The Toronto Raptors entered the season with reason for optimism. They returned most of the team that won a franchise-high 59 games last season and the only real change was adding Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Despite the new faces, there were many questions left to be answered. They were put to bed quickly as the Raptors set a franchise record with six straight wins to start the season. With virtually 10 per cent of the season in the books we are starting to get some answers. Toronto is now 7-1 through eight games and has exceeded all reasonable expectations.
The main questions and concerns that hung over the franchise coming into the season were:
1) Is Kawhi Leonard healthy?
2) Can he perform away from Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs system?
3) Will Kyle Lowry be engaged?
4) Is Nick Nurse any different than Dwane Casey?
Here’s what we’ve learned thus far about the 2018-19 Raptors.
1. Kawhi is healthy and the Raptors would like to keep it that way.
Leonard started the season looking rusty but healthy. He was dominant out the gate as his 77 points in his first three games are the most ever by a Raptor in their first three games of a season. The quadriceps tendinopathy and ossification, which was the talk of the league when Leonard missed 73 games last year, is a distant memory. Leonard is playing 34.7 minutes a night. He’s physically fit enough to regain his elite form.
Leonard has missed two games for load maintenance. The first was sitting out a road game in Washington following a home win over Boston that saved him from playing four games in six days. The second was the start of the back-to-back in Milwaukee before playing at home against Philadelphia. His usage will be fluid, but so far, we can derive that Leonard will be held out for the road end of back-to-backs which saves him some plane trips along with minutes.
With three more sets of back-to-backs before the end of November we will likely see Kawhi rested as a precaution again.
2. Leonard is not a system player, he’s the best player in the East.
Leonard is 6-8, 230 pounds, with a 7-4 wingspan and has shown he can use that stature to be dominant no matter where he is playing.
The MVP chants at Scotiabank Arena are premature but make no mistake Leonard is back playing at the level that had him perpetually in the MVP and defensive player of the year conversations. Although this time he’s doing it sharing the spotlight with Lowry and receiving the green light from Nurse outside the preordained structure of the Spurs basketball dynasty. The Raptors are 6-0 when Leonard has suited up. In those games Leonard three times scored 31 or more.
Through his first six appearances as a member of the Raptors, he’s averaging 27.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2 steals and 0.5 blocks with a slash line of 50.4/44.4/91.4. Yes, he’s in the 50/40/90 club which is Steve Nash and Stephen Curry territory while remaining the one of league’s premier wing defenders making crazy plays on D like diving for balls like a shortstop.
Leonard is one of only 17 qualified players shooting above 45 per cent from deep while taking more than four threes per game.
Lowry and Leonard have a 20.1 net rating when both share the floor. As crazy as it sounds, Lowry might be the best teammate Leonard has ever played with.
3. This is the best Lowry has ever played.
There was a concern Lowry would sulk and let his personal feelings about being without best friend DeMar DeRozan impact his play and leadership on the court. Nothing has been further from the truth.
Lowry’s best quality is his competitiveness, something he has in common with his new sidekick Leonard. Lowry has channelled that passion into playing incredibly smart and efficient basketball getting to his spots while also getting his teammates easy buckets. Kyle Lowry’s efficiency rating is seven points higher than it’s been at any point in his career. No other point guard (and few players at any position) in the East are playing better than Lowry right now.
Remember when Lowry was once labelled a selfish player? How inaccurate does that assessment look now? Lowry leads the league in assists and is a whole 2.1 assists per game ahead of the next closest competition. Lowry has averaged 18.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks. He has five double-doubles this season. His stroke is on, shooting 51.5 per cent from the field, 42.3 per cent from deep and 75.9 per cent from the line. In the team’s sole loss versus Milwaukee, Lowry had 15 assists which equals his Raptors career-high and is just shy of his career-high of 18 which he did twice with Houston. Through eight games, he’s got 89 assists and just 23 turnovers. Lowry has double-digit assists in six straight games, which is double the longest streak of his career prior to this season. Lowry had four games the entire season last year with 12 or more assists. He already has five in eight games this year.
A 6-1 point guard at the age of 32 isn’t supposed to age this well. It’s a long season and the culmination of hits he takes can wear on him over time but at this time he’s put to bed any concerns about him being engaged and ready to play.
4. Nurse has already put his stamp on the team.
I was a believer Casey shouldn’t have been fired but I must admit Nurse has proven to be an astute hire. Mainly because it was an internal promotion not an external acquisition. Nurse was the mastermind of the offensive renaissance the team went under last year and he’s taken it to another level this year. Nurse is a great balance because he had intimate knowledge of the the roster which promotes continuity but had his own fresh ideas on how to tweak how things were done and who was doing them.
One main difference is having a revolving door of starters; not being fixed to starting the same five no matter the matchup as was his predecessor. Most teams don’t switch up their starters because they don’t have more than five good players. The Raptors are 12 deep. Greg Monroe and Jonas Valanciunas are the only players on the roster that can only play one position. Nurse is leveraging that fact and so far, it’s working.
The change has found more minutes for the rapidly improving Pascal Siakam. It also has given big men Serge Ibaka and Valanciunas a new lease on life with both playing the majority of their minutes at the five and being deployed in situations in which they can succeed. In eight games Nurse has used four different starting lineups which has included eight different players. The group that has started the most (four times) is Leonard, Lowry, Green, Siakam and Ibaka. They have the second-highest net rating of high-usage five-man lineups so far this season.
The best version of what Nurse envisioned came in their most recent win over rival Philadelphia 76ers where they scored a season-high 129 points, had six guys in double figures, 29 assists, and forced 23 turnovers that led to 29 points with a season-best 13 steals. Nurse played 11 players in the contest.
The Raptors start a four-game road trip in Phoenix on Friday and then a marquee matchup against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday on Sportsnet ONE. The early season tests for Toronto continue, but so far, it’s passed most with flying colours.