2018-19 Season Preview: Toronto Raptors


The Raptors had a good thing going, with the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season record over the last five years, capped by a season in which they won a franchise-rejcord 59 games and were the only team to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. But after a third straight playoff exit at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was time for changes. Coach of the Year Dwane Casey was fired and All-Star DeMar DeRozan traded for Kawhi Leonard, the Kia MVP candidate who became disgruntled in San Antonio. The ceiling has been raised, but it remains to be seen just how healthy Leonard is, just how well he’ll fit with his new team, and whether or not he’d be willing to stay in Toronto for more than a year.

ICYMI

The franchise’s all-time winningest coach—Casey—was fired after the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second straight year, with assistant Nick Nurse eventually being promoted to the head job … Kia Sixth Man of the Year finalist Fred VanVleet was re-signed on a two-year deal … The franchise’s all-time leading scorer—DeMar DeRozan—was traded, along with Jakob Poeltl, to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green … Veteran Greg Monroe was signed as the new backup center.

THREE POINTS

1. Bombs away. Last season’s Raptors saw the league’s second-biggest increase in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range (38, up from 29 in 2016-17). That number will likely continue to increase under Nurse. In his two seasons as coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2011-12 and ‘12-13), the team took 33 percent of its shots, a rate that was four times the G-League average, from 3-point range.

2. Best bench in the NBA. The Raptors had the league’s best bench in the regular season, with a five-man unit that outscored its opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions. They’ve lost one member of that unit (Poeltl) and may choose to play smaller with their second unit, but still have tremendous depth, which will serve them well … in the regular season at least.

3. Bad at defending the best. Last season, the Raptors allowed just 99 points per 100 possessions against teams that ranked 11-30 in offensive efficiency, but 115 points per 100 possessions against the league’s top 10 offenses. That was the biggest differential in the league, the latter number ranked 29th, and it was a top-10 offense that eviscerated the Toronto defense in the conference semis. They’ll surely be a strong defensive team overall, but will need to figure out how to better defend the league’s best.

MAN ON THE SPOT

For the first time in his tenure as Raptors general manager, Masai Ujiri took a big swing. And really, he took two, replacing Casey with a first-time NBA coach and then trading for Leonard. Casey’s leadership will surely be missed, but Nurse could take the offense to a new level. The Leonard trade will turn out to be a home run … if Leonard is healthy, if he’s engaged, and if he doesn’t leave next summer. There are a lot of franchises that would love to have the success Toronto has had over the last five years, but Ujiri wasn’t satisfied and had a summer that will take the Raptors in a new direction and help define his legacy as an NBA executive.

STARTING FIVE

Kyle Lowry | 16.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6.9 apg

Only player who has shot better than 40 percent on at least 250 pull-up 3-point attempts over the last two seasons.

Danny Green | 8.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg

3-point shooting has slipped over the last few seasons, but still an impact defender at 6-foot-6.

Kawhi Leonard | 16.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.3 apg

All eyes on him. When healthy, he’s one of the league’s best two-way players with room to grow, especially as a creator on offense.

Serge Ibaka | 12.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg

Has the tools to be the ideal small-ball center, but was almost unplayable in the conference semis and is owed $45 million over the next two seasons.

Jonas Valanciunas | 12.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 0.9 bpg

Added 3-pointers to his repertoire, but still ranked 11th on the team in fourth-quarter minutes last season. Just not quick enough defensively.

KEY RESERVES

OG Anunoby | 5.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.7 spg

Could be the next Kawhi Leonard and will play alongside him in the Raptors’ best defensive lineups.

CJ Miles | 10.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.8 apg

Led the league in 3-point attempts per 36 minutes. His aggressiveness opens things up for others.

Pascal Siakam | 7.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.5 bpg

Another small-ball center option, though he played almost exclusively at power forward last season.

Fred VanVleet | 8.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.2 apg

Boxscore numbers don’t stand out, but the Raptors were at their best with him on the floor.

BOTTOM LINE

There’s a clear top three in the Eastern Conference, with plenty of variables that will determine how the Celtics, Sixers and Raptors sort themselves out. The Toronto variables start with Leonard, but continue with the development of Anunoby and Siakam, versatile forwards who could open up a bevy of lineup possibilities and make this the best defensive team in the league. The potential is there for another franchise-record win total, but some early growing pains could result in something more like a 57-25 record.

By John Schuhmann

First appeared on NBA.com Global

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