A year ago, Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first-ever NBA title. With an NBA Finals MVP in hand, Leonard checked out of Toronto and headed west to the Los Angeles Clippers for the 2019-20 season. The move leaves many wondering if Toronto can repeat as the NBA champion.
While Leonard’s loss was a big blow, it appears the Raptors were well on their way to making a case for a repeat run to the NBA finals. They put the rest of the league on notice. There is no reason to doubt that Toronto can win back-to-back NBA titles.
Prior to the league’s shutting down due to the coronavirus crisis in the U.S., Toronto was headed for the Eastern Conference’s second seed in the playoffs. The Raptors have won 46 of their 64 games thus far in the regular season.
Toronto is 12th in the league in scoring averaging 113 points per game. Where they really shine is on defense. The Raptors give up 106.5 points per game. That figure is the fewest points allowed per game in the league.
While Toronto wouldn’t likely have caught Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference lead, the Raptors had a strong hold of the second seed. They were also very hot heading into the “break” having won four straight before the NBA stopped play in early March.
Siakam was the NBA’s Most Improved Player a year ago. With the loss of Leonard this offseason, Siakam has emerged into a star. He started his first All-Star game this year and rightfully so. The 6’ 9” Siakam is averaging 23.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists while shooting 46 percent from the field.
Compare that to what Leonard is doing currently in L.A. He is averaging 27.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists while also shooting 46 percent from the field. For the most part, Siakam stepped in and took over where Leonard left off.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Raptors had just one All-Star – Kyle Lowry. The veteran point guard continues to live up to his star status by scoring nearly 20 points per game (19.9) to go with 7.3 assists. It is Lowry’s highest season scoring average since a career best in 2016-17.
What really makes the Raptors go is Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The combination is deadly. VanVleet averages 18.0 points and 6.9 assists per game. His 3-point shooting is outstanding. VanVleet is shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.
Both Lowry and VanVleet, a former undrafted free agent, are excellent on-ball defenders. Not only can they score, but they provide solid defense on the other end. The Raptors backcourt is one of the reasons why Toronto is No. 1 in the NBA in points allowed per game.
When Leonard jumped ship and headed to Los Angeles in the offseason, the Raptors were left with a decision to make. Would they go out and find another star to add to the roster? Ultimately, Toronto decided against it, and that decision has paid off.
The Raptors decided to keep together a rotation of bench players that have played with each other for some time. Toronto head coach Nick Nurse can go 10 deep in his rotation. In fact, 11 Raptors average at least 13 minutes playing time.
The foursome of Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell are as good a bench crew as any in the league. Combined, the four average 44.6 points, 20.3 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game. That doesn’t include sixth-man O.G. Anunoby who average 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.
The Toronto bench may be the best in the NBA. Teams that can go that deep are the ones poised to win games down the stretch.
The Raptors rank in the NBA’s Top-5 in defensive rating, defensive efficiency, and points allowed per game. While offense puts fans in the stands, defense wins championships. Toronto’s is very good.
One facet of strong defense is rebounding and the Raptors are very good at it. The 7-foot Ibaka is the team leader at 8.3 rebounds per game. Siakam is next averaging 7.5.
Toronto is talented, deep, and a defensive-minded team. They are extremely well-coached, and ultimately, have overcome the loss of Leonard.
The one difficulty the Raptors have in repeating is simply the strength of the Eastern Conference. Toronto would likely have to face either Boston or Miami in the postseason and then take on Milwaukee in the conference final, which holds the best record in the NBA.
At 53-12 before the league suspended play, Milwaukee is the NBA’s team to beat. The one team that can match up and beat the Bucks is Toronto. In addition to his improved scoring ability, Siakam is a solid defender who can take on reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The bottom line is that, yes, Toronto can repeat as NBA champion in 2019-20.