Despite losing Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors have exceeded all expectations. Well coached, well-built and exciting to watch, the team seems to have all the ingredients to win it all again. Unfortunately, that might not happen.
The Toronto Raptors have been pretty good this year. As of March 11, the 2019 NBA Team of the Year sits second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 46-18.
On one hand, it’s surprising considering the seemingly endless string of injuries the Raptors have had to deal with this season. On the other hand, they’re extremely well-built; even without Kawhi Leonard. The team has many young and exciting players, great depth, plays tremendous team defense and is run by a talented coach who loves experimenting.
All the ingredients seem to be there.
Despite all that, there are a few key issues percolating under the surface that’ll prevent the Toronto Raptors from repeating as NBA champions. Here are the top three reasons why they might not be hoisting the trophy again this year.
Vertically challenged: Who has the rebound?
In 2018-19, the Toronto Raptors used a great defense (along with the heroics of Kawhi Leonard) to secure their first NBA championship. This season, by every key metric, they’re even better defensively—second in the league in defensive rating (106.13), steals per game (8.8) and opponent field goal percentage (42.9).
What makes them so good? The squad is filled with long, tenacious wings and some of the smartest veterans in the league (see Kyle Lowry) that willingly buy-in to Coach Nurse’s zany defensive alignments to great success. All five players work in concert to anticipate and force their opponents into mistakes.
According to the stats, Toronto’s defense should give up more points than it does if opponents converted the types of field goal attempts that they’re given. But even when the opposition does get an open opportunity, after facing what seems like a never-ending gauntlet of closeouts, switches and traps, more often than not they miss.
Outside of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, there’s no one in the lineup who rebounds at an elite level. While the Raptors can minimize this disadvantage by getting creative in their schemes and hustling, they can’t make their players any taller.
On most nights and against most teams in the NBA, this isn’t an overwhelming issue. Against legitimate contenders such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers with size, this can be a big problem, especially if the shots aren’t falling. Rebounding by itself doesn’t guarantee victory but it does increase the probability— in a tight playoff series, every extra inch given and taken away matters.
Lack of a true superstar
Outside of the Raptors’ rebounding woes, the lack of a true superstar is something that’ll decrease their chances of repeating as NBA champions.
Last year, when the team was in a pickle on offense—discombobulated and not hitting its shots— it could turn to Kawhi Leonard in isolation and have him pull up for a clutch shot, beat his man off the dribble and/or draw a foul. The attention that he drew warped opposing defenses, creating easy scoring opportunities for teammates.
There’s a reason for the old adage, superstars win championships. When you have one, you feel like you can’t lose.
Let’s look at the stats.
While they have a better record this year, the Raptors’ offensive rating is down from 113.1 to 111.6, a lower field goal percentage (45.8-percent, down from 47.4 -percent) and 19th with 22.6 free attempts per game. Conversely, the Clippers sit third in offensive rating (113.6) and first with 26.2 free throw attempts a night.
Yes, without Kawhi the Raptors’ offense is more aesthetically pleasing, with more ball movement and three-point shooting. Yes, the Raptors lead the league in forcing turnovers and fast-break opportunities. They have a budding star in Pascal Siakam. Norman Powell has also emerged with his new-found consistency.
Yet this is a team that lives and dies on the perimeter.
The Raptors don’t have an inside scoring presence like Giannis Antetokounmpo to bail them out (they rank 18th in points in the paint). Gasol is unselfish to a fault, rarely looking to score these days. When Siakam gets bottled up by the right matchup (see Bam Adebayo) or just starts settling for long shots instead of driving, there’s a dearth of options inside.
For example, in the February 25th game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors led for most of the game after shooting lights out from three. Victory looked guaranteed. As soon as the shots stopped falling and the pace slowed down, the Raptors couldn’t get an easy basket inside. Being rebound challenged, nobody was cleaning up the misses. Everything was contested and the Bucks eventually pulled away, winning 108-97.
So while the Raptors are thriving in the regular season without a superstar, it remains to be seen how they’ll do in the playoffs against the stiffer competition without that important release valve.
COVID-19: Rust, emotions and hectic scheduling
The biggest monkey wrench in the Raptors’ title defense is the havoc wreaked by this worldwide pandemic. On March 11th, the NBA suspended the season after a Utah Jazz player, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, the league has been mum on how and when play will resume. It’s an unprecedented situation.
As we hunker down and wait, it’s fair to wonder what kind of impact this will have on a team such as the Raptors.
When and if play resumes, emotions, scheduling, and most important rust will impact how players perform on the floor. How many games will key veterans such as Ibaka and Kyle Lowry (geriatric by NBA standards) need to get up to speed? How will the team reintegrate players returning from injury such as Norman Powell and Marc Gasol?
It’s all a game of ifs and maybes.
If the NBA decides to fast-forward to the playoffs, maybe the quality of play suffers.
If the season does end up getting canceled, maybe the Raptors should remain on top by default. If not, maybe there’ll be no champion this year.