For the first time since Michael Jordan’s second retirement from the Chicago Bulls in 1998, the reigning NBA Champions will go into the next season without the MVP who guided them to glory. The Raptors are not the post-Jordan Bulls, however. Yes, they will miss Kawhi Leonard, but while the Bulls became one of the worst teams in the NBA with the departure of its best players and its coach, the Raptors are ready to compete.
Life without Kawhi Leonard
While Kawhi’s absence may knock the Raptors out of title-contention in 2020, it does not mean that they will be a bottom-feeder. Following the bitter divorce from Spurs after what Leonard believed to be negligence with regards to his health, the Raptors allowed Kawhi to sit out as many games as he wanted. He sat out 22 games throughout the season with injury and load management.
In the 22 games without Kawhi, the Raptors were 17-5. That marked a .772 winning percentage. According to Daily Hive, it was actually a nearly 9% improvement over their record with Kawhi. That does not prove that the team is better without Kawhi, but it does show that they know how to win without him. There were lots of hard-fought contests against playoff teams in those 22 games.
Kyle Lowry still leads the way for the Raptors
While Kyle Lowry is entering his mid-thirties, he has not shown any signs of a major regression. He did take a step back in scoring from previous years, averaging 14 points per game.
However, with Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Leonard on the roster and the incredible team depth, he was shooting at a lower clip than he previously had shot, too. If called upon, Lowry could bring his scoring back up, but he may not have to.
Breakout star Pascal Siakam
Pascal Siakam was one of the breakout stars of the 2018-19 season. After turning some heads the season before, Siakam showed that his promise was the real deal, and he raised his points per game by nearly ten points. With Leonard gone, Siakam will be called upon as the team’s primary scorer, and while defenses may get to crack down on him,
Siakam shot 60% from two-point range and nearly 37% from three-point range, meaning defenses will have to be ready to guard him in the half-court setting.
The Raptors’ depth is an asset
The team showed that it could overcome injury in large part due to its depth. With Marc Gasol added at the deadline, the emergence of Fred Van Vleet, a return to form by Serge Ibaka, and reliable minutes for the rest of the role players, the Raptors provided 48 minutes of good basketball regardless of who was on the court. They will all have to step up.
With the East wide open, this depth will come in handy, and even if Eastern rivals like the Bucks and Sixers have strengthened their rosters, the Raptors’ depth could keep them in games if the other teams have depth issues. It was, after all, the role players who helped put away the Warriors during the NBA Finals.
The Raptors were one of the most unlikely champions in recent memory, and they may not be expected to repeat that success, but sleeping on the team would be a massive mistake for any team who chose to do so. They still have stars both young and old, a promising young coach in Nick Nurse, and a deep bench that will be a problem for many teams.
The Kawhi Leonard experiment may have only been a year, but the Raptors have a promising future ahead of them.