows how to bring in less-regarded talent and make them work out.
The 33-year-old Lowry will undoubtedly be out to prove he can lead a team as an alpha – and not just a second star as some considered his status with both Leonard and the man for whom he was traded DeMar DeRozan. With the departures of Leonard and Green, VanVleet will be needed to do more – after going undrafted in advance of his becoming a leader with the Raptors.
But Toronto will really rely on their new shooting star: Siakam. The Cameroonian was named the Most Improved Player of 2019, defending all five positions, finishing plays in the paint and outside and setting up his teammates. He is on the way to becoming a franchise player but will need to take the next step this season – as he teams up with the Spanish national team combo of Gasol and Ibaka as one of the most versatile and strongest defensive frontcourts in the NBA.
One of the biggest questions though is how Toronto will compensate for the loss of their top two wing players Leonard and Green. OG Anunoby is fully healthy again and will be needed urgently as well as the two new players Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson.
The heart of the champion may be gone but the brains are still there and most of the body. But are those enough for the defending NBA champions Toronto Raptors?
by FIVE Magazine #162 – NBA Preview 2019/20