Raptors, Leonard keeping everyone in suspense
Star forward may be here for a good time, if not a long time
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 news 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 Nick Nurse. He then pulled the trigger on one of the NBA’s biggest offseason 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 final 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 theme will be whether the gifted 27-year-old 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.
“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 final. 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 (would have) 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 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. 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.”
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.
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard is the team’s new star.
Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse calls to his players during a pre-season NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday.