Pirasanth Gunasekaram, Sports Editor
Everything went right for the Toronto Raptors in the 2018-19 season, but the odds of a repeat championship is almost zero.
Unlike last season, we never had someone like Kawhi Leonard.
He hit the famous “is this the dagger” that ends the series with the winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers during game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Leonard’s help, Toronto defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 4-2 best of seven series of the Eastern Conference Finals. And in the NBA Finals, the Raps eventually beat the back-to-back defending champs Golden State Warriors, 4-2 in a best of seven series and win its first NBA championship in the franchise’s 24-year history.
Usually, the team that wins the Larry O’Brien Trophy would be one of the favourites to do it all again.
But the Raptors are in a unique place this season because they are not the favourites to win the championship, most significantly because Leonard left the Raptors to sign a three-year contract worth $103 million to join his hometown team the Los Angeles Clippers.
Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, knew the risks when he traded franchise player DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first round pick on July 18, 2018 for Leonard and Danny Green, who signed up with the LA Lakers.
Ujiri — along with almost everyone else — suspected Leonard wasn’t interested in staying in Toronto for more than a year, but he still made the trade.
But what does that mean for the 2019-20 season and their chances to go back-to-back?
Without Leonard, they do not have a superstar player that can bail the team out when it struggles.
They do have Kyle Lowry who is the heart and soul of the team and Pascal Siakam who has potential to be the franchise player and an all-star.
But will the Raps win the championship with Lowry and Siakam as the two best players in the team?
No, because realistically they could go to the second round of the 2020 NBA playoffs depending if they keep everyone during the year.
The Raptors are in this weird situation where they are good enough to make the playoffs in the east, but not good enough to go all the way to the finals.
There are a couple of options Ujiri could do with the team’s future.
One option is to start over by rebuilding through the draft and keep with the young players. They could also trade their veterans like Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka for draft picks and young players.
Another option is to focus on its cap space since seven players on the team are free agents except for Lowry, OG Anunoby, Patrick McCaw, Norman Powell, Cameron Payne, Isaiah Taylor, Matt Thomas and Dewan Hernandez on June. 30, 2020.
In 2020, the cap space is about $45 million and, according to fan speculation, the team is saving room to sign Milwaukee Bucks small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo for 2021. So, they could focus on 2021 where could have about an estimate of $100 million of cap space to sign the Greek Freak and build the team around him.
What I feel is the best and the most realistic option is to keep the team the way it is at least for a few months into the season and then revaluate them.
If they’re doing well, keep the team the way it is. If not, then tank the season and rebuild the team.
None of these might not be the options because Ujiri is one of the best when it comes to building a basketball team. But then again, he might have something up his sleeve because no one thought the Raptors would win the championship last season.