2019-20 Team Obituaries: Toronto Raptors
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
The last half-decade skewed our perception of what it takes to be a champion. The Golden State Warriors built a superteam and then made it even better midway through, winning five straight Western Conference titles and three NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019. They were dominant the entire way, only coasting in the regular season once they established themselves.
Of the 20 playoff series they played in that lustrum, only two were losses: 2016, when they blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and 2019, when Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both missed time.
That last caveat shouldn't discredit the Toronto Raptors though. Their championship season was one of the most lovable in league history from start to finish. After several years of falling short to LeBron James and the Cavs, it was clear that their roster had a ceiling that wasn't high enough.
LeBron's exodus to the West left an opening at the top of the East, and Kawhi Leonard's trade request gave contenders a chance to fill it. The Raptors, with nothing to lose, seized the moment and flipped DeMar DeRozan (and parts) for one year of Leonard (and Danny Green).
Combined with a roster of guys that were hungry, a new coach in Nick Nurse, and cohesive organization above them, the 2018-19 Raptors were awesome. Everyone made sense around Leonard, fitting into ideal roles that catered to their strengths.
Even without him the group was pretty good; every member of the rotation could at least hang on defense and add value on offense, meaning the overall unit had minimal weaknesses.
Nurse was also inventive enough to try anything with this crew, such as using Pascal Siakam to defend anyone and everyone or entrusting Fred VanVleet with the ball in closing minutes. These are known quantities now, but it took a mad scientist of a coach—and an organization that trusted him—to make them reality.
They went 58-24 in the regular season, good enough for the 2 seed in the East. Managing Leonard's health left them shorthanded for 22 games, but they still went 17-5 without him (a congruent pace with their overall record), largely thanks to the reasons outlined above.
The playoffs were a true battle. The first round was a cakewalk, but the second round provided them their toughest test of the season. The Philadelphia 76ers went toe-to-toe with the eventual champions all the way until the closing seconds of Game 7. Then the famous "Kawhi shot" fell through the hoop as time expired, and the Raptors were on their way to the Conference Finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks weren't slouches either, but Toronto figured them out after going down 0-2. And with the Warriors more depleted than ever, the championship was truly there for the taking. A dynasty was falling, and the new throne was taken by a familiar face. Leonard won the 2019 Finals Most Valuable Player, and the storybook season was complete.
Leonard left for Los Angeles a month later (as did Green), a risk that the Raptors knew was real. But they had done all they could, not only to appease the man who brought them a title, but also to the fans who stuck with them through myriad shortfalls.
So what came next? Nothing special, only the most exciting title defense of the century.
After last season gave the Raptors nothing to lose, this one did the same. They were defending champions for the first time in franchise history, but still pretty good without their Finals MVP. Kyle Lowry still had another year under contract and got extended for 2020-21, Marc Gasol opted in for one more year, and Serge Ibaka was also due to be a free agent after the season. It looked like this season was going to be it for the Raptors as we knew them.
That deadline was freeing for the organization. It could blow up the roster for assets, it could extend veterans to retool around Siakam, it could ride out the year, or it could execute any mixture of strategies. Everything was on the table, making Toronto one of the most interesting teams in the league.
The support system from last year carried over. Nurse's creativity only improved in year two, as he developed a fearlessness comparable to Doc Brown and the Mad Hatter. Every defensive scheme was on the table, from triangle-and-2s to switch-everything man-zone hybrids. Nurse and the gang used everything under the sun to stymie opponents.
It worked well enough for them to earn the 2 seed in the East—again. They finished with the second best defensive rating in the league, only granting opponents 105 points per 100 possessions. Their top seven guys were no less than decent from night to night, neither liabilities on offense nor weak links on defense.
That pervaded the rest of the roster. Guys like Matt Thomas and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who would normally be outliers in a rotation, fit right in with the Raptors. Even though the septet of Lowry, VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol missed a combined 112 games, the Raptors still finished with 53 wins and 19 losses, a slightly better pace than they were at last season.
Despite losing two starters and adding no one to replace them, the Raptors took care of business just as well in the regular season. Thanks to the Sixers disappointing and both the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets missing their best players, the East was more open than expected. The title defense was on.
The Nets awaited them in round one, and that acted as a warm-up series because of all the players they were missing. The Raptors took care of business with ease, sweeping the Nets and rarely giving an inch to their C team.
Round two wasn't nearly as easy. The Boston Celtics were a dangerous team, loaded with several different weapons and ways to beat you. Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum led the attack, and the collection of guys behind them weren't slouches either. They, like the Raptors, were solid across the board.
It was an excellent series overall. There were gut punches, counter punches, counter counter punches, and a whole lot of defense. It was one of the most tactical series all postseason, with Nurse and Celtics coach Brad Stevens making adjustment after adjustment after adjustment.
It was also a complete slog. Every point was a grind, every possession a battle. Toronto didn't have enough shot creators to hang, but Boston committed countless offensive errors to keep the series close. Boston didn't have the size to keep Toronto's frontcourt trio in check, but Siakam took enough ill-advised shots to outweigh that.
Both teams had their flaws, and both teams had to work for every shot they got. It wasn't an aesthetic style, but it was exactly the type of game you imagine when you think of playoff basketball.
The Celtics won the series 4-3, outlasting the Raptors 92-87 in Game 7. Having to rely on Lowry and VanVleet for full-time shot creation proved to be too much in this particular matchup, and Siakam didn't take over as the alpha. They just didn't have enough juice offensively.
Strategically, the Raptors proved that whatever direction they want to take can still result in wins. But even for the smartest of organizations, this situation would be difficult to parse through.
The salary cap is what makes Toronto tough to gauge. Only five players are guaranteed for next season, but those five are good enough that it would be a waste to not surround them with more talent. Additionally, those five—Lowry, Siakam, Powell, McCaw and Anunoby—will combine to make $77 million in 2021.
Add in some likely guarantees, such as Stanley Johnson's player option and whoever they select with the 29th overall pick, and the Raptors owe $88.2 million to 12 roster spots (11 players plus an "incomplete roster charge").
That's not a lot of space to work with, but the Raptors might not need it. This free agent class isn't great; if they want to stay competitive, they'll have to re-sign their own guys and hit on the Mid-Level Exception.
The main free agents are Gasol, Ibaka and VanVleet. Gasol has retired from the NBA and chosen to play in Spain, so he and his cap hold are out of the picture.
Ibaka is on the books for $34.9 million right now, a figure that they'll likely keep until he makes a decision because of the flexibility it allows them (they have his Bird Rights, meaning they can go over the cap to keep him).
VanVleet's free agency will be very interesting. He's hitting the open market in a weak class, meaning he'll be more coveted, but the uncertain financial climate of the league also eliminates buyers, making him less coveted. His market is as uncertain as they come for players of his ilk.
Whatever the Raptors decide with Ibaka and VanVleet will be done with next offseason in mind. Giannis Antetokounmpo headlines a loaded class of free agents, and Toronto has done everything it can to preserve cap space for then. Keeping VanVleet on a big deal eats into that space, but he's exactly the type of player you want next to superstars. As long as someone like the New York Knicks doesn't talk themselves into FVV as their savior, he can probably be retained between $20 million and $25 million per year.
Another decision looming over the franchise is Anunoby's future. He's a strong defensive presence who can check all kinds of opponents (he often checked one of Brown or Tatum in the Celtics series) while maintaining a respectable offensive presence (39.4% on 269 attempts across the regular season and playoffs).
There's a good chance he takes a leap in 2021, barring injuries. If the Raptors can get him locked into an extension before that leap, he'll be a lot cheaper and help them preserve cap space for next offseason.
But Anunoby is a Klutch Sports client; they're not stupid when it comes to this stuff. If the Raptors try to lowball him, the likelihood of Anunoby playing out the year goes up, forcing them to fight two very expensive battles next offseason. They must approach extension talks with delicacy this fall.
Toronto faces one of the more complicated decisions of the autumn, compounded by the league's financial uncertainty. At the same time, there's no better organization you'd want handling it; Masai Ujiri and company are some of the best in the business.