As expected, the Toronto Raptors are a problem.
At 18-4, they own the best record in the NBA currently, and are undoubtedly one of the favorites to make it out of the Eastern Conference. Before tonight’s match up, I had the opportunity to talk to Raptors’ HQ’s Daniel Reynolds about the new look Raptors and how they match up with the ‘Dubs.
GSOM: Kyle Lowry’s been playing very well so far. What do you think is behind Lowry’s elevated play?
Daniel Reynolds: The thing about Lowry is that he knows how best to maximize the roster that he has. He doesn’t make passes that won’t result in good shots for his teammates (hence the gaudy assist numbers so far), he doesn’t take gambles on defense that aren’t warranted (hence the team-wide solid defensive numbers), and he’s always grinding for little advantages (hence, well, just watch him play).
As such, unlike the uber-athletic point guards in the league, Lowry’s success as an individual player feeds on and in turn fuels his team’s success — e.g. he’s not going to explode for 50 points to win a game by himself. With improved teammates (both via trade and through the team’s internal development), Lowry’s play gets that much better. He can count on more of his squad to make the right play, hit the shot, find the open man, etc. — actions he is usually dictating while on the floor — which in turn opens things up for him to be individually better. This is the cycle we’ve seen so far this season.
GSOM: What’s surprised you about Kawhi’s adjustment to the Raptors and his play after returning from injury?
Reynolds: To be honest, nothing has surprised me. Leonard is doing exactly the things I expected (and hoped) he would do in Toronto: scoring efficiently, acting as a terror on defense, playing as a steadying force in every lineup. The only remarkable thing, I guess, is that it has all happened relatively quickly. Leonard didn’t play much at all last season, and now — other than sitting out on back-to-backs — he’s looked a lot like his old self. The fact that he’s got a little more spring in his step still to come, and that his chemistry with his new Raptors teammates can still improve, should be terrifying information for the rest of the league.
GSOM: Other than getting Kawhi, in what ways are the Raptors different this season as opposed to past seasons?
Reynolds: Three things jump out:
First, using Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas as interchangeable centres (rather than starting them together) has been good for both players. Ibaka is much more comfortable getting the ball in his sweet spots, he’s hustling at the rim, and he’s back to being a defensive force. And Valanciunas can come in an do what he does best: score in the post and grab boards.
Second, trading for Danny Green was exactly the move the Raptors really needed to make. Obviously, he stands in the shadow of the Kawhi trade, but Green’s value on the perimeter as both a solid shooter and rock on defense really is incalculable. When you add in his veteran calm and experience, Green has a big part to play in the Raptors’ latest identity.
And third, Pascal Siakam! The Raptors were hoping for a leap to come from one of the four young guys still on the roster: OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, and Siakam. Each has improved in their way, but no one has jumped out quite like Siakam. He’s not much of a shooter yet, but he can guard every position, make plays on the break, and he’s legitimately becoming hard to stop with the ball in his hands. This is what the Raptors were dreaming of when they picked Siakam late in the first round. He has arrived.
GSOM: Klay Thompson said that a Warriors/Raptors matchup may be a preview of the Finals. How well do you think you match up with the Warriors and why?
Reynolds: First, let me say, I appreciate Klay Thompson’s fine words with regards to the Raptors. I happen to agree that there is indeed something special going on up in Canada right now. That’s just my (biased) opinion though.
Unfortunately, a fully-charged Warriors vs. Raptors series would still likely be a win for the Warriors in, at the very most and under the most optimistic circumstances, six games. The most likely scenario involves the Raptors winning, say, Game 2 at home before caving to the pressure of the moment in five games. (Maybe there’s one other close loss in there too, just to get our collective hopes up.)
Overall, Toronto has far more weapons now to matchup against the Warriors’ attack -- e.g. Kawhi going at Durant, Pascal Siakam handling anybody, Danny Green tackling Steph Curry, etc. — but they’d need to play four perfect games and, sadly, I just can’t see it happening (yet). The biggest gulf between the two teams is in pure shot-making ability — the Warriors know they can generate and make shots at will, and the Raptors will likely get sped up and ultimately fall behind.
On the bright side: this could be the last hurrah for this version of the Warriors, and if things go the way I think, the Raptors could be back in the Finals again.
GSOM: What do you feel would keep Kawhi in Toronto?
Reynolds: And that’s because what keeps Kawhi in Toronto is a desire to get (back) to the Finals. Only Toronto would be able to guarantee a solid shot. And only the Raptors (of the possible suitors) have the organizational structure and smarts to make said guarantee sound like something besides a bizarre boast or empty promise. (Seriously, you’re telling me Kawhi Leonard is going to sit in a room listening to Steve Ballmer or some such, rather than Masai Ujiri?)
And that’s really the bottom line — aside from the actual dollar figure Leonard can command in Toronto. Kawhi would have his own team and potentially have run of the Eastern Conference. That has to count for something, right?
To see my responses to their questions, head on over to their post at Raptors HQ.