By Michael Ranger
The Toronto Raptors are on pace for their best regular season to date.
The 43 wins they’ve carried into the All-Star break are the most in franchise history up to this point. The club currently sits one game back of the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the NBA.
Regular season success has become the norm for this team in recent years and they are now solely judged on what they can do in the springtime. The Raptors will need to use the break to rest up and get ready for what forecasts to be an exciting homestretch of the season in a competitive Eastern Conference.
The team will come out of the break a very different group than when the season began on October 17th. They will need to use the final 23 games to help integrate some newcomers into the fold to be sure they are ready for playoff basketball come April.
The playoffs are when the real season begins for this team.
Big changes last summer
The Raptors have finished at or near the top of the Eastern Conference in the previous five seasons. And all five have ended in some degree of playoff heartbreak. Things are a little different this year. The Raptors are a different cast of characters with some new leaders.
Following their elimination from the playoffs last May the team parted ways with head coach Dwane Casey and replaced him with longtime assistant Nick Nurse. Then in July they traded the face of the franchise DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs as part of a deal for Kawhi Leonard. A high-risk move considering Leonard is a free agent after this season and will have the ability to sign with whomever he wants come July 1st.
Spurs have agree to trade Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick, league sources tell ESPN. Trade call with league office is starting shortly.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 18, 2018
The decisions weren’t unanimously praised in the moment. Casey and DeRozan, along with point guard Kyle Lowry, were the main parties responsible for spearheading the last five seasons of winning basketball in Toronto. Casey has the most wins in franchise history for a head coach. A little over a month after he was fired he won Coach of the Year at the 2018 NBA Awards.
Raptors fans give Dwane Casey a standing ovation in his return to Toronto. pic.twitter.com/FMjQ9A5pwg
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) November 15, 2018
DeRozan had been the face of the franchise since the team began its streak of winning seasons in 2013. Much like the decision to let Casey go, the trade left some fans conflicted. The idea of landing a former NBA Finals MVP like Kawhi Leonard was intriguing. But some of the faithful were disheartened that their loyal All-Star was sent packing.
DeRozan had publicly expressed his love of the city and his desire to become the greatest player in franchise history. It was refreshing for a Toronto fan base that has been spurned by past stars who chose to leave for greener pastures.
When speaking with Skedline, Blake Murphy, a Raptors writer for The Athletic noted that DeRozan and Lowry “are inextricable” when it comes to the Raptors newfound relevance in the league. But he says that DeRozan “was more of the face of it” than Lowry.
“He was the first star level player who wanted to stay,” said Murphy. “For a fan base that hasn’t had a lot of players to latch on to long term I think that means a lot”
Leonard meanwhile, has been as advertised this season. He may not like the attention, he is known for being one of the more introverted superstars in the NBA, but he is the new face of the franchise for this year at least.
The forward has missed 16 games this season but has been one of the top three or four players in the league when he’s been on the floor. He hasn’t played in both games of a back-to-back yet this year. The Raptors have two more back-to-back sets after the break and there is nothing to suggest anything will change when it comes to Leonard’s rest.
“Kawhi is still going to sit those two back-to-backs I would think,” said Murphy. “He mentioned to a few of us” the last time he didn’t play “that it wouldn’t be the last time he sits out.”
Leonard only played nine games for the Spurs last year and his relationship with the front office and coaching staff of that organization soured when the two sides disagreed on whether he was healthy enough to return to action from a knee injury. The Spurs and their team doctor’s thought he could play but the three time All-Star and his people were reportedly getting outside medical opinions that said otherwise.
Thus, the Raptors have been careful with Leonard this year. They obviously want to make sure he is healthy but they will tread lightly in hopes the superstar will make a decision this summer to stay in Toronto long-term. The recent trade for Marc Gasol helps the team in a basketball sense but more importantly it signals to Leonard that the team is willing to make whatever moves necessary, no matter the cost, to stay competitive.
The King is gone
Perhaps as big an offseason move as the trade with the Spurs was another superstar’s decision to take his talents to Hollywood.
LeBron James had been the Raptors biggest roadblock during this recent stretch of winning. In each of the last three seasons James and his Cleveland Cavaliers have eliminated the Raptors from playoff contention. And last season’s defeat was particularly demoralizing when they bowed out to the Cavs in four straight games.
The Raptors have had no answer for James.
Well lucky for them James now plays in the West. His decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers last summer has provided new hope for all the other Eastern Conference contenders. James had flat out dominated the Eastern Conference over the course of eight years. He has been to the finals in the last eight seasons, four with the Miami Heat and four with the Cavs, an unparalleled accomplishment in todays NBA.
With King James out of the picture a window has opened up and the Raptors are one of the teams looking to crawl through.
The Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers both made significant moves to improve their own rosters at the trade deadline last week. Not to be outdone, the Raptors made a big splash with the Gasol trade to be certain they don’t get left in the dust.
The Raptors, Bucks, 76ers and Boston Celtics have all assembled rosters designed to compete for an NBA title. They may very well be, on paper at least, the four best teams in the league after the Golden State Warriors.
“I still think your splitting hairs with those four and it’s going to come down to who looks the best in April,” said Murphy. “Milwaukee has been the best team so far, I think the Raptors probably have the highest ceiling of any team in the East although they haven’t displayed that ceiling at any point.”
The Warriors are the top team in the West and the odds on favorite to win it all again for the third straight year. But each of the four Eastern Conference powerhouses feel they boast the talent necessary to give them a legitimate shot at making the finals. And once in the Finals anything can happen. The LeBron-less East is far more competitive and compelling than it has been in years past.
At the trade deadline on February 7th the Raptors shipped Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for veteran center and three time All-Star Marc Gasol. They traded Greg Monroe away for cash the same day and Malachi Richardson away for cash a day earlier. The latter two moves were made to give the team some more flexibility financially.
Six of the 16 players who were on the opening day Raptors roster are no longer a part of the team. Among those six were Valanciunas, Wright, Miles and Monroe, who were all seeing significant minutes throughout the year.
Valanciunas became the longest tenured Raptor after DeRozan was traded away in the summer. It was another bittersweet moment for the fan base when the Lithuanian center was included in the package for Gasol last week. Especially since he was ready to make his return from a thumb injury that night.
Spoke with JV this morning … he was brimming at the prospect of returning to Raptors lineup tonight: “I am really excited. I was really looking forward to this day and there you go. If nothing crazy happens, I will be playing." The NBA is crazy and so he's gone.
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) February 7, 2019
The Raptors front office has made it abundantly clear that they feel the window for this team to win is now. Masai Ujiri and his staff have proven they are willing to make the big moves if they think it will increase the chances of a championship.
Gasol brings a myriad of experience to go along with some considerable talent. The 34-year old Spaniard is a former Defensive Player of the Year and along with Mike Conley was the heart and soul of the ‘Grit and Grind’ Memphis Grizzlies. Those Grizzlies teams found success for years with their hard-nosed defensive style of play. The team’s success culminated with a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2013.
Memphis Grizzlies announce today they will one day retire Marc Gasol's No. 33 jersey, which is an appropriate honour
— Doug Smith: Raptors (@SmithRaps) February 8, 2019
While certainly not the player he was five years ago, when he was an MVP candidate, Gasol should give the Raptors stability at the center position. He is an excellent passer for a seven-footer and generally regarded as a great teammate. The Raptors hope that the unselfish big man’s ball moving skills will be contagious. His abilities were on full display in the fourth quarter of the Raptors win against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night.
Another big move for the team came post trade deadline when the Atlanta Hawks announced they were buying out the contract of Jeremy Lin and he would be signing a new deal with Toronto. Lin’s career to date hasn’t seen the same kind of stability as Gasol’s.
Lin took the league by storm seven years ago while playing for the New York Knicks. He had a string of great performances that season which included hitting a game winning shot against his current team. That game winner occurred almost exactly seven years (seven years and one day) before he made his debut with Toronto. After that whirlwind season with the Knicks the guard has largely been unable to recreate the magic of ‘Linsanity.’ Since the fabled 2012 year in New York he has bounced around the league with five different teams and missed some significant time with injuries.
The Raptors front office initially targeted Lin to give the team some more shooting and to help fill in the valuable minutes at guard that Delon Wright played off the bench. But with the recent developments surrounding backup point guard Fred VanVleets injury, Lin now finds himself with much more of a role than the team originally anticipated. It was first reported that VanVleet would miss three weeks with an injured thumb and subsequent reports have said he will require surgery and miss closer to five.
— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) February 16, 2019
The trades the Raptors made at the deadline left them with only 10 players on the roster playing on standard NBA contracts and two others playing on two-way deals. Two-way contracts allow players to be moved back and forth between an NBA club and their G-League development team. The NBA rules require each team to have a minimum of 13 players on standard contracts. To meet the guidelines the team converted Chris Boucher’s two-day deal into a standard contract, signed former Raptor Malcolm Miller and then signed Lin.
The team will probably look to sign another buyout candidate to fill out its roster before the season ends. But for the most part the team as it is built today will be the team competing for a title when the playoffs begin in April.
The final 23 games will be a proving ground for head coach Nick Nurse. It’s been tough to evaluate Nurse this season given all the injuries and roster changes that have gone on. Things will be a little more stable as the team moves forward.
“I thought coming into the season his biggest challenge was going to be managing egos and finding out how to mesh Kawhi’s offense with the rest of the team,” said Murphy. A challenge that has only become “more difficult now that you have Gasol and Lin coming into the fold.” Murphy says these last couple months will show us “what kind of coach he is outside of the X’s and O’s.”
The Raptors want to lock down the number one seed in the East to insure home court advantage throughout the playoffs. And whether or not that goal is within reach as we approach the end of the season will probably affect how much rest some guys get.
If the fight for first place comes down to the final few games of the year it may result in less rest for guys like “Lowry, Ibaka and Green” but they are still going to “take every precaution” with Leonard, said Murphy. “They have one of the lighter schedules in basketball down the stretch which is certainly helpful.”
The Raptors return from the break on Friday when they play host to the San Antonio Spurs. It could prove to be one of the most emotional nights in franchise history as it will mark DeRozan’s first game back in Toronto since the big trade in the summer.
“He’s going to get a really nice ovation and I think he deserves it,” said Murphy. “Without question he’s one of the top three Raptors” in history “based on performance and he’s probably the most beloved one.”
Some other key games after the DeRozan homecoming this Friday include a February 26th home game against the Boston Celtics. This will be the last time in the regular season that the Raptors will play one of the other three Eastern Conference contenders. They also have a home and home against the Oklahoma City Thunder in March. They will play in Oklahoma City on the 20th then host the Thunder back in Toronto on the 22nd. The Thunder are one of the top teams in the West and have been getting really strong play from MVP candidate Paul George as of late.
You can see the full remaining schedule here.
When speaking with reporters during the All-Star weekend in Charlotte, Leonard noted that the organization has done a good job of trying to make the team better. “Time will tell where our journey is going to end,” he said. “I think we have a good chance of getting to the finals and winning it, but we still got a lot of work to do.”