The Toronto Raptors entered this season with more uncertainty than any defending champion in NBA history.
Summer left a Kawhi Leonard-shaped hole in their roster, the first time a Finals MVP has ever left their team in the following free agency. Another integral championship piece, Danny Green, quickly followed Leonard to Los Angeles. Key veterans entered the final year of their contracts, triggering inevitable trade rumours.
Toronto looked to be in flux. Cue the hot takes predicting their demise.
Toronto Raptors: Back to the basement, back to the lottery pic.twitter.com/opyApmum6f
— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) July 6, 2019
Fast forward four months and the Raptors are mounting a title defence that few outside of
Toronto foresaw. They currently boast a 42-16 record, matching the pace of last year’s title-winning team after 58 games.
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Although their record is a mirror image of last season, how the Raptors got to this impressive position has been decidedly different.
The emergence of Siakam and VanVleet
Last year Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet were cogs in the championship machine. Both were key contributors; VanVleet growing into a dependable back-up point guard who showed starter-level qualities in the postseason, and Siakam deservedly winning the Most Improved Player award while displaying glimpses of All-Star potential.
Still, the G-League graduates were side characters in the eventual championship movie. Now Siakam and VanVleet have assumed lead roles this season.
Siakam and VanVleet’s numbers up across the board.
Here’s a look at Siakam’s improved stats:
While VanVleet has elevated his play as well:
Siakam has flourished into a bonafide superstar. He presents a match-up nightmare on a daily basis— too fast for lumbering big men and too physical for guards to defend in the post.
The Cameroon native was rightfully named a starter in the All-Star Game, cranking up his usage without a significant dip in efficiency. Siakam entered the league as a non-shooter and is now averaging 36.2% on six three-pointers per game, taking difficult shots in the process. He has a legitimate case at winning the Most Improved Player Award again… which is an entirely absurd proposition.
VanVleet has emerged as not only a quality starter, but a borderline All-Star. He has slotted in perfectly beside Kyle Lowry in what has to be the smallest, yet feistiest backcourt in the league. VanVleet remains a catch-and-shoot marksman but has also upped his own shot creation, taking far more shots off of the dribble this season.
During Lowry’s injury absence, VanVleet surfaced as the conductor and tone-setter of the team on the court. VanVleet is now also one of the most prominent leaders off the court— his voice resonates throughout the locker room and he immediately took fellow undrafted rookie Terence Davis under his wing. With his impending free agency, VanVleet is set to be a very, very rich man this summer.
The genius of Nick Nurse
Winning a title as a rookie head coach is quite the accomplishment. However, it was fair to question just how much Nick Nurse had influenced the team’s success as he inherited a roster that had made the playoffs for five straight seasons and added the likes of Leonard, Green, and Marc Gasol.
Those doubts have been silenced this season. Nurse sits as the front-runner for Coach of the Year, leading an overlooked and injury-laden roster with a masterful coaching display. While much of last year was focused on building chemistry and familiarity, Nurse has gone full mad scientist mode, experimenting with unconventional zones, traps, and full-court presses to flummox opponents.
It only took 139 games.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2020
Great coaches typically earn their salary in the postseason by implementing innovative schemes with more time to scout a singular opponent. Instead, Nurse has adopted these unique strategies in the regular season.
Nothing has been off limits, and the bold approach has paid off handsomely with Nurse now possessing the highest winning percentage in league history.
Spreading the love
For much of last year the Raptors’ offence and Kawhi’s offence were two separate entities that existed parallel to one another. Lowry was unusually deferential for large portions of the season, and a hierarchy was established with Leonard firmly at the top.
This season the Raptors have adjusted, shifting towards an egalitarian offence in which any given player can take over the game offensively. The equal scoring distribution has been in part a forced issue due to injury woes, but it has been a testament to the depth and chemistry between their championship core.
Toronto may feel the pain of not having a go-to bucket-getter when the physicality and intensity of playoff defences enter the fray. However, their strength in numbers will also be an advantage as the Raptors really do not possess a glaring weak link to be exploited in the postseason. It may be a different team to last year, but Toronto remains a threat to win the championship.