The NBA is a fickle beast, success a fleeting one.
And, right now, no one may know that better than the Toronto Raptors.
After the first title in their team’s history, the Raptors are left without Kawhi Leonard, the former Spur, Raptor and now Clipper that carried the franchise to its greatest heights. Toronto and Masai Ujiri’s gamble from a year ago was worth it – with Leonard in place of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors reached the pinnacle of the basketball world – but it has left the franchise ill-equipped to retain their heightened status.
Of course, and although he was a significant part of it, there was more to their team than Leonard. That being said, success could stay in the cards for the Raptors, if not to a lesser extent, next season.
But the shoes Leonard vacated were quite large. Ujiri and Co. did what they could to fill them, but it can be hard, nigh impossible, to replace a superstar. Did they do enough to keep the team at the top of the Eastern Conference or, at the very least, earn a passing grade?
The Raptors season was an interesting one.
After the DeRozan-Leonard blockbuster rocked the whole of the NBA, Toronto was projected to be one of the best in the Association. It didn’t quite go as planned, but the Raptors indeed found themselves near the top of the NBA ladder, second only to the Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) in terms of their record (58-24).
Toronto was mocked early on for their “load management” approach, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Leonard looked like himself rather than the hobbled doppelganger we saw in his last season with San Antonio.
Once again at the peak of his powers, Leonard elevated the play of everyone around him and made the Raptors true title contenders. When the postseason came around, Toronto – after a brief slip against the Orlando Magic – rolled through the first round.
In the second, they clashed in a back-and-forth seven-game series with the Philadelphia 76ers, which ended with a signature moment from Leonard.
From there, they went toe-to-toe with eventual Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors didn’t flinch.
And, finally, they were face to face with the beast that has stalked the collective nightmares of the NBA over the last five seasons: the Golden State Warriors.
The Raptors were built for this moment: to take on (and topple) a giant. In trading DeRozan, the team had stripped themselves of what their franchise was – its former face. It was cold, but it was also calculated and methodical. Everything had led up to this moment for Toronto, and there was nothing that they were going to let stop them.
And nothing did.
Toronto was a team of destiny. There was an air about them, a sense of magic and an essence that can’t be coached from the whiteboard or broken down in the film room. They took the Warriors to their limit and beat them. And, injuries aside, nothing can take that away from the Raptors franchise, their fans and the city of Toronto.
Unfortunately, this is Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series and, while what the Raptors achieved during the regular and postseason is great, it doesn’t factor into what they have done since they brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.
The Raptors had hoped a title could lure Leonard back to the frozen North. In the end, not even that was enough to keep Leonard from Los Angeles but, if given the choice, Toronto would almost certainly trade for him again – the proverbial “window” can close so quickly and the team had to seize their opportunity while there still was one.
6-foot-7 superstar forwards don’t grow on trees, however. Leonard’s departure left a superstar-sized hole on the roster and he wouldn’t be easily replaced.
Toronto went into the 2019 NBA Draft with just a second-round pick, its first owed to San Antonio as part of the deal for Leonard. With that, the team took Dewan Hernandez, a forward out of the University of Miami.
They retained Patrick McCaw, a wing, signed Terence Davis, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Devin Robinson, all forwards.
Sensing a theme?
The Raptors, rather than trying to find one player, opted to replace Leonard with a committee. None of those players inspire much confidence, but bringing in a versatile group like that is at least a start.
From there, Toronto filled out the rest of the roster: with Danny Green, another integral piece, gone to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Raptors added Cameron Payne and Matt Thomas to serve as depth behind Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell.
Short of something completely out-of-the-blue, ala the Leonard-DeRozan swap this time last year, there is little else the Raptors could do to improve their next-season outlook. After the flurry that was the start of free agency, there just isn’t much impact talent left out there.
On a lighter note, the Raptors didn’t lose much of anything outside of Leonard and Green that wasn’t addressed in those signings. Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd, Jodie Meeks and Eric Moreland were the other Raptors that walked into free agency.
Those players haven’t exactly knocked down the doors anywhere else. The Raptors, at the very least, should get similar production from their new guys.
PLAYERS IN: Terence Davis, Dewan Hernandez, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Cameron Payne, Devin Robinson, Matt Thomas
PLAYERS OUT: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd, Jodie Meeks, Eric Moreland
Short of retaining Leonard, it was almost guaranteed to be a “bad” offseason for the Raptors, and their grade has reflected that.
Their roster is talented, but Toronto is built to house a superstar, not compete without one. Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson, Payne and the others could have proven perfect additions to a title contender but, to the Raptors, they serve as no more than mediocre depth, either journeymen or hopeful reclamation projects.
In an extremely top-heavy East, Toronto should have no problem floating somewhere in the middle-of-the-pack (if not near the top of the conference). But that “good-not-great” gray-area isn’t the goal for any squad, certainly not the defending champions.
Now, it is the NBA, and anything can happen in this league. Should another disgruntled opportunity ala Leonard present itself, and should the Raptors jump on it, that could all change.
But right now, the odds of that happening seem slim.
In Leonard’s departure, Toronto was dealt an unwinnable hand. Unfortunately, there is no sympathy in grading.
OFFSEASON GRADE: D