Raptors enter intriguing season with brand new look
Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard, left, sits on the bench with Serge Ibaka during second half exhibition basketball action against Melbourne United, in Toronto on Friday, October 5, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, October 12, 2018 10:49AM EDT
TORONTO -- A silent superstar. A disgruntled leader. And a new boss on the bench for the first time in seven years.
The Toronto Raptors have emerged from one of the most intriguing off-seasons in recent memory, and are about to pull back the curtain on what should be a compelling regular season with countless questions.
Only what plays out on the court for Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and the Raptors this season can answer them.
As team president Masai Ujiri put it in the Raptors' traditional tipoff press conference: "You never know with these things. In our jobs, we do them first on paper and then they have to pan out on the basketball court."
The Raptors produced a franchise-best 59 wins last season, but ran headfirst into that brick wall -- LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers -- for the third consecutive post-season. Ujiri didn't take long to jettison Dwane Casey, who would win NBA coach of the year weeks later, and replace him with former assistant Nick Nurse. He then pulled the trigger on one of the NBA's biggest off-season deals, sending fan favourite DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green.
James helped clear the playoff path in the East when he left Cleveland for the Los Angeles Lakers. Coupled with Ujiri's bold off-season makeover, the Raptors hope to take a run at the NBA Finals, and perhaps even the franchise's first championship.
If there was an obvious wrinkle in Ujiri's blockbuster trade with the Spurs, it angered Lowry. And who knew how Leonard felt? He remained mum until media day, just before the team left for B.C., for training camp.
"I came here with an open mind," Leonard said that day. "I want to do great things, so I'm going to make sure that I put all my effort on the court, each and every night."
An underlying season theme will be whether the gifted 27-year-old with the remarkably large hands wants to hang around after this season. The man of few words, who becomes a free agent next summer, has given no hints. But he has said all the right things about this season at least.
"As long as I have on a jersey, I want to play basketball," he said.
Leonard is an enigma off the court, but has been among the league's best on it, capturing MVP honours in the 2014 NBA Finals. He was sidelined with a quadriceps injury for all but nine games in a bizarre 2017-18 season with the Spurs that ended in a messy divorce. But pre-season reports have been positive.
"He does have a quiet demeanour, that's no question," said veteran sharpshooter C.J. Miles. "But for what I was expecting, it's 10 times more communication than I woulda thought from what you see and what you hear."
Green said he's seen a level of comfort Leonard didn't have in San Antonio.
"He's definitely more vocal than he's ever been, on and off the court. It looks like he feels comfortable. It looks like he feels at home," Green said. "He's talking to guys, he's leading by example, in the huddles he's chiming in, saying what he feels, saying his opinion. Before he didn't really show or tell his opinion much ... He's leading vocally more than ever before."
Lowry, meanwhile, was stung when the Raptors shipped DeRozan -- his good friend and backcourt mate -- to Texas. But his pre-season chemistry with Leonard has shown promising signs.
"We're both competitors, we're both trying to win and trying to win big," Lowry said.
Nurse was Casey's assistant before he was promoted, becoming the Raptors' eighth head coach in franchise history.
The 51-year-old Iowan, whose resume reads like a road map of the British Basketball and G-Leagues, knows building chemistry will be key to the early season.
"Chemistry kind of builds all season," Nurse said. "It's not like we say 'OK, it's Game 1 and now we've got our chemistry.' I think it shifts and moves all season long.
"It takes some perseverance by us (not to) say, 'Oh, that combination didn't work' and throw it in the bin because it was only a four-minute stretch," he added. "The sample needs to be significant. Sometimes you want to pull the trigger on that stuff because games are coming one after another."
Led by Miles, Fred VanVleet and the emerging Pascal Siakam, the Raptors' second unit -- dubbed the beloved "Bench Mob" -- spent much of the off-season working out together, and one of the best benches in the league last season should hit the ground running again.
The Raptors will get an early gauge of how they stack up in the East. They host the Cavaliers in their opener on Wednesday, and then the highly-touted Boston Celtics on Friday.