Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) reacts with guard Danny Green (14) after he made a three-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game as Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal stands at left, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Washington. The Raptors won 117-113. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
by: Colin Krauss
Toronto is off to a phenomenal start this season. With new head coach Nick Nurse at the helm, the Raptors look unstoppable. The have quickly taken care of the Cavaliers, Celtics, Wizards, Hornets, Mavericks and Timberwolves. None of these games were even particularly close, save for the Celtics game, which still saw the Raptors appear a notch above the Eastern Conference Finalists from last season.
There are two major keys to Toronto’s championship aspirations this year. The first of which is the unreal versatility of the depth they possess. Their starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka features 5 players that both space the floor and defend well-above average for their position.
Kyle Lowry has been one of the more underrated defenders and playmakers in the NBA for a few years now. He is incredibly accurate from deep, and plays hard on defense, even when he is at immense size disadvantage. Danny Green is in the same boat. When looking for a prototype of the 3-and-D wing, Green comes to mind. From 2013 to the present, Green has shot 39% on 5 threes per game. He also provides excellent defense on anybody ranging from point guards to small forwards. This combination of skill is priceless in the uber-offense league of today.
Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (Laurence Kesterson/AP)
OG Anunoby is like a Kawhi Leonard in training. On the defensive end, last year’s playoffs proved that he was the best option in the Eastern Conference defending LeBron James… as a rookie. His defensive fluidness allows him to guard any position outside of center. Once again, his shooting prowess is what unlocks his fit in the Raptors offense. In his young career, he has shot 36.7% on 215 three point attempts, while also showing some off-the-dribble moves as well during the past couple weeks.
Serge Ibaka fits the mold as well. Although he isn’t as imposing as he was in OKC on the defensive end, Ibaka still provides yet another source of defensive talent. Switching to the perimeter isn’t perfect for him, but guarding bigs is no problem, and he is competent on most small forwards. Since coming to Toronto, Ibaka is money from three. He has shot 37.3% on about 4 attempts per game in the last two and a half years.
Now, for the other major key to Toronto’s championship goals, we come to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard takes this team from Eastern powerhouse to legitimate contender and rival to the Golden State Warriors.
Leonard came to Toronto through a buy-low move that sent DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs and Leonard and Danny Green to the Six. Now, I don’t want to sound insensitive, but the difference between DeRozan and a healthy Leonard in terms of basketball impact is roughly the size of the Pacific Ocean. Add Danny Green to the trade, and the Raptors enter a new level of competition.
When Leonard is at 100% health, he is a DPOY-level defender and close to the 50-40-90 club on offense. After Leonard’s 35-point night on Wednesday night, it’s beginning to look like he is very close to his 2016-2017 abilities. That Kawhi Leonard gave the Warriors major issues in the playoffs before he was injured on a much weaker Spurs team.
With a starting lineup this loaded, one may think they are short on depth. Nope. They may still have the best bench in the NBA that decimated benches last year. On their bench, there are a number of two-way players that can play at a high level. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas, and Norman Powell are each capable shooters and defenders. That’s 10 deep of players that can effectively defend and spread the floor for the team’s best offensive creators, Lowry, Leonard, VanVleet, and Siakam. The Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, Jazz, Sixers, Thunder, Lakers, and Nuggets can’t even say that.
Our recent memory may cloud our judgment of the Raptors. Last year in May, they were swept by the Cavaliers. The year before, they were swept by the Cavaliers. The year before that, the lost to the Cavaliers. We should forget these, because the current Raptors look like they have a chance to be unstoppable this season given their spectacular defensive personnel and loaded offense. And yes, they may very well put a halt on the 4-rings-in-5-years conversation happening in the Bay.