DeMar DeRozan

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…

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.

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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...

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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.