Much of the attention surrounding Kawhi Leonard has been on his looming free agency, and rightfully so. The Raptors just traded one of the best players in team history for someone who can leave for nothing next summer.
But instead of focusing on the future, let’s focus on the present. And the Toronto Raptors, as presently constructed, are as scary a team as they come.
Leonard reportedly has no plans to re-sign with Toronto, and there’s a chance he might not suit up for the Raptors this season at all. But there’s an equal, if not greater chance he chooses to play anyway, even if he doesn’t want to. And in the event one of the league’s premier two-way players takes the floor, the NBA’s northern-most team just got a whole lot better.
That’s because Leonard and Danny Green, who also came over in the DeMar DeRozan trade, re-shape what Toronto can do on both ends of the floor. And it’s a move that turned an already formidable Raptors team into a deeper, versatile, talented squad nobody’s going to want smoke with in the playoffs.
Look at this squad
Toronto already had the league’s toughest bench last season, and general manager Masai Ujiri didn’t sacrifice any of that depth to land Leonard. Here is a look at the Raptors’ roster. On paper, this team is something serious:
PG: Kyle Lowry/Fred VanVleet/Lorenzo Brown
SG: Danny Green/Delon Wright/Norman Powell
SF: Kawhi Leonard/C.J. Miles/Malachi Richardson
PF: Serge Ibaka/OG Anunoby
C: Jonas Valanciunas/Pascal Siakam
Remember, when healthy, Leonard is one of the best two-way players at any position. Not only does he lock down the opposing team’s best player, but he’s a consistent perimeter scorer who historically has flirted with 50-40-90 club numbers (50 percent shooting from the field, 40 percent from three, 90 percent from the line) more often than not. He can score off the dribble, hit spot-up jump shots and create for his teammates. Gregg Popovich turned him into the complete basketball assassin, only for his masterpiece to leave for elsewhere.
Leonard also raises his game in the playoffs, which we saw in the 2017 Western Conference Finals when he was torching the Warriors before his injury in Game 1.
Just a reminder how good Kawhi Leonard is when healthy.— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) July 18, 2018
The Spurs were up 21 w/7:55 to go in 3rd quarter when he got hurt. GSW came back and won, then swept the series. Kawhi had 26 points in 24 minutes. Was averaging 27 on 52.5/45.5/93.1 in playoffs.https://t.co/MWh52vaPmE
But this Raptors team is more than just Leonard
There are no scrubs on this roster. Kyle Lowry is a perennial All-Star point guard. Ibaka — at his best — is a defensive anchor and three-point threat. OG Anunoby can guard any position. Jonas Valanciunas had a great season and an even better playoffs. Fred VanVleet is the heart and soul of that Raptors bench mob, and Delon Wright, Norman Powell and C.J. Miles each play their roles perfectly. And on top of it all, you add Green, a veteran sharpshooter who can also guard multiple positions.
Offensively, the Raptors should be a team that continues moving the ball the way it did last season. Toronto had been stuck in an iso-heavy offense for years, but the team revamped its system to shoot more threes and swing the ball around the floor. Players and executives, according to Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman, credit newly promoted head coach Nick Nurse for the change.
Nurse’s offensive scheme led to Toronto’s best season ever, but it fell flat when they ran into LeBron James in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With Leonard and Green, the Raptors should have even more success on offense, but the true improvement could be on the other side of the floor.
Toronto’s defensive potential is through the roof
A lineup of Lowry-Green-Leonard-Siakam-Ibaka is as versatile as they come, and you can throw Anunoby in at any slot outside of point guard and center. VanVleet checks his man the full length of the floor, and Leonard can defend any player on the planet.
The Raptors have positioned themselves to defend any team, and they should be able to do it no matter who’s on the court. Toronto could find success against a team like the Warriors. They have the versatility to switch over screens and the defensive talent to defend each position straight up. The same can be said of the Raptors’ odds against their East rivals Boston, Philly and Washington. Valanciunas is a tough defender for bigs like Al Horford, Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard.
So what else?
The only question left is just how good can this team be in the Eastern Conference. With a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics are the toughest team outside of the Warriors and are likely favorites to reach the NBA Finals. The 76ers are also a team on the rise, and they improved their roster by adding Wilson Chandler and rookie Zhaire Smith.
The Wizards are another team that should improve after signing Dwight Howard, and the Pacers should be able to build on Victor Oladipo’s magical season after signing Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn. The Raptors are probably going to be in the mix for the No. 1 seed — after all, they were the best regular season team in the league last season AND they just got better.
But are Leonard and Lowry alone enough star power to compete with Boston’s disgustingly talented lineup of Irving, Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford? And are Leonard’s talents alone enough to compensate for the playoff nightmares that have haunted the Raptors for three years?
Leonard could ultimately decide he doesn’t want to play for the Raptors at all. But that’s not likely. What’s likely is that we see The Claw suit up for Toronto and form the best variation of this team the NBA has seen. And when that happens, the rest of the East had better watch over their shoulders.
The Raptors are coming, again. Only this time, they’re a different type of scary.