In the past two seasons, the Toronto Raptors roster has gone through multiple changes. From young to experienced, the roster is now young once again.
Two seasons ago, the Toronto Raptors were viewed as a fairly young team with a few veteran-like players placed around the roster. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka were just a few of the more experienced players on the roster, but a large portion of the team was still under 25 years old or around that mark. It was also the first year of OG Anunoby’s NBA career, a young rookie looking to make a mark in the league.
Fast forward a year and a half, and the Raptors team was markedly different to the one that finished the season before with a crushing sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raptors had acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan and one of their youthful assets in Jakob Poeltl.
The change was coming. It was time to convert their young assets into championship-winning pieces. They weren’t meant to be the headlining part of the deals they featured in, but more as an enticing throw-in piece.
Midway through last season, the Raptors made another blockbuster trade. Picking up Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto had to bite the bullet and trade away two valuable pieces in Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright, as well as sharpshooter C.J. Miles and a second-round pick.
Gasol, now aged 34, pushed the Raptors closer towards that veteran core that made them so successful last year. Sure, the Raptors gave up youth, but they picked up quality players in the process. To a lesser extent, Jeremy Lin was also a veteran pick-up, but his contributions to the team were fairly limited.
The team made it’s historic run to the NBA Finals, defeating the Golden State Warriors to be crowned the champions of the NBA for the first time in franchise history. The wheeling and dealing of the Raptors front office was the tipping point in the team’s trajectory.
After the young, and hungry bench mob being the story of the season before, as well as the emergence of Anunoby in his rookie season, the narrative around the Raptors shifted in the space of a few months. Pascal Siakam was the youngest starter at the age of 25 years old, they were now a grizzled veteran team. Until they weren’t.
The transition took place this offseason, and it happened fast. It started with Kawhi Leonard – recently crowned Finals MVP – leaving the Raptors to join up with Paul George and join the Los Angeles Clippers. That move forced the hand of Danny Green, whose eventual departure saw him move to sunny California, only to join the Los Angeles Lakers, neighbors of the Clippers.
In the blink of an eye, two of the Raptors most consistent veterans were gone. Both were in and out of the facility in just under a year, but the impact of their departure was most definitely felt, especially Leonard’s.
They were both replaced in due course, though not in overall talent. That, for what it’s worth, is a near-impossible task. Leonard cemented himself as the best basketball player on the planet during the playoffs. His star is unlike any other.
What the Raptors did do, however, was wind back the demographic clock by a few years, picking up some fairly interesting prospects. Most of which, are still under the age of 25.
Stanley Johnson is a highly energetic small forward who has shown consistent glimpses of high-intensity defensive smarts, as well as elite athleticism. At just 23 years old, Johnson has years left to refine his offensive skillset and acquire some semblance of a jump shot.
Following on from picking up Johnson, the Raptors turned their attention to former Brooklyn Nets forward, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who was let go by the Nets this summer. Like Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson is in desperate need of tinkering with his offensive game. Defensively, though, he’s a versatile – if undersized – power forward who is a solid defender, matched with very good athleticism.
And, once again, like Johnson, time is on his side. Hollis-Jefferson is still only 24 and should expect to see gradual improvement with the Raptors this season. The same, to an extent, can be said for Cameron Payne. He likely won’t have much of an opportunity to prove his worth outside of garbage time minutes, but he is only 25 years old and still has a chance to resurrect his career.
Even with Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka on the roster, this team still has the feel of a younger roster overall. It all happened in the blink of an eye too. It’s rare to watch a teams aging curve go full circle in just over two seasons, but believe it to be true in this scenario.