The Golden State Warriors have dominated the NBA for the last several seasons, winning three of the last four championships. The Warriors broke the single season wins record in 2015-16, and have managed to put together one of the greatest teams in NBA history. For many NBA fans, the result of the last two NBA seasons has been a foregone conclusion. The mystery doesn’t lie in whether or not the Warriors will win the championship, but rather how many games it will take for them to do so. Golden State has had to deal with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals for the last four seasons, but with James now in the Western Conference, all signs point to a new foe emerging to face them from the East. Many have suggested that foe to be the Boston Celtics. After all, the Celtics nearly eliminated James and the Cavaliers from the playoffs last season, even without two of their best players. Now fully healthy, the Celtics will certainly be in the mix to make a run to the NBA Finals. Despite how good the Celtics look on paper, there is another team that is perhaps more equipped to take on the Warriors in the NBA Finals. It’s a team that doesn’t match up exactly with Golden State, but a team that has the personnel to make things interesting. That team is the Toronto Raptors.
The Toronto Raptors made some key organizational changes this offseason. At the time, it seemed somewhat radical to part ways with some of the individuals that led the team to their best season in franchise history, but the changes look to be positive. The Raptors began by firing head coach Dwane Casey, who guided the team to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference and eventually won the Coach of the Year award. Casey’s tenure in Toronto was successful in terms of the regular season, and he did guide the team to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, but three consecutive playoff losses to the Cavaliers (two of them sweeps) meant that the team felt it was time to part ways.
Toronto also made the decision to trade DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan was something of a rarity in the modern NBA, a superstar player determined to succeed with the team that drafted him. He famously refused to even meet with other teams during his free agency in 2016, electing to remain with the Raptors rather than entertain the possibility of playing for his hometown Lakers. DeRozan was beloved by the Toronto fan base, and was the most popular Raptors player since Vince Carter in the early 2000s. It seemed strange to envision DeRozan playing for another team just a few months ago, but now that scenario is a reality.
Moving on from Casey and DeRozan was a drastic change, but the Raptors look to benefit from the shakeup. Casey was replaced by Nick Nurse, a long time assistant with the team. Nurse’s appointment meant that the Raptors would put someone in charge who is familiar with the organization and several of the players. Because he’s been with the team for as long as he has, the typical adjustment period for the new coach is much shorter. Early in the 2018-19 season, the move seems to be a smart one.
The Raptors are 9-1 through their first 10 games, and Nurse’s emphasis on ball movement is paying dividends. The Raptors are currently third in the league in assists per game, meaning that they are constantly looking for open shots on offense, and playing unselfish basketball. Under Casey and with DeRozan, the Raptors often relied on isolation basketball. It worked well enough, but this new approach from Nurse seems to be able to get the best out of the entire team rather than a handful of players.
The biggest change for the Toronto Raptors comes in the form of DeRozan’s replacement, Kawhi Leonard. After his well-documented falling out with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard was dealt to Toronto for DeRozan, along with Danny Green. With all due respect to Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and DeRozan himself, Leonard is the best player the Raptors have had in their franchise’s history.
He is an elite player on both sides of the ball, able to affect games offensively and defensively. Coincidentally, Leonard is a perfect fit on a team with several excellent defenders. Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, among others, are all above average defenders. Adding players like Leonard and Green to that means that the Raptors have the ability to defend any team -or player- in the league.
The Toronto Raptors’ ability to defend effectively makes them the best possible foil for the Warriors, should the two teams meet in the Finals later this season. Lowry has played well in his career against the Warriors, showing his ability to stick to Stephen Curry defensively and hold his own against one of the better defensive teams in the league. As a team, the Raptors have been one of the Warriors’ toughest foes on their current run. Golden State won both meetings against the Raptors last season, but the two games were decided by a combined seven points. With the Raptors having a better roster after adding Leonard and Green, they may be able to defeat the Warriors when they meet this season.
Kawhi Leonard has demonstrated the ability to lock down an opponent’s best player when the situation calls for it. He was extremely effective against LeBron James in the 2014 Finals, and his defense against James was a large reason why he won Finals MVP for that series. Leonard is agile enough to keep up with any player the Warriors have on the perimeter, and his size makes him an even more versatile defender. A player with those attributes is exactly what a team needs to compete with Golden State, due to Kevin Durant‘s composition of attributes. Durant is an incredible offensive player, but Leonard may be just as good defensively.
If the Toronto Raptors can navigate through the Eastern Conference, remain healthy and succeed in the playoffs, they’ll likely earn the chance to face the Warriors on the game’s biggest stage. There, they can show they truly belong with the NBA’s elite.