After winning the Finals MVP and leading the Toronto Raptors franchise to it’s first National Basketball Association title last season, a highly-sought-after Kawhi Leonard extradited himself from the harsh winters of Canada in favor of the hot, beautiful beaches of California. His cameo appearance in Toronto was nothing more than a pilot episode; a precursor that would become his interview for “Hollywood”. Garnering high-ratings and praise for willing the Raptors to a victory of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard’s impending free agency and subsequent departure left the team “up north” in a state of worry, and uncertainty for what lies ahead.
Raptors fans need not worry. For a fan base that may feel like they are lost in a prehistoric jungle, it’s important to understand that the franchise didn’t enter an ice age with “tyrannosaurus” Leonard’s departure. He was nothing more than an exhibit. One that arrives-and-departs, driving ticket sales and pushing a team to its maximum potential during his visit.
Make no mistake about it. Kawhi is the best player in the world…
During his time with the Raptors, he managed to take an extremely-good team and put them over the top. Not only did Kawhi lead the team’s banner-raising performance, but he actually orchestrated it by showing the team what it takes to become champions. Referencing his San Antonio days, the two-time Finals MVP had been there before and put “his” final touches on a team that had been eliminated in three straight playoff appearances by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
His brief episode with the franchise has made a lasting impact on the rest of the Toronto Raptors roster, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that those lessons learned are a road map. One which will lead the franchise to safety, and a state of normalcy where they will hover around the upper third of the Eastern Conference.
Obviously he’s one of the world’s great players. I think any team would miss him. We played so many games without him a year ago that we’re kind of used to just going out and playing anyway. (Leonard’s) a big body defender and when he really locks in he can impact the game on defense, but I think (Pascal Siakam) and (OG Anunoby) and Norman Powell fill that role a little bit.Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse via the National Post
Last season, Kawhi spent a lot of time on minute restrictions while the Raptors implemented their load management strategy as the superstar worked his way back from injury. As a result, they went an impressive 17-5 in his absence.
Head coach Nick Nurse deserves credit for the impact he had on last year’s championship team. Building his resume and coaching 15 teams in five different countries, the charismatic leader has experienced and seen more than your average 52-year-old coach, as his career dates back to humble beginnings as an assistant in England during the eighties.
The Raptors are led by a perimeter-guard combination of veterans Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The elder statesman Lowry got his feet wet in the NBA years ago with the Memphis Grizzlies and has evolved into possibly the most “underrated” backcourt player in the league. Through four games played this season, his all-around performance is providing the Raptors with balance. Currently, he is averaging 22.0 points and grabbing 5.3 rebounds per contest, while dishing out 6.8 assists in just over his team-leading 39 minutes per contest.
VanVleet, on the other hand, is proving to be a “monster” compliment to the savvy veteran. The third-year player is set for a breakout season, as he seemed to grow up overnight after his child was born during last season’s finals. The guard is doing his best to mimic Lowry, as he is averaging 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.
Then there is the Toronto frontcourt led by an emerging Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka.
Siakam is the pillar in which the Raptors hope will transition their team into the future. Last week, the team signed him to a 4 year/$130 million maximum contract extension. Not too shabby for a kid who didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 18-years-old. In the early going this season, he is living up to the contact as he leads the team in both points (27.5 ppg) and rebounding (10.3 rpg).
You think about all the work you’ve put it. From the first day I got drafted, I always wanted more and I felt like I deserve to be at a different level, so I never settled. And I’m never going to settle. I’m always going to work and try to better myself.Toronto Raptors Forward Pascal Siakam via The Athletic
Ibaka provides a solid veteran-presence off of the bench that Nurse can turn to when in need of a spark of energy. The big-man is currently averaging 13.3ppg / 7.5 rpg / 1.5 bpg in just over 23 minutes of action each night thus far. He also provides the younger Siakam with an example of a consummate professional that the youngster can aspire to become the franchise’s “face” of the future.
So far this season the Toronto Raptors are 3-1, and don’t seem to be worried about Leonard’s departure.
The defending champions are taking a proactive approach to this season. Treating it like a challenge in which they are well prepared for. With a roadmap put in place by the eccentric Nurse, this well experienced and fearless squad is sure to ascend out of the forest and continue reaching “Jurassic” heights the Canadian franchise has never seen before.
Header Photo Credit: Raptors Republic