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Best Case, Worst Case: Toronto Raptors

The no. 4 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings has a new star in the fold, but he’s there for a good time, not a long time. Can they win enough to convince him to stay?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 4

Last Season: 59-23

Notable Additions: Kawhi Leonard (trade), Danny Green (trade), Greg Monroe (free agency)

Notable Subtractions: DeMar DeRozan (trade), Jakob Poeltl (trade)

Vegas Over/Under: 54.5

Team MVP: Kawhi Leonard

Best-Case Scenario: Kawhi Leonard stays healthy, performs as well as (or even better than) he did in 2016-17, and re-signs long-term to become the face of the Raptors franchise.

We should all dream big in life, but that’s a lot to wish for when there’s no guarantee Leonard stays healthy given the troubling quadriceps issue that sidelined him for all but nine games last season. Even if he plays all 82 games, what player will he be? Leonard was a top-five superstar the last time he was 100 percent, but he’s only held that elite status for roughly one and a half seasons. It’s not as if he’s been an alpha scorer his entire career. And now it’s his first time outside the comfortable confines of Gregg Popovich’s established Spurs system.

But that’s just the thing: Leonard’s escape from San Antonio could also be what heightens his game and leads to Toronto’s ultimate scenario: the first Finals in franchise history. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has his team playing faster and shooting more 3s than Leonard grew accustomed to with the Spurs. Increasing floor spacing and a heavier on-ball workload could unlock Leonard’s playmaking abilities. Leonard showed glimpses when Popovich let him drive San Antonio’s offense in the 2017 playoffs; over his 12-game postseason run, Leonard averaged 27.7 points and 4.6 assists. Interestingly, 40.6 percent of Leonard’s possessions were as a pick-and-roll ball handler during that stretch, which is nearly identical to his preseason pick-and-roll usage (40.7 percent) over the past two weeks. It’s a tiny sample, but it’s clear that the Raptors are expecting Leonard to shoulder more offensive responsibility. I think Leonard can do it; he isn’t as dynamic as LeBron James, but he can shift gears to keep defenders off balance, and deliver accurate pocket passes to rolling bigs or kickout passes to shooters.

The pieces around him also fit. Toronto can space the floor with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, or play more traditionally with Greg Monroe. If they want to go small, Pascal Siakam is a high-energy, rim-running big who can hold down the 5 for limited stretches. Their backcourt is led by Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, both of whom have the versatility to excel with and without the ball. With Delon Wright, Danny Green, C.J. Miles, and OG Anunoby, the Raptors have multiple players who can effectively hit 3s. If Leonard runs the show, don’t be surprised if he logs career highs across the board with roughly 25 points, seven rebounds, and five assists. Leonard has a legitimate chance to be named MVP.

Their personnel has shown glimpses of elite defensive play, too. DeRozan’s colander defense is replaced by Leonard’s one-man stone wall. Despite ranking fifth in defensive rating last season, they collapsed over their final 13 games and into the playoffs. The real dirty secret is they struggled all year to defend top opponents. The Raptors allowed opponents with a top-10 offensive rating to score 115.4 points per 100 possession, which ranked 29th, per—they, conversely, ranked second against all other opponents. To win in the playoffs, they obviously need to step up against top teams. Leonard and Green join Anunoby to complete a trio of high-level, versatile defenders. Lineups featuring these three require a nickname (Redditors have already proposed “Klamp Bros” and “Klamp Mob”—how about the “Klaw Krew”?), and their backcourt can also switch across positions. Toronto may lack a paint presence to have the NBA’s no. 1 defense, but its personnel is among the league’s best.

Anunoby is the most interesting player of the bunch. He has scary-long arms, a muscular frame, and cares about locking down the opponent. “Five-position defender” gets tossed around too freely, but it can be true for Anunoby once he masters positioning, rotations, and other intricacies of defense. I wouldn’t expect Anunoby to be any more than a complementary offensive player that spots up from 3, attacks closeouts, and cuts to the rim, but within the Raptors offense, those skills are invaluable. It will be critical for him to continue improving as a shooter. Anunoby had a slow shooting release at Indiana that got quicker as a rookie, but he was streaky. If Anunoby shoots well, and shows off any improvements as a ball handler, then it’ll be easier for Leonard to see him as his future star partner.

An NBA Finals appearance is not an unreasonable expectation for these Raptors. They have Leonard, a strong supporting cast featuring Green and Valanciunas, plus younger pieces with upside like Anunoby and VanVleet. And if the Raptors do make their first Finals run in franchise history, with one of the best fan bases in all of sports wildly cheering the team on inside and outside the arena, how could Leonard not make Canada his new home?

Worst-Case Scenario: It could be as simple as Leonard wanting to go home to Southern California, even if all breaks right during the season. But even if that happens, at least the Raptors would have an appealing young roster. It can be much, much worse. Leonard could struggle to stay on the floor and quickly show that he is no longer the player he once was, giving the Raptors immediate buyer’s remorse. As mentioned, Leonard’s quadriceps issue isn’t new. It first bothered him in 2012, then reappeared in 2016, all before the shenanigans last season. What if it doesn’t go away?

Lowry and Ibaka could also continue to regress, and the team collectively may not be able to cover for Valanciunas as a defensive liability. Toronto’s defense dominated average and bad teams last season, but they may not have as much luck should Leonard be unable to sustain his All-Defense quality play (or stay on the floor), and his teammates fail to pick up the slack. The Raptors lost Poeltl, which can’t go overlooked, since he was the team’s best big man defender for stretches of last season.

Norman Powell’s new contract kicks in this season. It’s time for him to get back on track after a dismal 2017-18. Anunoby, VanVleet, Wright, and Siakam are already contributors geared for long careers. But one of them needs to show they can be more than that. It’ll probably be Anunoby, if any of them; he needs to show more regular glimpses, like he did late last season and this summer. There’s no rushing his development—he’s only 21. But the Raptors only have this season to convince Leonard to stay, and any progress Anunoby shows would be a bonus in that recruitment.

The Raptors must avoid a collapse that mirrors their 2014 defeat at the hands of the old Nets, or the Wizards sweep in 2015. LeBron made the Raptors his playoff doormat over the past three seasons, but now the King has moved west. The Celtics and Sixers should both be better, but there are no more excuses. The Raptors need to, at least, make a valiant run in the Eastern Conference finals. Anything less would be a disappointment.

TL;DR: Toronto’s season—and future—hinges on Leonard’s production and happiness on and off the court. Thankfully for the Raptors, the talented supporting cast just might make this work.