Early Tuesday morning the San Antonio Spurs finally freed Kawhi Leonard and traded him away. Only it wasn’t to his preferred destination of the Los Angeles Lakers, it was to the Toronto Raptors.

Along with Kawhi, the Spurs sent Danny Green to the North for none other than All-Star DeMar DeRozan. Toronto also sent Jakob Poeltl and a Protected 2019 1st-round pick. The trade has a lot of revolving conversations around it including player loyalty to franchises with DeRozan and of course whether or not Kawhi is fine with playing in Toronto. The fact of the matter is that DeRozan will be wearing a Spurs jersey and Kawhi will be wearing a Raptors jersey when the season tips off.

The Spurs will have as much trouble as any other Western Conference team not named the Warriors and the Rockets, but how about the Raptors? Is it now time for Toronto to finally make the NBA Finals for the first time in the franchise’s history?*

*The Raptors haven’t even reached the Eastern Conference Finals in the 23 year history of the franchise*

The East is Ripe for the Taking

The Raptors have had a boogeyman haunting them for the past few years. You guys might not have heard the news but that boogeyman, LeBron James, has left the Eastern Conference to take his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers. That takes the best player out of the conference and effectively takes the Cleveland Cavaliers out of title contention (and most likely, playoff contention).

That leaves three probable teams that will by vying for the Eastern Conference title: the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Toronto Raptors.

The Celtics and the 76ers have immense young talent on their rosters and they will more than likely improve off of last season by natural player progression from young players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric. The Celtics also will be getting a boost on their roster with the return of Gordon Hayward who played a little over 5 minutes in the 2017-18 season before going down with his infamous ankle injury.

The 76ers had the huge debacle with Bryan Colangelo and the Celtics had trouble with re-signing Marcus Smart (that’s over now), but other than that the two teams will go into the 2018-19 season at least the same, if not better. That does not bode well for the Raptors who were swept in the conference semi-finals last year while the 76ers and Celtics battled in a 7 game series in the other semi-finals. The match up seemed like a precursor for the future of the conference, but could the Raptors crash the two teams’ plans for this season with the arrival of Kawhi?

The Raptors’ Youth

One of the biggest sub-stories of the Kawhi-DeRozan trade was that the Raptors only had to part with Poeltl when it came to breaking up their young guns. Most notably left out of the trade was OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakum, who are 21 and 24 years old, respectively. The two young players contributed to the Raptors’ 5th ranked defense, as they were both top 5 on the team in Defensive Rating. Both found ways to make contributions on offense AND defense while being on a very talented and veteran-led roster, as Siakum was 4th on the team in Win Shares while Anunoby was 9th.

The Raptors also re-signed Fred VanVleet this summer, who is another key member of their young core. VanVleet (the Raptors’ young core isn’t short of absurd last names) actually led the team in Defensive Rating (99.9) while only trailing Kyle Lowry and DeRozan in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (1.9).

As we all know, trading for Kawhi is a huge risk for the Raptors front office, as he becomes a free agent in the 2019 offseason. It’s still believed by many that he will have his sights set on Los Angeles whether it is the Lakers or Clippers. If the Raptors can’t convince him to re-sign, then they at least retained the ability to move forward with the young core of Siakum, Anunoby, and VanVleet. They’ll need them as Lowry continues to age.

Lowry and Nick Nurse Lead the Way

DeRozan may be gone, but longtime teammate Kyle Lowry is still in Toronto. He made the All-Star team last year for the 4th year in a row, averaging 16.2 PPG, 6.9 APG, and 5.6 RPG. He led the entire team in Win Shares with 10.2, beating out DeRozan who had 9.6. He’s still one of the best point guards in the East, but hopefully new head coach Nick Nurse will continue to utilize the Raptors young bench led by backup point guard VanVleet, as they were one of the best in the NBA last year. Lowry’s minutes per game decreased from 37.4 MPG in the 2016-17 season to 32.2 MPG last year, as less time on the court will theoretically prolong the career of the 32-year-old.

Speaking of Nurse, he will be tasked to lead the young guys in addition to the veterans (Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas with Lowry). He’s taking over for Coach of the Year Duane Casey, who changed the way the Raptors played for the better as he preached shooting more threes and moving the ball more (8.7 more 3s attempted per game last season – 5.8 more APG as well).

Many are wondering how Nurse will change the Raptors after they made such great improvements last year. They might not actually change at all stylistically, because it was mostly Nurse who helped implement this new style of basketball.

Nurse is an “offensive guru” that gave the Raptors the idea of shooting more threes and moving the ball more (two NBA methods that are essentially no-brainers, but whatever), and Kawhi should be set to thrive in his offense. He will be a great replacement for DeRozan, as he is basically the same type of player BUT with much better three-point shooting and defense.

While the whole team feasts on open threes from ball movement, the Raptors can always go to Kawhi if they need a bucket. In the 2016-17 season, he was in the 94th percentile in spot-up shooting and in the 93rd percentile as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. If the threes aren’t falling in the set offensive pieces, they can throw it over to Kawhi for a shot or to screen him and let him work. Obviously Kawhi is one of the best defenders when healthy, as he was 6th in Defensive Win Shares in the 2016-17 season. The only players in front of him are rim-protecting bigs, who get to the top of the list by racking up block-after-block-after-block. Kawhi earns his spot by locking down on the perimeter.

It does remain to be seen if Kawhi’s injury is fully gone. He only played 9 games in the 2017-18 season, and it’s not certain if most of the time missed was due to the injury or the disconnect with the Spurs franchise. Hopefully his looming physical for the trade will shed more light on his health. If he is back to “fully-healthy Kawhi”, then the Raptors will be a terror on the defensive end and will continue to improve from the 3-point line, as Kawhi’s 38.0 3-point percentage in the 2016-17 season will replace DeRozan’s 31.2 3-point percentage last year.

Raptors Against the Pesky Young Stars

I think the Celtics, 76ers, and Raptors are destined to be the top three teams in the East next year, but the order of the three teams could be decided by just a few games. The Celtics and the 76ers definitely have better young talent, but the Raptors aren’t too far behind them in that category. They could have easily been too overly aggressive for the All-NBA talent of Kawhi Leonard, but they intelligently didn’t give away the farm for him. That will help them in the future, and it will also help them in the present. I think with Kawhi they provide an equalizer to Ben Simmons. Simmons hasn’t been guarded by anyone in the East that comes close to Kawhi, and I see him having a lot of trouble with him if they meet in the playoffs.

I do see the Celtics as a larger threat to the Raptors’ Finals chances than the 76ers. I believe the Raptors match up very well with the 76ers and could dispose of them in the playoffs. The Celtics on the other-hand took the LeBron-led Cavs team to 7 games in the ECF. This was the same Cavs team that just before that series swept the Raptors. The Raptors may be improving with Kawhi, but the Celtics didn’t have Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward for that Cavs series. If the Celtics can keep those two healthy in the playoffs, then I think they’d probably beat the Raptors in a playoff series. Kyrie’s health has been a big question mark in the past two years though, and you never know what else could go wrong. If the Raptors themselves can stay healthy, then anything is possible.

They seemed to have a good shot at the NBA Finals last year, but we all know how that turned out. They can rest easy this year since the boogeyman moved to L.A., and they can now turn their focus towards the Celtics and 76ers.