With just under two minutes left in the third quarter on Monday night, Nick Nurse called for his subs. The Toronto Raptors’ first-year head coach had just seen his starters rip off a casual 14-2 run to put the Charlotte Hornets in a 20-point hole, and he decided it was time to shift gears and get them a breather. First, All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and the frontcourt tandem of Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam hit the bench; then, six seconds later, new additions Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green followed suit.
After reaching down the bench for his second unit, Nurse came back with:
- Jonas Valanciunas, a former fifth overall pick and 26-year-old Lithuanian mauler who’s been the Raptors’ starting center for most of the past six seasons;
- OG Anunoby, who likely would’ve been a lottery pick two summers back had he not torn the ACL in his right knee midway through his sophomore year at Indiana, and who spent the bulk of his rookie season as Toronto’s starting small forward;
- Fred VanVleet, the dynamite point guard who finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season;
- C.J. Miles, a central-casting veteran sage who might be the Raptors’ best pure catch-and-shoot threat;
- And Norman Powell, a super-athletic defensive grinder on the wing capable of peeling Miles Bridges’s cap back.
The results actually weren’t all that great; that unit got outscored by seven points in a game Toronto won by 21, and is a minus-14 in 19 minutes on the young season. But the fact this was the Raptors’ reserve corps briefly turned me into that dude from the blinking GIF. (As did remembering that the ideal version of Toronto’s second unit will feature the injured Delon Wright, a dynamic 6-foot-5 guard who can man either backcourt spot, defend three positions, and share ballhandling duties with VanVleet.) That unremarkable late-third-quarter substitution really drove the point home for me: Dude, the Raptors are freaking *stacked.*
The Raptors are now 4-0, with victories against overmatched Cleveland and Charlotte teams sandwiching an impressive back-to-back sweep of the Eastern-favorite Celtics in Toronto and the playoff-hopeful Wizards in D.C. Through the season’s first week, the Raptors have been one of three teams to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in non-garbage-time minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass, joining the new-look Bucks and the Warriors. And only the rampaging Pelicans and suddenly stout Nuggets have posted higher net ratings than Toronto, according to NBA.com/Stats. They’ve been, by both eye test and analytics, one of the three or four best teams in the NBA thus far.
But you can never quarantine the past, so let’s reckon with it: you’ve heard this before. You have, in fact, heard some version of it in each of the past five seasons, all of which have featured a Raptors squad with a credible claim to being The Best Team In Franchise History, and none of which ended with Toronto playing for a title.
You definitely heard it last season, when the Raptors won a franchise-record 59 games, finished the regular season second in net rating, and wholeheartedly believed that they were good enough to finally dethrone LeBron James and win the NBA championship. They weren’t even close—and the shock to the organization’s system was so severe that even the best basketball team Toronto had ever seen was broken up in the offseason.
Out went Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, and up stepped Nurse, the assistant lauded for overhauling Toronto’s offense. And then, in what could wind up being the most important decision in Raptors history, out went DeMar DeRozan, an All-NBA scorer who’d grown into the Raptors’ heartbeat, in exchange for Leonard, a former MVP candidate who’d just missed 73 games with a mysterious quad injury, and who might look for, if not greener pastures, then warmer climes, at his first opportunity next summer, when he can decline his $21.3 million player option for the 2019-20 season and enter unrestricted free agency.
Trading DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green wasn’t a gigantic risk, but it was a risk. Still, president Masai Ujiri did it, because this was his best and perhaps only shot at bringing a top-five player to Toronto. While Leonard’s season openers against Cleveland (9-for-22 from the floor) and Boston (10-for-25) showed he still had some work to do to find his legs, Monday’s post-rest outing against the Hornets (22 points on 9-for-14 shooting, 4-for-7 from deep) offered some evidence that he can still create separation, exploit mismatches against bigs, get just about wherever he wants on the floor for whatever shot he wants, and even make some slick feeds in traffic:
It's a little too early to declare Kawhi Leonard all the way back. Some stuff he did against Charlotte last night, though, sure made me think he's on his way. pic.twitter.com/FBeWnIWqZj— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) October 23, 2018
Late in Monday’s broadcast, Toronto play-by-play announcer Matt Devlin relayed the stat that Leonard’s 77 points are the most ever by a Raptor in his first three games of a season, which sounds pretty good for a guy who just missed basically an entire year with various arcane injuries. Here’s something that sounds even better, if you’re a Raptors fan: He hasn’t been Toronto’s best player this season.
Lowry’s playing out of his mind right now, averaging 21.5 points, 10 assists, and three rebounds per game, shooting 60 percent from the floor with a scorching 15-for-26 mark (57.7 percent) from long distance and a 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He looks phenomenally comfortable at the controls of Nurse’s offense, flanked by shooters at every position.
The starting quartet of Lowry, Leonard, Green, and Siakam has outscored opponents by 35 points in 52 minutes so far, and has recorded a positive plus-minus with either Ibaka or Valanciunas (two starts apiece) at center. The additions of Leonard and Green alongside Siakam, Anunoby, and hard-nosed fire hydrants Lowry and VanVleet means that virtually any combination of perimeter players Nurse picks can dribble, pass, shoot, and D up. There are very few glaring holes to be poked at and prodded; this is as complete a team as there is in the NBA.
I don’t blame the Raptors for downplaying expectations and telling Brian Windhorst they’re a long way from competing with the Warriors; last season’s end was too heartbreaking to open this one with bravado, especially given the relative lack of equity for key pieces like Leonard, Green, and Nurse after the summertime shake-up. Here’s the thing, though: with their bench in flux, even the Warriors aren’t quite the Warriors right now. The Celtics are 2-2 and trying to figure out how to get Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and their offense back online. And LeBron James is winless in the West.
It’s been true in the past, but it looks like it’s true again: This is the best Raptors team in franchise history, and if Leonard’s going to look like this all season, Toronto is absolutely a championship contender. Toronto’s demons will be there until it exorcises them, but the Raptors have everything they need to do it.