Raptors offseason review: NBA champions move on from the brief but brilliant Kawhi Leonard era
Toronto should still be formidable and fun, but free agency is once again hanging over the team
In the last five days, a video titled "Kyle Lowry analysis | The little-king thing" has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube. It's exactly what it sounds like: a supercut of the Toronto Raptors guard drawing fouls, taking charges, boxing out, making the extra pass and outwitting opponents. The narrator, Ben Taylor, praises Lowry for his "court-mapping" and "subtle manipulation." If you're a Raptors fan or a basketball nerd, you already appreciate his artistry, but there's something about seeing so many of his tricks in one sitting. Taylor's video captures his genius as effectively as anything I've ever seen. (On this subject, I also recommend ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz's profile from May.)
Taylor asserts that, while Lowry has made five All-Star teams, he is often overlooked in the discussion of top-tier point guards because he isn't a one-on-one wizard. As a scorer, he has had highs and lows in the playoffs, and on occasion his unselfishness has turned into passivity. He has a mean stepback 3 and he uses angles as well as anyone in the league, but at 6-foot-1 he cannot manufacture good looks at will like a typical star. Any Lowry devotee will tell you that this is precisely why it was so meaningful to see him become a champion, and to do so with a triumphant 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in the clincher. Kawhi Leonard may have left Toronto, but Lowry hasn't gone anywhere. He wants to sign an extension. For the Raptors, there are far worse fates than empowering him and Pascal Siakam to increase their respective usage rates as they try to prove they're still an elite team without Leonard.
Toronto famously went 17-5 in the regular-season games Leonard missed last season, but next team's roster will be different. Danny Green is gone, too, and the front office did not attempt to replace the former Spurs with seasoned vets. The Raptors' offseason additions include second-draft guys (Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Cameron Payne), a trio of rookies (Dewan Hernandez, Terence Davis and Sagaba Konate), a deadeye shooter imported from the Spanish league (Matt Thomas) and a raw, high-flying forward (Devin Robinson). It is possible that none of them would have cracked Nick Nurse's rotation in the Finals. The 2019-20 season feels like a bridge from the title to whatever the next iteration of the Raptors will be, and these players -- along with the returning Patrick McCaw, Chris Boucher and Malcolm Miller -- are essentially auditioning.
A year ago, Toronto faced questions about chemistry and how a new coach and a new superstar could change things. Just about everything is different now, but, just like last season, free agency looms large: Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet will all be unrestricted next summer. As the front office tries to position the franchise to become a true contender again, it will have to take calls about all of them. In between now and the trade deadline, it will have to figure out how much a respectable showing in the playoffs is worth.
"I think we're still a top team in the East. Yeah, we lost Danny and Kawhi, great players, great guys who really contributed and helped get us a championship, but we still have our core group of guys. We lost two key guys, but…it's an opportunity for other guys to step up and fill that void of points and defensive awareness and intensity. I think we're still a top team, and we're focused on doing it again. Everybody's always counting us out, and we're using that as motivation yet again. And we're going to stay after it and we think we can go back-to-back again." -Norman Powell, in a radio interview
What could have been
Hmmm. The Raptors could have re-signed Leonard and celebrated with another parade. That would have been optimal. But they knew all along that there might be nothing they could do to stop him from going home.
After Leonard left, Toronto could have focused more on win-now players rather than investing in youth, athleticism and upside. It could have tried to re-sign Green, which would have been expensive but would have solidified its starting lineup. The Raptors' options were limited, however, as they had financial constraints and watched potential targets fall off the board while waiting for Leonard's decision.
Taking the temperature
A hypothetical conversation between someone who is still experiencing post-championship euphoria and someone who isn't
Optimistic fan: The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. The TORONTO RAPTORS are NBA CHAMPIONS. Kyle Lowry is going to get an enormous championship ring. Hubie Brown voted Fred VanVleet for Finals MVP. Patrick McCaw has never lost a playoff series. Life is beautiful.
Skeptical fan: Uhhh, what about the offseason?
Optimistic fan: Yeah, yeah, Kawhi left, whatever. The trade was still obviously worth it. I'm happy with what they did this summer -- they basically went after long and athletic dudes and Matt Thomas, who has never missed a jump shot. Also: Did you see how jacked Siakam is now?
Skeptical fan: In the afterglow of the title, I guess the stakes don't feel that high for next season. But I feel weird about the roster. They have a bunch of proven players from the title team, and then they have a bunch of guys who might not be in the league in a couple of years. That's a strange dynamic! Half the team just played at the absolute highest level and want to get back there, but they're going to share the court with players who don't think the game the same way they do and have obvious flaws.
Optimistic fan: Weird? Strange? I love this! It's a little like the Raptors of a few years ago, with the "shadow team" of developing talent that turned into the best second unit in the league and eventually produced the Most Improved Player and Hubie's Finals MVP. I'm not one to whine about the "losing culture" that comes with tanking, but I do think it's good for young guys to actually have to earn their playing time. This is a good environment for the new guys, as the ones who contribute to winning will get the minutes. Also, I can't wait to see Siakam hit somebody with a spin move in the All-Star Game.
Skeptical fan: What you described sounds great, as long as the team is actually winning. But what if they're not? What if Lowry gets hurt or they just don't have enough shooting? No one expects the Raptors to be what they were last year, but there is pressure on them that reminds me a little of Ujiri's first season running the show. If they don't jell, the front office could break them up. Hell, even if they do jell, the front office could break them up, provided that the trade offers are enticing enough. Ujiri has already shown that he is more practical than sentimental.
VanVleet could start next to Lowry in the backcourt -- they had a plus-14.4 net rating in 661 regular-season minutes together last season, with a remarkable defensive rating of 100.6 -- or he could remain a sixth man. He is coming off a glorious run in the conference finals and the Finals, but he wants to do more, especially in a contract year.
I am extremely high on VanVleet. He is a tough defender for his size, and he's fearless. Small guards, however, typically have to go above and beyond to show the league they can handle a starting job. (Lowry himself didn't become a full-time starter until his fifth year and lost his spot -- to Goran Dragic and Jose Calderon -- in the two seasons after that.) Let's see if VanVleet can take what he wants.
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