The Toronto Raptors are the most under the radar defending champs in NBA history. But don’t let that fool you, the Raptors are a legit threat to make it back to the Finals this season.
The NBA and the Toronto Raptors season is set to resume on July 31. Teams will play eight regular-season games before there is a play-in tournament for the eighth seed in each conference.
The Toronto Raptors currently occupy the second spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 46-18. They are six and a half games behind the Milwaukee Bucks. It is unlikely the Raptors will be able to claim the top spot in the conference. But they can’t take these next eight games lightly with the Boston Celtics only three games back.
Most analysts believe there are only three teams with a legitimate shot to win the title this season. That list includes the Bucks and both Los Angeles teams. Giannis Antetokounmpo appears to be a lock to win his second consecutive MVP trophy. Meanwhile, the Clippers and Lakers both have star-studded duos featuring Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis.
Despite being the defending NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors entered this season to little fanfare. That stems primarily from Leonard’s decision to head west and team up with George in their hometown.
The Raptors are used to flying under the radar. They have been one of the top teams in the entire Association over the last five years, but are rarely talked about among the league’s elite. Even last season, very few media outlets believed the Raptors were a legitimate threat to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
So far this season, the Raptors have an identical record as they did at this point last year. They have the third-best record in the NBA. The Raptors have the second-best defense. They have actually improved defensively, even without the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
The most impressive part of it all is the Raptors have done all this even though they have the fifth most man-games lost. The Raptors’ players have missed a combined 219 games this season. The most has been by the Golden State Warriors with 253.
The Raptors have lost six of their top seven players for significant periods of time. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, and Marc Gasol all missed at least 11 games. Gasol tops the list at 28.
Through it all, Nick Nurse has found a way to keep his team going. He has kept the team afloat while giving big minutes to players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, and undrafted rookie, Terence Davis II.
Even though the Raptors don’t get much coverage on ESPN, that doesn’t mean their opponents are going to look past them. Other teams know that the Raptors play hard and you can never count them out of a game. The best example of this was on December 22, when the Raptors came back from a 30 point deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks without Siakam or Gasol.
However, the road back to the Finals will be a long one. Training camps are set to start on June 30. Players have to make their way down to Florida. They need time to get back in game shape. The one positive for the Raptors is all their players should finally be healthy.
The Raptors path back to the Finals
Assuming the standings stay the same, the Toronto Raptors will be heavy favorites in their first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have officially been ruled out for the rest of the season. The Nets simply won’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Raptors.
Fans should expect a meeting with the Celtics in round two. That won’t be an easy out. But the Raptors’ championship experience should give them an advantage over the trio of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.
Walker has only played in the playoffs twice. He has never made it out of the first round. Tatum is on the verge of superstardom. Brown looks like the ideal sidekick. But at 22 and 23 respectively, they aren’t ready to lead the Celtics back to the promise land.
Everything is lining up perfectly for a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Raptors and Bucks. Giannis has taken his game to another level this season. With that being said, his one weakness remains his jump shot.
Last season, the Bucks opened the series by winning the first two games. The Raptors would go on to win four in a row. The series shifted in game three when the Raptors changed how they were defending The Greek Freak.
First of all, Leonard took over as Giannis’s primary defender. But more importantly, the Raptors just made life difficult for him. The Raptors threw multiple defenders at Giannis in order to force the ball out of his hands. The Raptors as a group featured a number of players with a unique combination of size, length, athleticism, and defensive awareness which made life difficult for him.
Even without Leonard, that hasn’t changed. The Raptors as an organization target long, athletic players capable of switching between multiple positions. Chief among those is third-year swingman, OG Anunoby.
Anunoby would likely be tasked with slowing down Giannis. While Anunoby isn’t on the same level as Leonard just yet, he has the potential to become an All-Defensive level player.
Anunoby has all the tools. He stands 6-foot-8, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. Anunoby is a very good individual defender. He is capable of keeping his man in check without fouling. But Anunoby won’t have to do it alone. The Raptors will also throw Siakam, Ibaka, and Hollis-Jefferson at Giannis in order to make his life difficult.
The Bucks beat the Raptors both times they played so far this season. But the playoffs are a different beast. Nick Nurse has proven to be one of the best coaches at making adjustments game-by-game. The Raptors will have time to put together their scouting report and develop multiple defensive sets in order to stop Giannis.
Khris Middleton is a two-time All-Star in his own right, but once you get past Giannis the Raptors’ supporting cast is just better than Milwaukee’s.
If the Raptors are able to make it back to the NBA Finals, they have to hope that continuity and chemistry will give them an edge. The majority of their championship core remains intact. Pascal Siakam has taken another leap forward this season, becoming a first-time All-Star.
Kyle Lowry has completely changed the narrative from his early career. Lowry has gone from a coach killer to a multi-time All-Star. At 34, Lowry is still one of the top point guards in the game.
Marc Gasol is also a three-time All-Star. He has lost a step from when he was named Defensive Player of the Year. But Gasol is still one of the smartest players on the court. Gasol is capable of quarterbacking a team’s defense and neutralizing opposing centers. He was the last piece of the Raptors’ championship squad.
VanVleet and Powell have taken their games to another level. Both are averaging a career-high in points at 17.6 and 16.4, respectively. They have more than filled the void left by Danny Green last year’s starting two-guard.
Plus, Ibaka is having the best season of his career and Anunoby has become a more complete player. But knocking off either the Clippers or Lakers will require near perfection from the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors showed last season, that a team of very good players can beat one or two superstars. However, with all due respect to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, these duos are on another level.
You always want the opportunity to defend your title. The Raptors want to prove their doubters wrong and show everyone last season wasn’t a fluke. Also, this may be the best opportunity for the Raptors to get back to the NBA Finals in a long time.
The East won’t be the lesser conference for much longer
The Eastern Conference is going to be even tougher next season. A number of star players are set to return.
The addition of Durant and Irving could make the Nets the preseason favorite to come out of the East. Victor Oladipo is still working his way back from injury and should regain his All-Star form by next season. Also, John Wall says he is 110% healthy and will look to lead the Washington Wizards back to playoffs.
That doesn’t even take into account players like Giannis and Tatum taking their game to another level. Both are just entering their primes. Then there are the Philadelphia 76ers with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The East is no longer the doormat it once was.
For the Raptors, they don’t have any obvious way to upgrade their roster for next season. The team’s top priority this offseason will be locking up VanVleet. They should also consider re-signing Ibaka and/or Gasol to one-year deals.
The team will have their first-round draft pick for the first time since 2017. The Raptors will be selecting in the late 20s. However, there are a few intriguing players who could be available including Tyler Bey, Jalen Smith, and Robert Woodard.
The Raptors want to avoid adding any long-term salaries as they try to keep the books clean for the Summer of Giannis in 2021. What this all means, is the team will have to bank on internal improvements in order to maintain their spot at the top of the conference.
It is unclear whether Siakam is ready to lead a team to the mountain top. Nurse has tried all season to get him ready. Nurse has put the ball in Siakam’s hands knowing that once the playoffs start, this team will only go as far as he can lead them.
Siakam is a tireless worker who entered the NBA projected to be an energy big man off the bench. Siakam spent his early years as part of the Raptors’ bench mob. But that wasn’t good enough for him.
Siakam has spent the last four years improving his ball-handling and shooting. Siakam has transformed into a max-player and is one of the 15 or 20 best players in the NBA. This season Siakam is averaging 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game.
Now the time has come for Siakam to elevate his game further. The Toronto Raptors need Siakam to show he can be the best player on a championship team. Is he ready? Only time will tell, but as Masai Ujiri said earlier this year, this Raptors team will die trying to defend their title and I for one can’t wait to see them try.