NBA champions in 2019, downing the Warriors dynasty, and doing this all with one true superstar. The Toronto Raptors broke the trend of superteams with a 4-2 victory over the Golden State Warriors. Now the Raptors sit 12th in the East with a 25-35 record. What once seemed like a slump caused by the Covid-19 virus, now looks more like a disaster. So what caused such a drop for a team that won the championship in 2019, was 2nd in the East in 2020, and now looks like one of the worst teams in the league. 

Kawhi’s decision

One of the biggest moves in the 2019 free agency was the departure of Kawhi Leonard from the Raptors. Toronto had traded away fan favorite Demar Derozan to San Antonio in exchange for Leonard before the 2019 season. The Raptors had placed all their chips into Leonard being the missing piece, and they had it right. Toronto needed a top tier player and Leonard was exactly that. He could get a basket when the Raptors needed one, and was the undisputed leader of the team. The trade was a success for the Raptors, but the variable they were not able to nail was resigning Leonard for the next season. There is only so much a cold Canadian city can do when competing with sunny beach cities such as L.A. The Raptors had done everything right, and yet they were still unable to keep Leonard. They had lost their star, dropping them from title contenders to playoff contenders. 

The False Horizon 

The majority of NBA fans did not see the Toronto Raptors sitting at the top of the east after losing Kawhi Leonard. There was expected to be some sort of dropoff, and while the Raptors certainly did not make the championship again they still managed 2nd place in the East and a two round playoff run. That is very impressive for a team that had just lost it’s one major superstar. One of the biggest reasons that the Raptors were able to be so successful in 2020 was because of their defense. An underdog mentality from the entire team helped them lock up opponents on defense, leading to easy buckets and ultimately wins. Fred VanVleet also continued his breakout performance from the playoffs into the regular season, averaging 20 ppg and 6 assists. VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are the future of the Raptors, but the biggest reason for the success in 2020 was the vets. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka led this team with an underdog mentality and an unselfish playstyle. This led the team to success, and hopes of getting back into title contention. With development of their young players, smart drafting, and a good culture it might have been possible to recover from the Kawhi decision. 

The Lost Season 

Before the start of the 2021 NBA season, ESPN had Toronto top ten in their preseason power rankings. They even said, “expect Toronto to remain firmly in the mix for home-court advantage in the East playoffs”. What else would you expect for a team that has been near the top of the rankings for so many years, and even after losing Kawhi they were still competitive. When the season started and the Raptors started dropping games, everyone pointed to the pandemic and a limited rest time for players in the bubble. Teams like the Celtics, Heat, and Raptors were all falling down the rankings. Everyone expected these teams to recover, and Miami and Boston did but Toronto was never able to get their season back on track. They are now heading towards a top ten pick, and a season stuck at the bottom of the East. Their defense was not the same lockdown, as it was in seasons before. Partly due to both of their big men leaving in free agency creating a gaping hole in the middle of the defense. On the offensive side of the ball things are more encouraging. Pascal Siakam is averaging 20+ ppg and the Raptors have 7 players averaging in the double digits. A breakout season from Chris Boucher has been encouraging, but it always seems like the offense production of the entire team is never there. It is either Siakams night, or VanVleet, or Lowry and when there is no lockdown defense Siakam can go for 30 and they still lose to the New York Knicks. The Raptors have wasted some great games from their young guys, and that is why they sit 10 games from .500. 

Top Image: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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