2019 Playoff Preview: Toronto Raptors
The Raptors had about as good of a regular season as they could’ve hoped for; in Nick Nurse’s first year as head coach, the Raptors fell a single win shy of their franchise-best regular season record (59-23), set last year by Dwayne Casey, and did so while “load managing” the hell out of key rotation members, particularly Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. This was all done in preparation for a deep playoff run, and after finishing with the league’s second best overall record (58-24, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks league-best record of 60-22), they appear well-positioned to make the most of their rested, talented, and veteran-laden roster. The Raptors finished the regular season on a high note, going 7-3 in their final 10 games. They finished with the league’s third-highest point differential (6.1), and were one of two teams (yep, Milwaukee again) to end in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating. While the team had an undeniably successful regular season, Toronto will no doubt take the accomplishment with a grain of salt, as the expectations placed on this stacked roaster amount to no less than an Eastern Conference crown.
The Raptors have an extremely well-balanced roster, and the depth across their backcourt (Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Lin), frontcourt (Gasol, Ibaka, Siakam) and wings (Leonard, Green, Anunoby) might be the best of all the East’s beasts. They match up extremely well with all of their potential playoff foes (likely the Magic, Sixers, and Bucks) and enjoy accurate team-wide 3-point shooting (36.6%, 6th best in the league) on above-average volume (33.8 attempts, good for 11th). Between Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, the Raptors have 417 games of playoff experience residing on the roster, and this should translate to a team that is ready for the bright lights of post-season. This roster is championship-caliber in terms of its construction, talent, and chemistry; the onus now rests on Toronto to translate their incredible potential into actuality.
To be blunt, the Raptors current roster really only has two notable flaws, seeing as the addition of Marc Gasol has improved their 3-point shooting to would-be-league-topping levels (41.0% over 26 games); shot creation and consistent secondary scoring behind Kawhi Leonard. The Klaw leads the team with 26.6 points per game, but their second highest scorer is Pascal Siakam, who is only averaging 16.9 points per game. This can be mitigated by the vast number of double-digit scorers on their roster (7), the team’s clear offensive pecking order, and obvious on-court chemistry, but it’s nonetheless something the Raptors should be wary of – if Kawhi has a bad game, the whole team will have to perform in order to compensate, as opposed to another individual offensive heavyweight.
In two words: Playoff Kawhi. If the Klaw can expand upon his regular season offensive repertoire (where he averaged 26.6ppg, 7.3rpg, 3.3apg on shooting splits of 50/37/85) and increase his intensity level on defense, he has the ability to carry this roster to the promised land (otherwise known as the NBA Finals). Leonard is one of the two Raptors (the other being Siakam, albeit to a lesser degree) who is capable of handling the opposing team’s top defensive assignment while creating efficient offense over the course of the whole game. This Raptors roster can have moments where certain players shine bright, and often their myriad contributions are what make them so overwhelming; but for everything to break right, Kawhi will have to be the best version of himself throughout their playoff run.
Players to Watch
Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are the obvious choices here; Lowry, for both his ill-reputed playoff history and overall necessity to the success of this Raptors team, and Siakam, to see how the break-out star translates his career year into Toronto’s expectation-loaded stretch run. Ftred VanVleet is a player to consider, as his excellent play of late places him squarely in the conversation for Toronto’s best bench player and most underrated backcourt threat. But if you’re looking for pure “watchability”, keep an eye on Kawhi putting straps on other superstars, Norman Powell driving the lane for thunderous dunks, and Marc Gasol organizing high-functioning offense from both within and outside the 3-point line.
The Raptors will likely make the Eastern Conference Finals, having to beat the Orlando Magic and one of the Sixers or Nets in order to reach the playoff’s penultimate series. If they can beat the Celtics or Bucks (their likely opponents should they make the ECF) in a seven-game series (which ranges anywhere from possible to probable, depending on which NBA reporter you ask, Toronto can participate in the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals (their season-opening goal after landing Leonard, a flight risk this offseason). While it’s difficult to imagine Toronto emerging as 2018-2019’s NBA Champion, owing largely to existence of the game-breaking Warriors dynasty, there has never been a better chance to win a ‘chip for the franchise in its 24-year existence – and that means you can count on these Raptors shooting their shot this postseason.
Stats courtesy of BasketballReference, ESPN, and StatMuse.