Sports Blog

Toronto Raptors 2018-19 Season Preview

 Source: Jonathan Hayward / CP

Source: Jonathan Hayward / CP

In what was arguably the busiest and most franchise-altering offseason for the Toronto Raptors, this squad enters the 2018-19 season with even higher expectations than ever before. It’s Finals or Bust for this squad, but can this team outlast the likes of the Celtics and 76ers? We will cover that and a lot more in our season preview, with some personal analysis and some regular season and postseason predictions, but first let us walk you through the additions and subtractions on this team.

2018 Offseason Transactions: Coaching Staff

Subtractions: Dwane Casey (HC), Rex Kalamian, Jerry Stackhouse
Additions: Nick Nurse (HC), Adrian Griffin, Sergio Scariolo, Nate Bjorkgren, Phil Handy

 Source: TSN

Source: TSN

The coaching staff saw a massive overhaul, with the first major surprise of the offseason coming in the form of Dwane Casey’s dismissal following the embarrassing sweep to LeBron James and the Cavs. The Raptors fired the soon-to-be Coach of the Year in what Masai had labelled “the hardest decision” of his life. Most anticipated a brand new outside voice would be brought in, one that would impliment new systems and a new culture and ways of thinking. Ultimately, the Raptors brass decided to stick with what was familiar, hiring the current Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse to take over the reigns. Nurse was the mastermind behind the revamped offense that the Raptors displayed the previous season, and the Raptors believe that with Nurse at the helm, the offense can run at an even more effective rate.

It seemed as though Raptors nation was divided about the move on social media. Some seemed to understand the logic, while others cried foul over replacing the Coach of the Year with his assistant. With the hiring of Nurse, it was assumed that most, if not all the remaining coaching staff would depart, and that’s exactly what happened. Rex Kalamian went to the Clippers as an assistant under Doc Rivers, and Jerry Stackhouse departed from the Raptors 905 to take a gig with the Memphis Grizzlies as their assistant coach (don’t be surprised to see him get some NBA head coaching whispers soon, especially if Memphis gets off to a slow start).

The Raptors definitely took some losses in the coaching department, but hopefully Nurse and his team of newly hired assistants can gel together quickly and make the players feel comfortable on both ends of the floor.

2018 Offseason Transactions: Players

Subtractions: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueria
Additions: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Greg Monroe

 Source: Getty

Source: Getty

For those that thought that Masai would be content with just a coaching overhaul, they were mistaken. In a move that trumped the firing of Coach Casey as the most shocking move of the Raptors offseason, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 1st round pick for disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard and 3-and-D specialist Danny Green.

I’m not gonna get into the trade too much, because I already did that when the trade was announced, which you can read here. Instead, I’ll provide the Coles notes. The Raptors traded away the most loyal player this franchise has ever seen in DeRozan (who was open about his intentions of retiring a Raptor) and arguably top 15-20 player in the league. We also traded away a young promising big in Poeltl, who has one of the softest hands in the league for a big man. As much as it hurts to trade away a player like DeRozan, it’s not everyday you can trade for a top five player in the NBA, and when that opportunity comes knocking, you have to capitalize on it. Great work by the Raptors to come out of nowhere and seize the opportunity.

While some media were quick to jump on the hype train and report that Kawhi had ZERO desire to play in Toronto, we know now that it was definitely all a lie. Kawhi had quite the introductory press conference, and seems to be embracing the opportunity to play for Toronto and the Raptors organization. It appears as if he has taken a leadership role on this team, as told to us by Josh Lewenberg via Danny Green.

Saying all of this, the Raptors still haven’t played a regular season game yet, and they can either gel incredibly well together and once again lead the East in wins, or they could slowly crumble and be forced to make some tough decisions come trade deadline day.

What Should Raptors Fans Expect?

 Source: Sports Illustrated

Source: Sports Illustrated

Whatever anybody’s expectations of the Raptors may be this season, there is no denying that they are in the top tier of teams in the East, that being the Raptors, Celtics and 76ers. I’ve seen people rank the Raptors as the best of the three, just below the Celtics as a 1B type team, or below both the Celtics and 76ers as the third best team in the East.

My take on it is simple. I don’t believe the 76ers will overtake either the Raptors or the Celtics in the standings, and we should expect them to finish 3rd in the East. Let’s not forget that the 76ers went on a 16 game winning streak to end the year, which propelled them into the 3rd spot in the East to overtake Cleveland. Before that streak, the 76ers had a record of 36-30, which is nothing to be impressed by. The Celtics and Raptors were consistently 1 and 2 in the East rankings all season long, which is why I have them over the 76ers.

 Source: Sporting News

Source: Sporting News

When evaluating the Celtics, you can see a team that is loaded with talent. They have Kyrie Irving, arguably the league’s best point guard, leading the charge down the floor. Jayson Tatum is one of the league’s most polarizing young stars. Jaylen Brown is poised to take another step. Playoff heros Terry Rozier and Al Horford return for another year. They are deep and skilled, but still face a lot of questions. Can Gordon Hayward perform at the caliber that we are used to seeing him play at? He sustained a nasty broken leg injury that required plates and screws, which may hinder his mobility and strength moving forward. Can Irving stay healthy for a full season? Kyrie has never played more than 75 games in a season, and his last three years he has played 53, 72 and 60 games. Can Horford maintain his current level, or is he due for a decline?

 Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

On the flipside you have the Raptors, who are also an incredibly skilled and deep team, but still have questions associated with them as well. The roster is upgraded with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. When healthy, Leonard is a perennial MVP candidate. He’s the league’s best defender and can score from almost everywhere on the floor, while possessing the ability to find the open man and create plays. Danny Green has the ability to give you 3 point shooting while giving you a solid defensive effort on the other end. The Raptors have arguably the best player in the East and the best bench depth in the NBA, but there are still concerns coming out of training camp. Will Kawhi gel with the coaching staff and players? Will Kyle Lowry be able to put the emotions of losing DeMar aside and embrace playing with Leonard? Will the bench mob be able to repeat and even improve on their stellar 2017-18 campaign? Will young stars OG, Pascal and VanVleet be able to take that next step?

Having said all of this, I believe the Raptors will finish first in the East with a record of 61-21, with the Celtics not far behind in a close second at 60-22. I have no issue with people believing that the Celtics will finish above the Raptors, because both are really good teams. Just don’t give me that garbage that the 76ers will finish above either the Raptors or Celtics. Not happening.

Want to know how the 2018-19 NBA Regular Season and Playoffs will go down? Well let me tell you with my predictions. I will definitely go back to this at the end of this season to boast my correct predictions while expose my not-so-great predictions.

2018-19 NBA Regular Season Standings Predictions:

East

 Source: Raptors Republic

Source: Raptors Republic

1) Toronto Raptors (61-21)
2) Boston Celtics (60-22)
3) Philadelphia 76ers (55-27)
4) Milwaukee Bucks (51-31)
5) Indiana Pacers (48-34)
6) Washington Wizards (45-37)
7) Miami Heat (44-38)
8) Detroit Pistons (42-40)

9) Charlotte Hornets (38-44)
10) Cleveland Cavaliers (36-46)
11) New York Knicks (32-50)
12) Atlanta Hawks (29-53)
13) Orlando Magic (27-55)
14) Brooklyn Nets (27-55)
15) Chicago Bulls (24-58)

West

 Source: HoopsHype

Source: HoopsHype

1) Golden State Warriors (66-16)
2) Houston Rockets (62-20)
3) Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33)
4) Los Angeles Lakers (48-34)
5) Utah Jazz (46-36)
6) Denver Nuggets (46-36)
7) New Orleans Pelicans (44-38)
8) San Antonio Spurs (43-39)

9) Minnesota Timberwolves (42-40)
10) Portland Trail Blazers (41-41)
11) Los Angeles Clippers (36-46)
12) Dallas Mavericks (32-50)
13) Phoenix Suns (24-58)
14) Sacramento Kings (22-60)
15) Memphis Grizzlies (20-62)

2018-19 NBA Playoff Predictions:

East

(1) Raptors vs. (8) Pistons: Raptors in 4
(2) Celtics vs. (7) Heat: Celtics in 5
(3) 76ers vs. (6) Wizards: 76ers in 6
(4) Bucks vs. (5) Pacers: Bucks in 6

(1) Raptors vs. (4) Bucks: Raptors in 7
(2) Celtics vs. (3) 76ers: Celtics in 7

(1) Raptors vs. (2) Celtics: Raptors in 7

West

(1) Warriors vs. (8) Spurs: Warriors in 4
(2) Rockets vs. (7) Pelicans: Rockets in 5
(3) Thunder vs. (6) Nuggets: Nuggets in 7
(4) Lakers vs. (5) Jazz: Lakers in 6

(1) Warriors vs. (4) Lakers: Warriors in 6
(2) Rockets vs. (6) Nuggets: Rockets in 5

(1) Warriors vs. (2) Rockets: Warriors in 7

NBA Final

(1) Raptors vs. (1) Warriors: Warriors in 6

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Sorry Raptors Fans…

Blue Jays Trade Deadline 2018 Gradebook

 Source: ABC

Source: ABC

Well it's no secret that the 2018 version of the Toronto Blue Jays has been nothing short of disappointing. With a record of 51-59 heading into Sunday's action against the Mariners, the Jays dipped into the "sellers" market for the first time in a few years. In this article, I'm going to hand out a grade for every Blue Jays trade made thus far, plus give my predictions for potential August trade candidates and provide an overall thought on the Jays and the 2018 deadline.

Without further ado, let's get started.

Trade Gradebook

Roberto Osuna

 Source: NBC News

Source: NBC News

Trade:

To Houston: Roberto Osuna

To Toronto: Ken Giles, Hector Perez, David Paulino

In one of the more stunning and most controversial trades across the MLB during this deadline, young Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was shipped off to Houston for Ken Giles and a couple of solid pitching prospects.

I am honestly shocked that this trade happened. I'm not shocked that the Blue Jays were willing to trade him, I am shocked at the fact that there was another team willing to trade for him, in particular the Houston Astros. The Astros recently have had to deal with their own domestic violence issues with one of their minor league players, which can be read about here. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow claims that the organization has a "zero tolerance policy" on domestic violence issues, but because the issue occured prior to the Astros acquiring him, this issue does not fall under the same scrutiny.

I purposefully waited a few days post non-waiver deadline to publish this article for the sole fact of gauging fan and media reaction on this trade. The Astros have been crucified for making this trade and having poor reasoning as to why they made the deal. Jeff Luhnow and the Astros deserve all the criticism coming their way, especially for an organization that just dealt with this issue recently internally. They clearly prioritize winning over ethics, and all it takes is one team in this league to make a deal. The Blue Jays jumped all over the opportunity, and got a great return for a "problem pitcher". Kudos to Shapiro and Atkins for valuing ethics over assets.

I've seen some Blue Jays fans upset that the front office traded away a player like Osuna, with years of control remaining and stellar numbers on his resume. If you're going to be mad as a fan, that's okay. Just don't direct your anger at the front office, direct it to Osuna. He put himself and his club in this position, and there's nobody else to blame but Roberto himself. Do you think the Jays would trade a 23 year old with a 2.87 lifetime ERA if he wasn't a problem? Of course they wouldn't. Instead, they turned their problem into a struggling yet young former closer, and two top tier pitching prosects that have good potential, with Perez becoming the 11th ranked Jays prospect and Paulino becoming the 20th ranked prospect. Great for them to give away their massive problem to another organization, and great for them to receive a package of any value back for him.

Grade: A+

J.A. Happ

 Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Trade:

To New York: J.A. Happ

To Toronto: Brandon Drury, Billy McKinney

Jays fans and media alike were going into this trade deadline saying that J.A. Happ was our most valuable piece that was likely to be traded before July 31st. While he did struggle over his last couple of starts as a Blue Jay, he did put together a solid campaign that saw him make his first ever All-Star appearance. The original ask of a top-3 prospect from the Blue Jays was never realistic, but I stated on the last South of the 6ix podcast that I believed J.A. Happ could fetch a top 5-7 prospect, top 20-30 prospect and a long shot, hoping that one of the prospects coming back was a pitcher. My reasoning for the return was simple: J.A. is a proven veteran lefty who can provide you with solid innings in the playoffs as your 3rd or 4th starter, and having that lefty option in the playoffs is massive.

When the trade was announced and the details were confirmed, I was a little disappointed in the return. I have never been sold on Brandon Drury's game, but he has just entered into the league so hopefully for the sake of the Blue Jays, he can return to similar form that he had in Arizona. I don't see him as a piece for the future. I believe the Jays are hoping he can rebuild some value here in Toronto with regular playing time so we can trade him away for something of use. McKinney has been in a few blockbuster trades as a key prospect, but has never really panned out. He did crack the Yankees roster at the beginning of the year, but that all came crashing down (literally) when he crashed into the outfield wall at the Rogers Centre during the opening series against the Blue Jays. You can never have enough depth however, and he is a fringe MLB-ready prospect at this point (19th on Blue Jays prospect list). I felt like Shapiro and Atkins could have gotten a better return, especially from trading to an in-division rival such as the Yankees, which should have commanded a higher premium.

Grade: C-

Seung-hwan Oh

 Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Trade:

To Colorado: Seung-hwan Oh

To Toronto: Forrest Wall, Chad Spanberger

For the bullpen trades, I won't go too in-depth with them, just because there's not as much substance or storyline to them. Saying that, the ROI from Oh was enormous for the Blue Jays. They signed him to a $1.75 million contract late this offseason (pennies in baseball terms) and they have now been able to convert that asset into two prospects, with Wall sliding into the 26th spot on the Blue Jays top-30 list. This is just another example of a smart "low-risk, high-reward" move that most casual fans hate at the beginning of the year, and then love when they see good results or a good trade package in return. Moves like these are what help to build a more deep farm system and a sustainable winning team.

Grade: A-

John Axford

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

Trade:

To Los Angeles: John Axford

To Toronto: Corey Copping

One of the hottest commodities in baseball lately is solid bullpen arms. Looking to capitalize on that trend, the Jays shipped out reliver John Axford to the Dodgers for minor league reliever Corey Copping

This trade seemed to have caught Axford off guard, as he had done some "asking around" and thought that he would be staying put with the Blue Jays. You can read more about that story here. I understand the need to trade expiring contracts for younger assets, so this deal on paper makes complete sense. Not to mention that Copping is putting up impressive numbers across AA and AAA this season (2.52 ERA, K/9 at 9.9). If they were to have kept a veteran reliver behind, I would have liked to have seen it be Axford because of his love for the city and experiences with the game. I believe it could have benefitted some of the new bullpen arms and September call-ups, but I digress.

Grade: B+

Aaron Loup

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

Trade:

To Philadelphia: Aaron Loup

To Toronto: Jacob Waguespack

The longest tenured Blue Jay is no longer. For those that follow me on Twitter (@TO_SportsViews in case you're wondering, or just follow me here), you know that I have been openly against Aaron Loup pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club. He is only a shell of his former 2012-2014 self, and has been ineffective for quite sometime now. He is brought in to face lefties, and quite frankly sucks against them. Danny Barnes is a better lefty specialist and he's a right hander.

The Jays received minor leaguer Jacob Waguespack back in the deal. His numbers aren't anything to boast about (4.75 ERA, 1.46 WHIP between AA and AAA in 2018), but I honestly would have been okay receiving a bag of balls back in return for Loup. In Loup's first and only appearance so far for the Phillies, he hit the only batter he faced. Chalk this one up as a win for the Blue Jays.

Grade: A-

Bonus Trivia Question: Who is now the longest tenured Blue Jay currently on the roster? I'll provide the answer at the bottom of the article.

Steve Pearce

 Source: John Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Source: John Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Trade:

To Boston: Steve Pearce

To Toronto: Santiago Espinal

Ahh, the trade often forgotten about in the shuffle and commotion of trade deadline. This was the first major move the Blue Jays made this season, and it was an in-division trade. Once Steve Pearce returned to the Jays healthy, there was really no room for him, and it was time to ship him while the value was high instead of letting his rust away on the bench.

Pearce was batting .291 with an OPS of .868, 4 HR's and 16 RBI's in 79 AB's for the Blue Jays. Respectable numbers for a small sample size. Boston has seen exponential returns on investment here, as Pearce is batting .357 with an OPS of 1.162, 5 HR's and 14 RBI's in 56 AB's for the Red Sox. I always liked Pearce. He is a truly "clutch" player... *cough* two walk-off grand slams in one week *cough*. He even hit 4 HR's in 2 games for the Red Sox. I'm happy he is succeeding there and being put in positions to not fail.

The return for the Blue Jays on this deal is not something to be overlooked either. In A and AA baseball this year, Espinal is batting .299 with an OPS of .817 along with 9 HR's and 50 RBI's. Anyway to add valuable youth to the organization at this stage is imperative, and Shapiro and Atkins were able to do just that with this deal.

Grade: B+

Potential August Trade Candidates

Editor's Note: When listing "potential suitors" I have put them in the order in which I believe is the best fit for said player, based on player cost and acquiring team need.

Josh Donaldson

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

One of the most intriguing names entering into the 2018 season was Josh Donaldson. He was the key, and arguably biggest difference maker, for the Jays having either a competitive season or a bad season. If the team were to be sellers at the deadline, it was expected that JD would be the most valuable asset that can be moved and the rebuild could be accelerated a little bit.

Fast forward to August 2018, and here we are talking about an incredibly devalued asset. Playing only roughly a third of the season (36 games played out of 110 total games), Donaldson has looked old and worn on the defensive end with his shoulder issues, has appeared to be a liability on the basepaths with his calf injuries, and has shown no offensive flashes of his former MVP self from three years ago, batting just .234 with 5 HR's, 16 RBI's and an OPS of .757. Remember the dream trade packages we were all mock creating last season? You can take those and throw them in the trash.

Despite all of these poor numbers, there are still teams that showed interest in Donaldson before the July 31st deadline. According to Yahoo! Sports Canada, Atkins tolf Gregor Chisolm of MLB.com that there were "lots of discussions" on Donaldson. He continued by saying "The challenge is, with any player that is not playing, is understanding that risk and that timeline, with not the same access to information that we have." You can read the entire article here.

A return for Donaldson is still tough to gauge at this point, mainly because if he were to be traded in August, it would be closer to the end of the month as teams would need to see him healthy and playing for longer than a week at a time. They need to see that he still has the ability to play at an elite level and be a difference maker. If he can prove that in a short window, then I'm sure some competing team will take a shot at him. I don't necessarily think that JD will be traded this month, as I believe it will be tough to build up value in a short period of time, but as I stated earlier there was interest in him before the July 31st deadline, so anything can happen.

Expected Trade: Josh Donaldson and cash for a top 20-30 prospect

Potential Suitors: Braves, Cardinals, Pirates, Diamondbacks

Marco Estrada

 Source: Sportsnet

Source: Sportsnet

This move might come later on in August just because of the recent strained glute injury that put him on the 10-day DL as well as the $13 million contract that he has for this year. Prior to the injury, Marco was putting up impressive numbers, so it was a shame that he had to get hurt. This circles back to my point of selling high on starters. You never know when they can get hurt and missed starts closer to the deadline are amplified. Saying this, I'm sure a team that is looking to bolster their pitching depth and add a reliable, proven playoff starter into their 3rd or 4th spot will pony up for Marco. In his last start in Seattle, Estrada was looking like ACEstrada once again, going 7 innings and giving up 1 earned run. I'm sure this caught the attention of plenty of competing GM's across the league looking to add starting depth. Houston just lost Lance McCullers to the 10-day DL, so maybe they now enter the market for starting pitching depth? I wouldn't expect either the Red Sox or Yankees to be interested in him, as he hasn't done well in their ballparks as of late, especially Yankee Stadium. The return will not be as much as Happ's was, but if healthy, Marco could be considered a "trade deadline steal" come October.

Expected Trade: Marco Estrada for a top 25-30 prospect, single A prospect

Potential Suitors: Mariners, Athletics, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Astros, Nationals

Curtis Granderson

 Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

I don't know if there's a more likeable duo in sports than Granderson and Solarte (more on Solarte later). Granderson is a true professional. At the age of 37, he still finds ways to bring value to a ball club. This article written by Jon Paul Morosi at the beginning of the year perfectly summarizes why Granderson is still MLB's top teammate. He's a teacher, he's a mentor, he's a counsellor for not just the youth, but for the vets too.

Saying all of this, it's not like he only contributes off the field. On the field, Granderson is batting .234 with 10 HR's and 31 RBI's and can still contribute on the defenisve end as well. He also doesn't ground into many double plays (only three this year). So it's no wonder that a team like the Phillies is calling Shapiro and Atkins about Granderson. Granderson would be a perfect fit for the Phillies, a young up-and-coming team that could use a vet like Granderson to help mentor them for the later part of the season and help them through the playoffs. I don't expect too much of a return for Granderson, probably something just below what Pearce got for the Blue Jays.

Expected Trade: Curtis Granderson for a top 30-40 prospect

Potential Suitors: Phillies, Braves, Dodgers, Mariners

Yangervis Solarte

 Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Source: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Before I dive into this, I just want to say how fond I've grown towards Solarte. This is a person who could have let his past troubles affect him, but he challenged the adversity head on and kept on persevering. If you don't know what I am talking about, this Jays Journal article does a great job in summarizing Solarte's story. This is a player who has an infectious smile, some pretty cool dance moves, and is the "spirit animal" for all the other Blue Jays players in the clubhouse. In a short period of time, he has become the heart and soul of the Jays, and embodies what it means to be a blue bird. Oh, and he's a pretty good baseball player too.

He's currently hitting .233 with 17 HR's and 53 RBI's in 106 games played this season. Not only can he contribute with the bat, but he can essentially play any position on the field that you want him to. He's a true "super utility" player, and I believe that championship teams need a player like this on their roster in order to win a World Series (ie. Ben Zobrist and Marwin Gonzalez). With the newest Blue Jays infield addition in Brandon Drury, this leaves five men for three spots. I expect one of these men to be dealt before at some point, especially with Tulo recently stating his intentions of returning to the field, which leaves Solarte being the likeliest out of the bunch.

Expected Trade: Yangervis Solarte for a top 25-30 prospect and "long shot" single-A prospect

Potential Suitors: Diamondbacks, Phillies, Braves

Overall 2018 Trade Deadline Thoughts

I have to say that as a fan that was expecting these "seller" moves to happen, I am impressed with the most part about the return for the players we traded away. I was expecting more for Happ, as I think he will be dominant for the Yankees in the regular season and playoffs, but otherwise the Jays did a great job of acquiring some MLB-ready pieces to not field a completely awful team, and a lot of prospects that provide value, some more than others. I'm sure that we will be able to look back on this deadline in a few years and see how some of these moves helped to put the Blue Jays back into World Series contention.

Overall Grade: A-

Bonus Trivia Question Answer!

For those who didn't cheat, the answer to the bonus trivia question is...

 Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Source: Frank Gunn / CP

Superman himself, Kevin Pillar!

Raptors Make Biggest Trade in Franchise History

 Source: Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

Source: Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

They say that nice guys finish last. It seems that Masai Ujiri has decided to embrace that adage this offseason.

Just two months after firing the NBA Coach of the Year and fan favourite Dwane Casey, Ujiri and Co. were not satisfied with bringing back the same core of players that have fallen short in the playoffs the past two seasons. By "core", I'm talking about the all-star back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. If this team wanted to reach an NBA Final for the first time in franchise history, one or both of these men would have to be moved.

Unless you have insomnia, are parent to a newborn, or work incredibly weird hours, chances are that on July 18th, 2018 (dubbed "the most boring day in sports") you woke up to the news that the Raptors and Spurs agreed in principle on a trade sending Kawhi Leonard to Toronto and DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. At first, I was unsure about the deal, only because the remaining details had not been released yet. How much extra was Toronto about to give up? Would I have seen OG or Siakam's last games in a Raptors uniform? How many picks would be given back? Would we have to eat that brutal Patty Mills contract? Once all my questions were answered, it was clear who won this trade.

demar-derozan-insta-story.png

In case you are unaware of the full trade, here it is.

Raptors Receive: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, $5 million USD

Spurs Receive: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, 2019 Protected 1st Round Pick (1-20)

When rumours first began to swirl regarding a potential "Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors" deal, pundits on social media were stating that it would take DeMar, OG, and MULTIPLE unprotected 1st round picks, PLUS picking up Patty Mills' contract. I thought it was ludacris to expect this type of haul for a "rental player" especially one that hasn't seen the floor in a year. The Spurs were about to be pigeon-holed, and I was public in stating that the Raptors would draw a line in the same, and find a way to keep OG for sure, and hopefully Siakam. When news broke that they were able to keep both, PLUS only give up one heavily protected 1st round pick in 2019, PLUS obtain another good player in Danny Green, PLUS get back $5 million dollars to help with tax relief...I couldn't have been happier.

 Source: SI

Source: SI

We all knew the cost of acquiring a top end talent would be either DeMar or Kyle going the other way in a deal. Until it becomes a reality, you don't realize how much it will sting to see one of them gone, and the death of the incredible "bromance" that they shared on the court. I can't recall any two Toronto athletes having the same chemistry and relationship that DeMar and Kyle shared together. It's something that I will miss for sure. The always entertaining post-game interviews, the segments that they would do together, the laughter that they shared.

It's going to be interesting to see how Lowry reacts to this. Masai has stated in a press conference on Friday afternoon that he hadn't spoken with Lowry yet and that "I'm sure it will be really hard on him." Someone pointed out to me that Lowry had been through this before with the Rudy Gay trade. Rudy was (and still is) one of Lowry's best friends, and he is the godfather to Kyle's son. To have seen him traded away would have been gut-wrenching for Lowry, but he learned to develop a new relationship with DeMar. Hopefully he can take that same approach this time around, because the Raptors need him now more than ever.

It's Okay To Be Sad And Excited At The Same Time

I have this notion that Raptors fans feel like they have to pick a side. They are either sad that DeMar is gone and criticize Masai Ujiri for trading away the most loyal player the Raptors have ever had, or they are exciting and feel no empathy for DeMar and his family. Why do we have to live in a world of absolutes? This trade and the circumstances surrounding it is one that the NBA hasn't seen in a very long time, so there's no "right way" to feel. Saying this, I'll provide you with my perspective on the situation, and hopefully it can provide you the reader with a different lens to view it through.

DeMar was the heart and soul of this Raptors team the moment Chris Bosh walked out that door. His iconic "Don't worry, I got us..." tweet lives on in Raptors lore. He lived up to his tweet. He embraced the city. He was proud to rep not just the 6ix, but an entire nation. He helped make the Raptors relevant again. Kids were playing basketball in the streets, wearing their DeRozan Raptors jersey with pride. He never took a free agent meeting with any other team other than Toronto. He had a desire to retire a Raptor. It's emotional and difficult to see a player like that be traded for a player that may not want to return in a year. For all you have done for the Raptors, Toronto and the country of Canada, we thank you DeMar.

On the other hand, it is rare that a top-5 player in the NBA is available in trade talks. When that happens, you need to do whatever it takes to try and secure a player of that calibre. To obtain a player such as Kawhi, the trade package will have to sting. Losing DeMar was the stinger, but it was necessary. This deal on paper is a massive win for the Raptors. They give up arguably their best player, but receive an even better player in the deal. Not to mention they got Danny Green as well, who is a reliable 3-and-D player who will be a welcome addition into the starting lineup. One aspect of this trade that is not really being talked about is the impact that this trade will have on OG Anunoby. OG's ceiling is Kawhi Leonard, as the two play a very similar type of play-style. OG can learn a lot from Kawhi, even if it's for just a year. This will work wonders for the growth and development of OG as a player, and provides him with a greater chance of reaching his ceiling than ever before. 

I am sad, but I am excited. It's okay to feel both, there's nothing wrong with that. Raptors fans got the change they were looking for. Let's just put our trust in Masai that he knows what he is doing. Speaking of Masai...

This Is Truly Masai's Team Now...

masai-ujiri.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x724.jpg

Over the course of his tenure as Raptors GM and Team President, Masai has made some moves to take this team from a bottom feeder to perennial contender. His first massive move was trading away Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks, which then turned into Jakob Poeltl, which then helped to turn into Kawhi Leonard. He traded away Rudy Gay, and the return package helped Toronto get to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They have made the playoffs for 4 straight years. They made it to an Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. Saying all of this, the last two years feel like the Raptors have fallen short, and Masai decided to finally change the nucleus of this team...one that was formed by former GM Bryan Colangelo.

Masai fired a coach that he inherited. He made his first coaching hire ever as an NBA GM. He then traded away one of the "dynamic duo" in DeRozan. Lowry and DeRozan were a part of the Raptors prior to Masai's arrival. In essence, Masai's moves focused on adding around the core three of Lowry, DeRozan and Coach Casey. Now, with a rookie head coach in Nick Nurse, and the addition of Kawhi Leonard, Masai has now truly made his mark on this team. He has pushed all in with pocket Kings. Hopefully for Raptors fans everywhere, someone else doesn't have pocket Aces.

Why This Series Versus The Cavs Feels Different

 Source: WagerTalk

Source: WagerTalk

It's no secret to anybody watching the game that LeBron James is the greatest player in the league. He single handidly willed his team past the Indiana Pacers after an intense Game 7. For the first time, the Raptors are the ones waiting for the Cavs, on their home court. For the first time, there's a sense of hope that the Raptors can finally dethrone the King. For the first time, the Raptors will show the world that they are the Kings of the North.

There are a lot of factors that make this series different than the previous two installments. Allow me to show you how.

Coaching and Play Style

 Source: Adam Hunger / Reuters

Source: Adam Hunger / Reuters

When the Raptors were swept by the Cavs in last year's Eastern Conference Semi Finals, I wrote an article detailing what the Raptors should do going forward. You can read the full article here. In this article, the first topic I addressed was Dwane Casey. I had stated that due to Casey's love for iso ball and some questionable roster decisions (*cough* DeMarre Carroll *cough*) I believed it was time to move on from him, even though I really admired him as a coach and a man.

It was announced later that Casey would be returning as a coach, and what impressed me the most was the way Casey not only owned his mistakes of the overuse of iso ball, but vowed to adapt and become a team that could thrive offensively in this league. That was one of the best moments in Toronto coaching history, and I was fully back on board the Casey bandwagon...and he didn't disappoint.

The Raptors finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. They were shooting three's at a historic clip. The ball movement has been incredible, not only with the starting unit, but with the bench too (more to come on that). This team is well coached, playing a style of basketball that thrives in the modern day NBA. The Raptors set a franchise record 59 wins this season, and Casey has serious momentum for NBA Coach of the Year. It's been an impressive turnaround for a coach that was on the hot seat coming into this season.

#BenchMob

 Source: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star

Source: Rick Madonik / Toronto Star

The Raptors bench is hands down the best bench in the NBA. The Raptors consistently have 10-12 guys that they can throw at you every single night that all make impacts on the floor. Lead by "Mr. Fourth Quarter" Fred VanVleet, the #BenchMob provides an injection of high intensity, physicality, floor spacing and deep shooting threats. Having this consistent option has allowed Coach Casey to limit DeRozan and Lowry's minutes, and it's showing its positive impact these playoffs. 

The main defensive assignment on LeBron will belong to Raptors rookie OG Anunoby, who did a fantastic job guarding John Wall by the way. When OG is on the bench, the Raptors can throw so many different bodies at LeBron, because they have that depth and luxury. There's no other team in the NBA that can throw as many bodies at LeBron as the Raptors can. LeBron will get his points, but if you can limit him slightly with various different defensive bodies, it will only help the Raptors in defeating the Cavs.

The recent addition of Fred VanVleet back to the bench in the Raps vs Wizards series made an immediate impact. While Delon Wright did an incredible job quaterbacking that second unit, having Steddy Freddy back in the fold provided the stability it lacked throughout the first five games. He helps space the floor, adds an additional deep threat, and can make plays that nobody thought was possible. If not for Lou Williams, VanVleet is a lock for Six Man of the Year.

I can go on and on about this bench. Wright has the length and the range to make him a deadly guard. Siakam provides the intensity and defensive toughness, while possessing the ability to knock down a jumper or corner three when needed. Poeltl provides mobility and super soft hands around the glass. Finally, Miles always possesses that deep threat that brings defenders out toward the perimeter on him, creating even more space on the floor. It's a perfect dynamic, and one that Coach Casey trusts (and rightfully so).

LeBron's Supporting Cast

 Source: CBS Sports

Source: CBS Sports

Again, it's no secret that LeBron is the best player in the league right now. He's averaging 34.4 points on 55.3% shooting in just over 41 minutes played per game. He's leading his team in points, rebounds and assists per game. These numbers are God-like for someone who is 33 years old, and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Even though the King has had quite the playoffs thus far, his supporting cast have been almost invisible. The absense of Kyrie Irving from this squad really exposed a lot of issues, and isolated a need for a true secondary scorer, since Kevin Love has not been able to fill that role at all. Here's a stat that truly astonished me...during the Cavs vs Pacers playoff series, there was not a single Cavs player other than LeBron James to reach 20 points in a single game during the seven game series. That's the first time in LeBron's career that this has happened. LeBron leads his team with 34.4 points per game, as stated earlier. Kevin Love is a "close" second with 11.4 points per game. Outside of those two, there isn't one Cavs player averaging double digits in points per game. 

This Cavs team is one of the worst I've seen with LeBron on it. They are one of the worst teams in the NBA defensively. The time is now for the much better Raptors team to expose this weak Cavs team.

I’m burnt right now. I’m not thinking about Toronto right now until tomorrow.
— LeBron James

LeBron claims he's burnt, but I don't buy it. This is a guy who spends $1 million a year on his body. He's basically the human version of the Six Million Dollar Man (minus five million...). It doesn't seem like Dwane Casey and the Raptors are buying it either, echoing the same sentiments that I am. We will see come Game 1 how tired he really is.

Prediction

The Raptors spent all offseason preparing to face LeBron in the playoffs once again. They got the culture reset they were looking for. This is a different team, and one that is more than capable of beating a weakened Cavs squad. I predict that the Toronto Raptors will beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. Notice how in all the points I touched on, I didn't even talk about Lowry and DeRozan, and their improvements as players and buying into the system? That's how good this squad has been, and will continue to be, after they get past the Cavs.

Don't believe me? That's fine, but let me show you some other expert opinions on the Raptors, and hopefully you will change your mind. We. The. North.

Raptors Face Battles On And Off The Court Against Wizards

 Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

The Raptors, lead by all star backcourt DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, carry a 3-2 series lead into Washington as they take on the Wizards tonight at 7pm EST. Closing out this series in six games will be no easy task however. The home team has won every single game in this series, and the Raptors haven't seemed themselves in the Capital One Arena this series. Just ask Kelly Oubre Jr. what he thinks about it, in particular the play of Delon Wright.

The next game is a different story. We’re back at home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home. You can kind of chalk it up as the same story.
— Kelly Oubre Jr.

Delon seemed to chuckle at it and offer his take.

Yeah I saw it. That’s just his opinion. I didn’t play as good as I did at home there but he made it sound like I was just a total bust. We’ll see [in] Game 6
— Delon Wright

One would logically assume that the banter would end there and the two would dual it out on the court, but Oubre Jr. had to get the last word in. Here is what he responded with today.

Let me take a moment to address this. Kelly Oubre Jr., you should stick to doing what you do best...riding the pine. You're not in any position to talk smack like this. You're an inconsistent bench player on the eighth seed in the East. We will see what happens when Delon comes out and murders you on the court.

4th Quarter Blues?

 Source: SLAM Online

Source: SLAM Online

DeRozan and Lowry are the key cogs to this team. Even with their newly revamped offense, those two need to be at the top of their games if they want to have continued success in the playoffs. In Game 5, the backcourt duo combined for just 4 points in the 4th quarter. Thankfully, Delon Wright stepped up with some key plays and 11 points in the quarter to propel the Raptors to victory. DeRozan and Lowry played well for most of Game 5, but they need to show up in the 4th quarter to pull away from opponents and close the door like they have done all season long. This is just one knock on an otherwise impressive playoff showing for the duo, considering recent history. I expect them to keep shattering expectations and carry the Raptors for a deep playoff run.

Other Notes

It appears as though the Raptors will have a key bench piece back in Fred VanVleet. News broke moments ago that FVV would be cleared to play for today's game.

This is a massive addition to a Raptors squad that has really missed their second unit floor general. Wright has put up impressive numbers in Fred's absence, but Fred's ability to space the floor and play fourth quarter minutes was a noticable absence in games one through five. VanVleet leads the Raptors in total 4th quarter minutes played this season, and is 20th in the NBA in this category. Hopefully the VanVleet that returns tonight is more of a version of what we are used to seeing as supposed to the Game 2 VanVleet that we saw in this series for a whopping two minutes.

While the Raptors gain a key player back into their rotation, the Wizards lose one. Otto Porter Jr. has been ruled out for the remainder of the series with what appears to be a left leg injury.

That's a big loss for this Wizards team. They now need to find a way to supplement his averages of 32 minutes played, 48.8% shooting and 41.7% rate from distance. My guess is the red hot Mike Smith will fill in for most of this role, as he is shooting an astronomical 67.6% from the field, 63.6% from 3 point land and averaging just under 12 points in 22 minutes per game. If he is able to fill in and continue to put up those numbers for the Wizards, the Raptors will be in trouble.

Game 6 is coming up soon! Let's see if the Raptors will be playing Game 1 of the second round or Game 7 of the first round on Sunday.

Leafs Lose Another Game 7 To The Bruins...Now What?

Leafs Game 7 Thumbnail.jpg

If you would have told me before the start of Game 7 that the Leafs would score four goals in the game, I would have told you to that the Leafs would be back on TV Saturday night to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alas, another collapse and blown third period lead leaves Leafs fans in the same spot they were in after the 2013 season. Saying that, the two offseasons can't feel any more different.

Another Game 7 Letdown

It was another crushing blow to a Leafs fan base that has experienced it share of defeats over the years. Leafs Twitter exploded on queue, offering their fair share of blame, myself included (as you can see below).

As you can see, I was pretty emotional, hence why this article is coming out the day after Game 7, and not right away. 

Gardiner was the most obvious scape goat from fans last night and tonight, and rightfully so. He had arguably his worst game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. He was an abysmal -5 with only 2 hits, no blocks in just over 24 minutes of ice time. Everybody understands that the Leafs need to shore up their defence core (more to come on that) but to me, Gardiner is, and has been all year, a liability. He just got exposed being on the biggest stage in his NHL career.

I will give him kudos for facing the Toronto media and owning that. I empathize on how empty of a feeling that would be, knowing that most of the blame will be put on you in one of the most crazy NHL markets. Saying that, it hasn't changed my assessment on him. The Leafs need to move on from him and this project if they want to clog the holes on defence, especially the right side.

 Source: Charles Krupa / AP

Source: Charles Krupa / AP

While blame should fall on Gardiner, it was a team collapse. The offence evaporated near the end of the second period and for most of the third, and "Steddy Freddy" was anything but steddy in this game. Allowing 6 goals while posting an .829 save percentage will not get the job done, no matter what game it is. The Leafs don't get to game 7 without Freddy, but they needed him to get the job done, FredEx just couldn't deliver. Andersen had been stellar for the Leafs all season, and I believe that with a better defensive core around him, this game 7 collapse wouldn't have happened. Sure, he let in some soft goals, but he also did make some A+ saves too.

At the end of the day, Marleau can't be your best forward in a due or die situation. Matthews and Nylander were ghosts all series, but I attribute that more to age and playoff experience over anything else. Marner was outstanding, and will be a future pillar to build around.

Now What? The Offseason Agenda

 Source: The Canadian Press

Source: The Canadian Press

Well there's really only one massive concern, and everybody knows what it is. This defence has more holes than Swiss Cheese, and in a playoff series where the opponents really focus in on one another with detail, it was clear that the Bruins knew how to attack the Leafs and their defensemen.

I am very pro-Hainsey, but in the right role. He should not be playing first line minutes with Morgan Rielly, but that's what happens when you lack quality right shot defensemen. The Leafs need to address this, by acquiring an elite RHD via free agency or trade. Players such as John Carlson (FA), Drew Doughty (Trade) or Erik Karlsson (Trade) are just a few names that can really embrace that top D pairing on the right side along Rielly. Trades may require a young forward (Nylander maybe...?) but those trade packages are for another day.

It's time to move off of Gardiner and trade him. Move Dermott up to the 2nd defence pairing with Zaitsev. Find a top six D to fill in the left side alongside Hainsey, and cut Polak. Otherwise, there really doesn't need to be any other drastic change. I'm not in the "bring John Tavares back home" camp, because I would rather use that money for an elite defender in a salary cap world.

Someone on Twitter asked me who I thought had played their final game as a Toronto Maple Leaf. My list includes Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, JVR, Domenic Moore, Roman Polak and Jake Gardiner. I've seen many variations of this type of list, so let me know your list in the comments below, or tweet your list to me @TO_SportsViews.

I believe in this front office. They have made the right decisions thus far. I trust that they will get this team to where they need to be next year. There's one thing that's certain...this offseason will be the most interesting in recent memory.