The Toronto Raptors were in the realm of being written off after Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green departed for pastures new in Los Angeles. Despite being reigning NBA champions, and retaining exciting young talents along with seasoned veterans, the Raps were considered a lower-echelon Eastern Conference team.
Masai Ujiri’s plans were uncertain, but the possibility of a sharp retool by dealing Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol seemed possible. Toronto have wrestled countless injuries and could easily have sunk towards the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets.
Instead, Nick Nurse has guided his team to the two-seed in the Eastern Conference. They racked up a franchise record winning streak before the All-Star break. Ujiri stuck at the trade deadline, keeping his veterans and future picks.
Even the best Canadian betting sites ruled the Raptors out this season. They were third favourites in the Atlantic Division, and many places had them as rank outsiders to come out of the East. Teams aren’t meant to see their Finals MVP leave, and if any franchise loses a legitimate top five player like Leonard, a downward spiral is usually unstoppable. These Raptors are different, though, and they could yet have a better record in 2019/20 than they did in their title-winning campaign.
They have a reasonable enough schedule remaining. Tankathon ranks them as having the 13th-easiest schedule, despite facing the Milwaukee Bucks twice more, hosting the Lakers and heading to Wells Fargo Center to face the home-dominant Philadelphia 76ers.
The Boston Celtics are going to push them hard for the two-seed and the Atlantic Division title, but whatever happens from here, the Raps have defied all expectations. Nurse is right in the Coach of the Year race with Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel and Billy Donovan.
Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have confirmed their status as elite young talents. Fred VanVleet has picked up where he left off at the end of last season, Kyle Lowry’s trademark doggedness has shown no sign of waning. Role players – Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – have all stepped up when the bigger names have been sidelined.
Toronto aren’t going to be the favourites in a playoff series against Boston or Milwaukee. They might not be fancied against Miami or Philadelphia either. To rule them out would be foolish, though. This is a team that has been battled-tested deep into the playoffs, a team with depth, a great coach and a truly elite defence.
The 2019/20 Raptors are a wonderful story. If we were handing out ‘story of the season’ awards, they would be in a close-fought battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the trophy. It’s a story that could have several more chapters to come.