Kawhi Leonard who?
Despite losing their top star after just one season, the Toronto Raptors did not lose a step in the 2019-2020 NBA season and instead sprinted right back up near the top of the Eastern Conference.
The defending champion – a fact that some people may have already forgotten – have quietly improved their chemistry and camaraderie towards one another in a season where the talk of the town has mostly revolved around Los Angeles and Milwaukee.
Led by a solid core group of rising stars and veterans slowly exiting their primes, the Raptors are once again in prime position to make a deep playoff run and quite possibly defend their crown.
However, with their Finals MVP tucked away at the other side of the coast, will this team have enough power for a rare title repeat?
Current roster composition
This season, the Raptors have once again been successful largely due to the continued development of last year’s Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam.
For the second straight year, the 25-year-old forward took a huge leap in the team’s pecking order, averaging a team- and career-high 23.6 points with 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1 steal on 46% shooting.
Meanwhile, the Toronto backcourt has remained as effective as ever thanks to the leadership of longtime floor general Kyle Lowry and one of last year’s NBA Finals heroes Fred VanVleet.
Lowry is averaging 19.7 points and a team-high 7.7 assists while VanVleet, who is due for a massive payday in the off-season, is norming 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and team-best 1.9 steals.
High-flyer Norman Powell, meanwhile, has quietly doubled his scoring average from 8.6 points last year to a stellar 16.4 mark this season. Whether as a starter or a sixth man, the 6-foot-4 guard consistently energized the Raptors on both ends of the floor.
Finally, there is Serge Ibaka, who has remained a crucial piece to the team’s continued success with norms of 16 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds on 52% shooting and an elite 40% clip from three.
That’s not even counting other key cogs like veteran big man Marc Gasol, all-around forward OG Anunoby, streaky scorer Terence Davis and energy guy Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who are all getting at least 7 points per game this year.
Safe to say, the Raptors have no shortage of battle-tested pieces for their title defense. This core has beaten the best of the best before, and they can certainly do it again as long as everything clicks.
Remaining games: Lakers, Heat, Magic, Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks, 76ers, Nuggets
The only problem the Raptors have to be wary of is bad history repeating itself instead of the good.
Deep teams like the 2015 Atlanta Hawks and the pre-Kawhi Raptors have been hugely successful in the regular season, but have otherwise fallen flat on their faces during the playoffs due to the lack of superstar power.
Stars get wins. Superstars get wins when they matter most.
This year’s Raptors can pick up regular season victories against whatever team in their way, but the big question is whether or not someone from that roster could carry the team when the games get slower and tougher in the playoffs.
This year, that responsibility lies with Siakam, whether he is ready for it or not. Will he take the game’s greats head-on like Leonard or will he implode under the spotlight like DeMar DeRozan?
The line is long for those who want the crown. The Raptors better be at their best and brace for the worst.