The saga of Kawhi Leonard’s free agency that ended in him returning to his California roots by joining the Clippers led to the defending NBA champions turning into an afterthought among the league. However, nobody told the Raptors that as they have started off with an impressive 7-3 start with an impressive victory on the road against the Lakers, although they fell to the Clippers last night. Although it is early, the Raptors should be considered a legitimate contender to win the East for three reasons: their experience, their competition, and their home-court advantage.
Outside of losing Kawhi Leonard, every key piece from their championship team is back. Although losing your best player is typically irreplaceable, the opportunity for other players to step up is there for the taking. For those that are questioning that logic, just ask Pascal Siakam. Siakam, who signed a 4-year $130 million extension is already making a solid return on Toronto’s investment leading the offense with 27.4 PPG (points per game) thus far. He is also leading the team in rebounds from the small forward position with 9.4 RPG (rebounds per game). The backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry have been carrying over their excellent play from the last year’s postseason with 16.0 PPG and 7.7 APG (assists per game) and 21.8 PPG and 6.5 APG respectively.
Also returning are their seasoned and skillful big man duo in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka who brings quality veteran leadership and prove to be low-post threats with abilities to shoot from three and be defensive anchors as well as the Raptors are currently 8th in the league in Defensive Rating. There is plenty of depth with a variety of players 6’7” and above on this roster that bring size and length that will make it difficult for opponents to score. Minus Leonard, the entire core of this team is back with a blend of the veteran leadership and young players reaching their potential. That combination has led them to one NBA finals who is to say that they cannot make it to another.
Last season, we experienced the first Eastern Conference championship team without Lebron James since the turn of the decade. With Lebron on the Lakers, the Eastern Conference is much more open for the taking. This year’s favorites in the East are the 76ers and the Celtics. The Celtics are the only team right now with a better start than the Raptors with a 7-1 record. However, in the foreseeable future they are missing Gordon Hayward due to injury and have no timetable of his return. Their offensive leaders with him are reigning 3rd team All-NBA member Kemba Walker and young blossoming stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. A very talented but inexperienced trio, with each of them never playing in a NBA Finals, and Kemba, who is their point guard, has never even made it past the 1st round of the playoffs. Also with Al Horford skipping town to Philadelphia, they are missing a solid low-post presence in the half court setting and his veteran experience.
The 76ers, who were also favorites in the Eastern Conference, have some question marks. They are off to a 6-3 start but have lost one of the best shooters in the league in J.J. Redick as well as Jimmy Butler who is known as one of the best two-way players in this league. So far, there has been no improvement at all in Simmons’ shooting as he has yet to even attempt a three point shot this season. He also signed a massive contract this offseason, like Siakam, but his game thus far has not taken the same steps forward. He has averaged just over 13.0 PPG, which is only 4th on his team with 5.6 RPG and 6.9 APG. Joel Embiid has been dominant but has significant injury history, and he has had his maturity questioned with his brawl with the Minnesota Timberwolves’s Karl Anthony-Towns that led to a 2-game suspension. It should be interesting to see how this season plays out for Philadelphia, and this should prove that nobody is a lock in this conference.
Their Home-Court Advantage
The Raptors have been known for a very strong fanbase being Canada’s sole NBA team. Their fans and amazing home crowd were a storyline throughout the playoffs last season and were a driving force into them securing an NBA finals championship. Last season, the Raptors finished 2nd in the East with a total record of 58-24 and were 32-9 when playing at their home court, Scotiabank Arena. That record was 2nd best in the conference and tied for 3rd best in the league with the Spurs and the Trail Blazers. Their success at home carried over to the playoffs where they were 8-2 going into the NBA Finals. With a fanbase as loyal as the Raptors, we know these fans are not going anywhere this season. The East will have to go through the North in order to get to the Finals, and thus far into the season, Toronto is looking to be juggernaut, and they will not let that NBA Finals trophy out of their grasp without a fight.