The Toronto Raptors have the deepest roster in franchise history, a player with a chance to win the Most Valuable Player Award and a flexible style designed to handle any opponent.
This has all the makings of an incredible season, especially now that archrival LeBron James has moved to the West Coast. Yet when spending time with the Raptors, it’s hard to avoid the feeling the franchise is constantly bracing for bad news.
It’s not the typical posture of a contender. The Raptors are a big, bad, beast of a team, and if they avoid major injuries, they should be there in the end. But they’re also dealing with a load of scar tissue, and that might be as big of a hump for them to get over as the Boston Celtics (their opponent at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) or anyone else.
“We have a long road before we ever think about matching up with the champions like Golden State,” Kawhi Leonard said. “We’re not Finals competitors right now.”
“We don’t know what this team is,” Kyle Lowry said. “We’re all still trying to figure each other out.”
When it was pointed out to various Raptors that their wing-loaded roster, the presence of a signature star and experienced gritty, defensive-minded All-Star point guard, plus their devotion to shooting 3-pointers, made them a bit of a Houston Rockets-East, they ran from the comparison.
Lowry outright laughed. As did new coach Nick Nurse, who was raised in the Rockets system and won a D-League (now G League) title as coach of the Rockets’ affiliate Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2013. In Nurse’s first season there in 2011-12, the Vipers took almost 500 more 3-pointers than any other team. In his first game as head coach Wednesday night, the Raptors took 14 more 3-pointers than their opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” Nurse said about the Rockets’ comparison. “We just really like our versatility.”
It’s one thing to not want to put anything on an opponent’s bulletin board. It’s another to try to demur as a defensive mechanism for later danger. For the Raptors, it often feels like a lot of the latter.
There are reasons why.
The man who won Coach of the Year last season, Dwane Casey, got fired.
Lowry is mercurial at best and downright moody at worst. Lowry, who last week said he could never be a coach because “I could never coach a man like myself” is still adjusting to his best friend in the league and franchise bedrock DeMar DeRozan getting traded. The whole organization is on some level.
There’s also Leonard’s pending free agency. Teams in these situations always feel extra stress. It’s like a foul odor that remains in the room at all times. It can wear teams out, which is one of the reasons Kyrie Irving‘s declaration of loyalty to the Celtics recently was worth its weight in platinum, even if it not binding for team or player.
It doesn’t help Toronto that plenty of people in the league don’t think Leonard is going to stay. That’s not binding either, just ask those who had Paul George ticketed out of Oklahoma City a year ago. Still, the LA Clippers are already rotating scouts through Raptor games like Leonard is a college prospect and they have the No. 1 pick. The Raptors can say anything. One thing they aren’t is naïve.
And good luck guessing based on anything Leonard does or says.
“I’m a new person every day,” Leonard said.
Cool mentality for a player, ulcer-inducing for a general manager.
As for his play, Leonard is joining right in with his new teammates in being tentative as he returns from injury and whatever else kept him out of games last season in San Antonio. It’s not his nature anyway, but he’s hardly beating his chest to prove he’s the same old Kawhi.
“It’s not about me showing the world who I am or the player they want me to be,” Leonard said. “It’s about my comfort level. I can’t rush this. I’ve got to take my time. That’s my main focus. I’m not comparing myself to where I was [before the injury].”
Then, of course, there was the embarrassment of last year. The Raptors spent all season building toward the playoffs. They focused on their defense, they reduced Lowry’s minutes so he’d be fresher, they developed their bench into one of the best in the league so they’d have more to lean on, they chased and then landed the No. 1 seed. And they got swept by LeBron in the second round. Merciless.
It’s a lot to overcome. The Raptors aren’t there yet. Add in the new coaching staff — Nurse was promoted from assistant, but most of the rest of the staff scattered — and it’s a team still very much feeling its way. Going slow feels prudent.
Here’s the thing, though: This team is absolutely loaded. Leonard, in theory, has a chance to replace James as the best player in the East. Lowry is still at the top of his game; he had 27 points and eight assists in the opener.
Pascal Siakam, the Cameroonian prospect the Raptors drafted out of New Mexico State three years ago, might be a revelation. When he was a rookie, he’d play minutes on end without touching the ball because of shaky skills. Now he plays like a version of Draymond Green, defending big men, plucking down rebounds and racing to the other end looking to score or initiate offense. He could be a contender for Most Improved Player if things go well.
“Right, I never used to handle the ball,” said Siakam, who averaged three shots a game as a rookie when he started 38 games in a defense-first role. “With the years, I’ve worked on my game. The coaching staff sees things in me and they’re encouraging me.”
O.G. Anunoby’s value as a wing defender exploded in the playoffs last season, and Nurse said he’s so much healthier this year, now 20 months off a torn ACL. Fred VanVleet finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season. Danny Green and Serge Ibaka are both versatile defensive players who are respectable shooters. Jonas Valanciunas can be used against traditional centers, and he’s coming off his best PER season. C.J. Miles averaged a career-high 2.3 3-pointers per game off the bench last season.
The Celtics are the East’s favorites for a reason. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see the Raptors as a nasty defensive team that flings 3-pointers by the bushel, Lowry giving his death stare and Leonard calling to mind the player who had the Warriors mulling their fate two years ago.
“It’s hard to say, I didn’t really see the Celtics compete last year,” Leonard said. “I wasn’t on the floor.”
“I think we’ll be fine against Boston,” Lowry said. “Every day is different, some days we’ll be good against them. It’s hard to define anything for us right now.”