There have been quite a few shakeups in the NBA landscape this summer. With the Warriors still locked and loaded as the heavy championship favorite, other contenders are making every move they can to help them measure up with the champs. One such team is the Toronto Raptors. Toronto finished the 2017-18 season with a 59-23 record and the #1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a breakout year for the franchise, and the team had high hopes of making a deep postseason run and ending its long streak of playoff disappointments. But it turned out to be more of the same for the Raptors when they ran into LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, getting swept 4-0 in an embarrassing performance. The feeling among fans that this team couldn’t perform in the postseason began to grow even stronger. But in light of more recent events, Toronto fans may have the reason for hope. Here is why you may see the Raptors in the NBA Finals in 2019.
1. Team defense – Despite the sour ending to their year in 2017-18, Toronto had a spectacular regular season. They finished the campaign 34-7 at home, and 25-16 on the road, both top five records in the NBA. A lot of this success is bred from a strong defense. The Raptors tied for sixth in the league in opponent points per game, giving up only 103.9 per contest. They also finished in the top six in defensive rating (103.4), blocks per game (6.1), opponent field goal percentage (.449), and opponent points off turnovers (15.0). We know that Toronto can score, but their impact on the other side of the floor is what sets them apart from many teams in this league. It is also important to note that while the Raptors finished just 4 games ahead of the Celtics in the final standings, they won games by a significantly larger margin than Boston did, on average. At the end of the regular season, the Raptors held a +7.8 PPG differential, Celtics just +3.6. With an impressive defensive approach already present in Toronto, there’s no telling how much it may improve with the addition of one of the best defenders in the league in Kawhi Leonard.
2. Playing in the eastern conference – The Raptors already succeeded in securing the East’s best record this past season, and it will look to do so again this year. Of course, a healthy Boston Celtics roster could prove a lethal challenge in their pursuit of the #1 seed, and the rising Philadelphia Sixers will be no joke either, but the remaining competition in the East is relatively thin. Cleveland has eliminated the Raptors in each of the last three postseasons, but with LeBron’s move to Los Angeles, Toronto now has a perennial roadblock out of their way. The Pacers and Bucks will each be a year better, but both are still largely unproven. If they can retain consistency from last year, the Raptors have a great chance to maintain their status as top dog of the East in the regular season and may be able to make a deeper run in the playoffs with their Achilles’ heel now residing in the West.
3. Kawhi Leonard – Although it has been some time since a fully healthy Leonard saw the floor, his impact at full strength is hard to deny. In 2016-17, he put up 25.5 PPG in the regular season while shooting 49-38-88, and finished 3rd overall in MVP voting. In the 2017 playoffs, Leonard was averaging 27.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 1.7 SPG before the injury that ultimately sidelined him for the remainder of the postseason. He carried the Spurs for large stretches during those playoffs and showed that he is capable of taking over a game at will. Leonard’s presence on both ends of the floor is what makes him so deadly. He is possibly the best perimeter defender in the league, and he has the ability to drop 30 points on any given night. DeMar DeRozan will be missed in Toronto, but replacing him with a player of Leonard’s caliber on a roster that already finished with the best record in its conference has potentially huge implications.