The Toronto Raptors have suffered a major blow to their chances of retaining the NBA title in 2019-20. Kawhi Leonard chose to sign a max contract with the Los Angeles Clippers to join Paul George, rather than return to to the Raptors. The Raptors had been pursuing Leonard since he led them to the title and he was their sole target in free agency. So where does Kawhi’s decision leave the Raptors now?
The usual reaction to losing a star such as Kawhi is to tear down the roster and start a rebuild. The Raptors may yet choose to do this. However, most of their key players are still under contract for another year and they will struggle to move large veteran contracts now that most teams have used up their cap space on free agent signings. With Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka becoming free agents at the end of 2019-20. The Raptors will be in transition during the 2019-20 season.
The departure of Kawhi means that certain players will have a greater role next year. The Raptors have had one of the deepest rosters in the NBA over the last couple of years, and many of the bench players are ready to develop futher, much like Pascal Siakam did last year. Fred Vanvleet leads this group and will probably see an increase in minutes following his postseason heroics. OG Anunoby will likely have a more prominent role also, giving him an opportunity to breakthrough and develop into an every day player.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Raptors is whether Siakam is ready for a more ball dominant role and whether he can become their number one scoring option long term. After last season, it is clear that Siakam is prepared to work hard and learn in order to improve. During the 2018-19 season Siakam transformed from a hard working role player to an all-around star with an ability to score consistently. Nobody expects Siakam to be a replacement for Kawhi but if he can continue this development and increase his scoring even further, the Raptors will be in a very strong position going forward.
A large emphasis for the Raptors should now be on developing players for the future. This does not mean that we should forget about the Raptors chances for next season though. With a mix of some experienced former all-stars and promising younger players, there is a chance that they are very competitive again next year. With some of their competitors in the Eastern Conference getting weaker they arguably still have one of the better starting fives in their conference. Compared to the team that came first in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18, they have lost DeMar DeRozan but they have gained Marc Gasol and effectively Pascal Siakham, with the huge step forward he has made.
Losing Leonard is obviously a major setback in the short term for the Toronto Raptors, but they are still in a very strong position to be competitive now and to build for the future. We should not be surprised if they are right in the mix come the end of the regular season.