The NBA made its return with two competitive and highly entertaining games on Thursday, capped off by a showdown between the Lakers and Clippers. But as we all know, the season doesn’t officially start until the defending champions take the court (listen, when you win the Larry OB, you make the rules up as you wish).
The Raptors will (re)start their title defence on Saturday. There are eight seeding games to be played over the next two weeks. The defending champs have a particularly tough schedule, but are most likely locked into the No. 2 seed in the East, with the potential of falling to No. 3, which wouldn’t matter as much because home court advantage doesn’t exist in the bubble, unless you count laggy 56K modem images of virtual fans waving at you behind the basket as you shoot free throws.
Leading up to the NBA restart, there has been a lot of discussion about what value to place on this Disney World championship. Some have argued that there should be an asterisk because of the one-of-a-kind circumstances. Others have made the point that asking players to sequester themselves for three months without access to the outside world means this will be the toughest title run ever.
I’m siding with the latter, especially when it relates to the Raptors, who will be embarking on the most unique and challenging title defense in NBA history. This was already the case before the global pandemic and a COVID-19 positive test from Rudy Gobert caused the entire league to suspend the 2019-20 season in early March.
Just a few weeks after celebrating the franchise’s first championship, the Raptors were back in the very familiar place of being overlooked and disregarded. Kawhi Leonard—despite visiting Niagara Falls, attending a Toronto Blue Jays game, and carrying a Shoppers Drug Mart bag with him on vacation—chose the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency, and immediately, the Raptors were dismissed as a team without a shot of even returning to the playoffs in some circles.
Fred VanVleet admitted this week the offseason chatter was amusing to the members of the championship team who returned to defend their title this season. “I think it was almost laughable for us,” VanVleet said. “We laughed. I mean we obviously lost Kawhi and Danny [Green], who were a huge part of our team, but it was, like, laughable.”
Most teams don’t recover from losing an all-world talent like Leonard, but the Raptors aren’t most teams. Masai Ujiri built a roster both capable of absorbing the risk of trading for one year of Leonard’s services and also moving forward as a contending team without him.
Anyone who watched the Raptors in last year’s playoffs knows they weren’t a one-man team. Perhaps their regular season performance this year—a 46-18 record before the season was suspended—might have convinced everyone else who didn’t believe so. The prognosticators forgot that if you put a healthy Kyle Lowry with four serviceable NBA players on the floor, that can still get you 50 wins a season (and a 30-point second half comeback against the Dallas Mavericks).
They also didn’t factor in the internal improvement of the core group. Aside from Lowry, Serge Ibaka is having a career year, VanVleet established himself as an NBA starter and one of the most underrated defenders in the league, Norman Powell looked like a Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner when the season stopped, OG Anunoby is already an All-NBA level defensive player and continues to progress, Pascal Siakam has exceeded all expectations as the No. 1 option on a contending team. Even the most disappointing player of the group, Marc Gasol, emerged from quarantine looking like he’s in the best shape of his career, with encouraging early returns in the scrimmage games.
Throw in the mad genius of Nick Nurse and contributions from undrafted rookie Terence Davis and the rest of a versatile bench unit, and it’s not difficult to understand why the Raptors are carrying themselves with the confidence of a defending champion.
Nurse made his team’s goal extremely clear earlier this week. “We’re coming here to win the thing,” he said. This is not just some false bravado from a head coach hanging on to last year’s championship, but more so it is the confidence derived from watching his team navigate through injuries and the loss of two key starters, while creating a new identity and re-establishing themselves as contenders in the process.
When the season came to an abrupt stop in March, the Raptors had already answered a lot of questions we had about them, but doubters remain. If the Raptors can navigate through Leonard’s departure, an injury-riddled regular season, a four-month midseason stoppage because of a global pandemic, and win four playoff rounds at Disney World without any semblance of home court advantage, objectively it will be the hardest path a defending champion has taken in league history.
Nobody should be surprised, though, if it does happen, and the 2019-20 Raptors have given us every reason to believe they are capable of winning another championship this season.
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