Why the Raptors are a Legitimate Championship Sleeper
The Toronto Raptors have never won an NBA championship, nor have they even appeared in an NBA Finals. For most of the team’s existence since it was founded in 1995, the Raptors have been an also-ran. Toronto has made the playoffs 10 times in 23 seasons to this point.
However, it’s safe to say the current stretch of Raptors basketball is the most prolific stretch in the franchise’s brief history. The Raps have made the playoffs in each of the last 5 seasons, a run that includes 4 Atlantic Division titles. They haven’t been able to parlay those excellent regular seasons into much postseason success, but there’s reason to believe the 2018-19 squad will be the best team this franchise has ever put on a basketball court.
At this point, I haven’t heard a whole lot of betting buzz when it comes to Toronto. I’m sure plenty of that has to do with the fact that this team has routinely disappointed come playoff time. It’s also presumably because one of the NBA’s true blue blood franchises, the Boston Celtics, looks like one of the most loaded teams in the league. The Philadelphia 76ers, who feature a couple of young superstars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are also generating plenty of headlines. As of this writing, the Celtics and 76ers are the two teams with the best odds of representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
The fact that the Sixers and Celtics both play in the Raptors’ division complicates things. The Celtics are the early betting favorite to top the Atlantic Division at -120. The Raptors are second at +275, with the Sixers not far behind at +300. This is easily going to be the most compelling division in the Eastern Conference, and I think the argument can be made that the Atlantic and Northwest Divisions are the most unpredictable in basketball heading into the upcoming campaign.
The Celtics and 76ers are going to get a ton of betting interest, and it’s justified. The Celts came to within a game of the NBA Finals, while the Sixers are only going to get better as the young guys continue to develop. I’m here to take a bold stance. I’m going to tell you why you should be betting your money on the Raptors instead of either Boston or Philly.
Yeah, the Raptors have a reputation as a playoff choker, and with good reason. All of last year, all we heard during the regular season was that “these Raptors are different!” After storming their way to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, Toronto was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and the worst Cavaliers team we’d seen in 5 years. Just like that, the Raptors were ousted in embarrassing fashion once again.
After such a successful regular season, most general managers would have likely opted to run it back the following season. The team’s core was still incredibly young, so who’s to say they didn’t just need another year of seasoning before making a real run? With LeBron James leaving Cleveland for the west coast this summer, the East is truly wide open for the first time in nearly a decade. LeBron’s teams have represented the Eastern Conference in the Finals every year since 2010. Now that he’s calling Los Angeles home, it’s safe to say we will finally see a team other than the Miami Heat or Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals in the summer of 2019.
Had the Raps run it back with the same squad we saw last year, they’d still be right there with the Celtics and 76ers as the conference’s frontrunners. However, they have opted to take a more aggressive approach. The first strike came when GM Masai Ujiri made the somewhat surprising decision to fire head coach Dwane Casey. Casey took home the league’s Coach of the Year Award last season, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. Casey is now plying his craft in the Motor City with the Pistons.
Rather than hiring from the outside, Ujiri opted to promote from within. Nick Nurse, who has been an assistant coach on the Toronto staff since 2013, will now take charge. The 51-year-old has no previous head coaching experience in the NBA, Nurse has a unique background. He spent nearly a decade coaching in the British Basketball League (yes, it’s a real thing) before joining the NBA Development League as the coach of the Iowa Energy and then the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, an affiliate of the Houston Rockets.
Nurse was credited with helping transform the Raptors’ offense last season, and we can expect even more stylistic changes now that he’s in the big job. The Raptors played around a league average pace last season, but we can expect Nurse to try and ramp up the tempo. Toronto should be among the league leaders in possessions per game next season. Rather than relying on post-ups from guys like Jonas Valanciunas, expect the Raptors to take a ton of 3-pointers and look to generate offense via off-ball cuts and ball screens. Guards will be tasked with dribbling into the heart of the defense before finding open teammates beyond the 3-point arc.
The Raptors’ offense was great last season, but they didn’t have the right personnel to optimize that playing style. DeMar DeRozan was the team’s offensive focal point, but his unwillingness to shoot many threes clashed directly with the shift in scheme. DeRozan did average a career-high 3.6 3-point attempts per game, but he connected on just 31 percent of those looks.
Changing coaches was a bold stroke from Ujiri, but the most impactful move he made this summer is unquestionably the trade that sent DeRozan and promising young big man Jakob Poeltl to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for disgruntled swingman Kawhi Leonard as well as 3-and-D maestro Danny Green. Few expected DeRozan, the face of the franchise and the Raps’ all-time leading scorer, to be shipped out of town in exchange for a player coming off an injury-plagued season entering the final year of his deal.
That was certainly a risky step from Ujiri. Leonard has privately made it known that he has the desire to play in Los Angeles once his current contract expires, but Ujiri decided to deal a couple of big-time players in order to get Kawhi and try to convince him to sign with the Raptors on a long-term basis. Whether that works remains to be seen, of course. Leonard will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019.
Leonard essentially forced his way out of San Antonio, but he has gone on the record saying that he will be all-in with the Raptors this season. He played just 9 games last season due to a mysterious quad injury, but he must have passed his physical in order for the trade to Toronto to go through. If Kawhi is healthy and buying into what the Raptors want to do, the team suddenly has a bona fide superstar on its hands.
While DeRozan is an All-Star caliber player in this league, Kawhi is legitimately transformative. Leonard has a more well-rounded offensive game that importantly includes the ability to step out beyond the 3-point arc. Leonard is also arguably the best on-ball defensive player the league has to offer, while DeRozan is notoriously lacking on that end of the floor. Leonard is a former Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP.
The fact that Green was also included in this trade isn’t to be overlooked. There aren’t many legitimate 3-and-D guys populating the NBA, but Green is one of them. Green, 31, is a capable wing defender as well as a career 39 percent shooter from long range. He will be quite useful on both ends of the floor for the Raptors, too.
Betting the Raps
Leonard and Green will be joining what was already a deep and talented roster. Kyle Lowry is still one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA, and he’s another two-way impact player that fits perfectly with what Nurse wants to do, particularly offensively. Ditto for Serge Ibaka, who has added shooting range to his arsenal as his career has progressed.
OG Anunoby, who drew comparisons to Leonard after entering the NBA, should be even better entering his second campaign as a pro. Fred VanVleet came out of nowhere to be one of the league’s most improved players last season, while Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam give the bench all sorts of versatility.
The Raptors were great last season, but they had grown stagnant. Losing a fan favorite like DeRozan may sting at first, but the fact that Ujiri believed in this roster enough to make a risky win-now trade to land Leonard has to give the remaining players confidence moving forward. The Raptors could be a work-in-progress early in the season as they try to incorporate the new faces, of course. That could ultimately hurt the team’s overall chances at winning the division and securing the No. 1 seed in the conference again.
As a result, I’m not a huge fan of taking the Raptors at +275 to win the Atlantic. The Celtics are running it back with most of the same team we saw last season. Ditto for the 76ers. There’s a very real chance Toronto finishes in third place in their own division. We don’t see many third place teams go on to win titles in the NBA.
This is a unique situation, however. Teams that go on runs in the playoffs are typically teams that gel over the course of a season and enter the postseason playing their best basketball. I think the Raptors may start slow, but I expect them to start gelling by the time late December and early January roll around. While the top of the conference is stacked, Toronto will be able to feast against some of the East’s lesser teams as they try to find a rhythm.
As of this writing, you can get the Raptors at +400 to win the Eastern Conference and go to the NBA Finals for the first time ever. They’re listed at +1600 to win the title outright. Some may think it’s a little too optimistic to be taking Toronto to dethrone a team like the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, but I’m a believer in their overall talent. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that crazy to suggest that Toronto could prove to be a tough matchup for the champs.
The defensive versatility is the key. In Leonard, Green, Ibaka, Anunoby and Lowry, Toronto has several players capable of defending multiple positions. Against a team with the offensive weaponry of the Warriors, having athletic, switchable defenders is a must. The Raptors have that, which is going to make them an incredibly tough out come playoff time.
I don’t think these are the same Raptors we’ve grown accustomed to seeing bow out of the playoffs early every year. Something feels different with this team. A slow start could make their long-term odds even more profitable, so keep an eye on the Raptors’ futures odds over the next several weeks. I love the value on Toronto at +400 to win the East and at +1600 to win a title.
The Warriors (or whoever comes out of the Western Conference) will have to go through a brutal series of teams just to get to the Finals. Boston and Philadelphia will present Toronto with some legitimate competition, but the Celtics’ stars have injury histories and the Sixers don’t have as much depth. Brad Stevens and Brett Brown are great coaches, but something is telling me people are undervaluing what Toronto has going on heading into the new season.
Call me crazy, but I think this could be the Raptors’ year.