A New Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?
The Toronto Raptors were clearly at a crossroads after being swept unceremoniously by the Cleveland Cavaliers in May. It was a microcosm of their situation – good enough to win the East in the regular season, but not good enough to win in big playoff games.
The Raptors went on to fire Dwane Casey as head coach, despite him ultimately being named Coach of The Year. The idea behind the firing wasn’t an emotional reaction to the swept; it was the acceptance of the reality that Casey wasn’t going to evolve as a coach, at least not the way management had hoped.
Casey’s ouster wasn’t the only change; the Raptors also traded away franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan in a “dare to be great” trade with San Antonio for forward Kawhi Leonard.
From a pure talent standpoint, Leonard is an upgrade in almost every way to DeRozan, a multi-time All-Star in his own right. The problem with Leonard isn’t what he is as a player, its what he’s become as a person. No one saw the divorce in San Antonio coming, nor the lengths his camp would go to force an exit and leave countless millions on the table for a new start.
The problem for Toronto is the new start Leonard was seeking never included them. So, much like the Oklahoma City Thunder did a year ago with Paul George, the Raptors are hopeful that a long and successful courtship of Leonard could win him over and into a new long-term deal. If that sounds like a pipe dream, it probably is.
Let’s be real about a few things.
Toronto is a beautiful and passionate basketball city, but is that enough to sway a kid from Southern California to stay? The Raptor faithful will point to DeRozan as an example of yes; he did exactly that when he signed his current deal. But is the situation ideal for Leonard, again the answer might be yes, especially if he is fully recovered from the quad injury that sidelined him for most of last season.
There is no doubting that the Raptors are built to win right now. They won 59 games with arguably the same roster and will enter an Eastern Conference that no longer has LeBron James in Cleveland.
Sure, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are formidable challengers for supremacy in the East and let’s not forget about the Indiana Pacers, who could be in that same pack of teams vying for the top spot. But are any of them far and away better than the Raptors in terms of proven in their prime players?
The script seems to be written for the Raptors to either explode and cement themselves at the top of the East or implode on their own decisions.
New Raptors coach Nick Nurse is as a good as they come from the assistant ranks. He is a bright basketball mind, and he knows his players and has relationships with most of them. The question is will he be as good as advertised? If he not, this dance could be over before it starts.
Leonard has so much to prove after orchestrating his exit from San Antonio. If he gets back to MVP form in Toronto how can the Raptors not be considered the front-runner for the East? Yes, Boston is going to be really good too, but if you were betting on two players – MVP version of Kyrie Irving or MVP version of Leonard, who are you taking?
The problem for the Raptors is what if Leonard isn’t that guy again? What if all the negativity becomes too much? What if not being coddled and sheltered by the Spurs is a problem? No, Leonard isn’t a baby that needs mothering, but if you have followed anything about Leonard, he’s not this rock of a person that can handle anything. It’s a real question only he can answer with his play on the floor.
Equally, what if the quad isn’t fully healed or he goes Isaiah Thomas and tries to come back on to make it worse and needs surgery?
These are not easy questions to answer.
If the Raptors come out on top of most of these decisions – Nurse and Leonard are what people hope them to be — then things could swing in a very interesting direction for the Raptor franchise.
That’s what makes the “dare to be great” move interesting.
Thunder GM Sam Presti made news when he was quoted in Paul George’s ESPN docu-series, saying one of his favorite Lyrics was from Tribe Called Quest – “Scared money don’t make none” — in rationalizing his all-in approach to George.
It seems like Raptor president Masai Ujiri may have stolen a play from the Thunder playbook, because the franchise is now all the way in on the make or break moves of this off-season.
This could be the beginning of a new chapter for the Raptors, or it could end being the moves that cratered something special.
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