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Are We Sure … That the Raptors Aren’t the Favorites in the East?

Toronto took a big risk trading for Kawhi Leonard, but it could give the Raptors the edge they need to earn that elusive NBA Finals berth

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

If Kawhi Leonard stays healthy …

Starting this argument with the big if that every NBA front office had to weigh this summer is probably not the best way to make a convincing case for the Raptors as the favorites in the Eastern Conference. But the bet that Toronto made on Kawhi’s health could very well make the difference in the team being not just East contenders again, but East winners. Before swinging the trade that defined the offseason, Masai Ujiri was faced with a tricky question himself: How do you fix a team that’s good but never good enough? You do so by going out and trading for a former Finals MVP who immediately becomes the best player in the conference—if healthy.

For the Raptors, evolution has come as a result of necessity. Last season, head coach Dwane Casey switched up Toronto’s offense, making it more free-flowing, more 3-point-friendly, and simply better. DeMar DeRozan shot more than twice as many 3s as he did the season prior, and a young bench looked ready to take on the world. Then they ran into the LeBron brick wall for a third year in a row, which sent them careening back down the mountain they’d climbed after four embarrassing games in the second round.

So, this offseason, the Raptors evolved again—this time, focusing on the who rather than the how. They fired Casey, who would later go on to win Coach of the Year, and got rid of their most beloved player in DeRozan in the trade for Leonard. Change is never easy, but settling for a playoff appearance, or even a conference finals appearance, is not in Ujiri’s plan.

“On paper we feel we have a team that can compete in the East and hopefully to compete for a championship in this league. That’s why we play sports, is to compete for championships,” Ujiri said after the Kawhi trade. “We have been doing this for how many years? You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over.”

Trading the face of your franchise for maybe one season of a top-five player is quite the change. Of course, Kawhi comes with his own set of lingering questions. Will he be healthy? Will he play hard for a team that wasn’t on his list of preferred destinations? Will he care about winning or will he go through the motions on his way to L.A.? Will he disappear to New York in the middle of the year? It’s all in play. But if he does play, and plays hard, there’s not a thing the Raptors can’t accomplish. Kawhi is that good.

It’s easy to forget Leonard’s MVP-worthy ability because the league moves at such a breakneck pace now that two seasons ago feels more like 12. But let me refresh your memory:

A fully unleashed Kawhi is something we only started to see in his final full season in San Antonio. That’s when Kawhi became a Kobe Bryant hybrid of sorts: deadly in the midrange, yet also efficient, aggressive, and unstoppable on both ends. That season, Leonard became only the ninth player since the turn of the century to post a PER of at least 27 at age 25 or younger. Of players remaining in the East, only Giannis Antetokounmpo has ever reached that feat. And while Giannis is a force the Raptors will have to reckon with to claim the East, especially now that he is as swole as a prize fighter, he doesn’t have the type of supporting cast that Leonard will have in Toronto.

The roster the Raptors are set to play is different than the veteran-heavy teams Kawhi saw for most of his career in San Antonio. He gets an All-Star point guard in Kyle Lowry, and he keeps a defense-first shooting guard with Danny Green coming along in the trade. But the key difference is that, instead of veterans like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili playing big minutes off the bench, Toronto’s depth chart is full of promising young players with more room to grow.

It’s a testament to both the Raptors’ drafting and development that a guy like 21-year-old OG Anunoby is already a regular starter and an All-Defense candidate after only one season in the NBA. Both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are only 24; the former is a dynamic forward who may already be better than Serge Ibaka, while the latter proved to be sharpshooting revelation last season. Plus, the still-improving Jonas Valanciunas (who shot 40.5 percent from 3 on one attempt per game last season!) is only 26, as is Delon Wright, who is a staunch defender in his own right. Kawhi has never played with this many good, young players before, in part because he was that good, young player growing up on a veteran team.

But for all of its firepower, defense will really be Toronto’s calling card this season. The Raptors were already fifth in defensive rating last season. Adding the best on-ball defender in the league to that mix—and subtracting DeRozan, perhaps the team’s worst defender—is how a really good defensive team becomes a great one in a flash.

The Raptors will need to figure it out quickly, too. There’s still much to be written in the lead-up to next summer, when Leonard can opt out of his contract. But if Toronto wants to convince him, it will start with winning. Luckily, the Raptors are built for the now. The guts of an experienced, 59-win team are still there. If Kawhi buys in, the Raps can maybe set a new franchise record. Meanwhile, the Celtics and Sixers may have the talent to compete for Finals berths for years to come, but they still have their own roster questions to sort out this season. The Celtics are loaded, but they will be relying on two players coming off major injuries and young players like Jayson Tatum to find a happy medium between playing his role and growing into his prodigious talents. The Sixers’ two best players, 24-year-old Joel Embiid and 22-year-old Ben Simmons, are also among their least experienced. And Philly is still searching for a third, preferably older star, not to mention for its injury luck from last season to continue.

Sure, there are similar concerns about Toronto. But if Kawhi stays healthy, it could make all of the difference. That’s a big if, but it’s much better than not taking the risk at all.