An NBA Sleeper Is Emerging
By Martin Rogers
It’s not so easy to stay under the radar when you’re literally living in a bubble, and the Toronto Raptors are about to discover that time is running out on them.
As in, running out on them being able to do their own thing without much consideration or respect from fans around the league. And running out on the assumption that losing Kawhi Leonard meant losing any shot at short-term success.
And running out on the theory that this was one defending champion that had no chance of going out and doing it again.
Yes, the whole “slip under the radar” thing is about to disappear, but the Raptors are coming. In truth, they’ve been coming for a while. Heck, maybe they never stopped coming at all, even when Leonard made his much-touted move to the Los Angeles Clippers soon after he brought a title to Toronto.
That was the narrative at the time, that Leonard carried the team on his shoulders and got the job done, staving off the Milwaukee Bucks and the threat of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals and ultimately knocking off the Golden State Warriors when everything was at stake.
Yet, while Leonard’s influence was clear and striking - and while there are few people who’d rate him outside the top five players on the planet - the Raptors were a balanced team before he joined them. In fact, they remained one for the duration of his stay, and are most certainly still one now.
“I think that’s a great team,” LeBron James said, after his Los Angeles Lakers came unstuck against the Raptors, 107-92, on Saturday. “They won a championship for a reason. It wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi and obviously we see that. Don't take any credit away from the Raptors.”
Forget about that being a subtle slight from James toward Leonard. It’s not, it's just the truth. Toronto went 17-5 last season in the games when Leonard’s load management structure did not allow him to play.
They are 48-18 this campaign since he departed, despite being tipped for a mediocre finish by many. Not so in Canada, where the faithful core of support stuck around, and retained hope.
“The city fell in love with Kawhi, but what has happened this season has made us love the team even more,” Raptors fan Ben Spelling told me. “To be able to contend like this without a megastar says everything. The Raptors play smart, we have a coach who is quite brilliant and everyone works their butt off.”
Ah yes, the coach. Nick Nurse was the subject of a minor outrage when his fellow coaches voted him only third in the Coach of the Year poll, one vote behind Mike Budenholzer and Billy Donovan. He could still win the overall vote, depending on other categories.
Nurse has championed a system that overdoses on the most critical components of modern pro basketball - long range shooting and outstanding defense. Leonard’s role, while performed expertly, has largely been filled on defense by OG Anunoby. Pascal Siakam has been a true breakout star since being asked to shoulder more of the offensive burden. Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry are elite all-around players referred to by James as a “two-headed monster.”
Nurse is accustomed to his team being disregarded, and he’s fine with it.
“I don't think anybody's going to pay much attention, they don't ever seem to,” Nurse told reporters. “But it's okay. Seriously man, we love to play the games and we like to compete, we know we're tough to beat, we really do, and I think there's a ceiling we can get to yet.”
Since things got going in Orlando, the Raptors have stifled the Lakers and got by the Miami Heat. They have now won six games in a row, dating back before the pause. Barring some bizarre confluence of results, they are locked in for second place in the East.
“The defending champion Raptors … are going to do their best to dispel one of the most scurrilous myths around the NBA this year, that they were a hapless team before Kawhi, and they will be a hapless team after Kawhi,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First. “This is a testament to … an excellent team that plays hard, plays tough and turns up every single night. And wants to show the world ‘we are the defending champs.’”
There is still a lot to be decided in Orlando. Basketball in the bubble is still, well, bubbling along nicely, and before we blink a few more times the playoffs will be here.
The Raptors won’t go in as favorites, mainly because the bookies take few chances and the shortest odds are the preserve of teams with the biggest names.
FOX Bet lists Toronto at 14-to-1 to win this year's NBA Championship. But don't sleep on them. Getting four wins against this team is going to be a grueling test for anyone.
Toronto is an iron-tight unit that believes in itself and has vast reserves of mental strength. No team was built for a pandemic, and no one predicted a world where the best basketball players all lived together in a hoops nirvana. Yet the Raptors’ spirit and seamlessly organized method of play works in their favor.
You probably didn’t think they’d win last year, either. If you underestimate them again, don’t be surprised if the joke is on you.