Losses: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Jeremy Lin.
Additions: Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Cam Payne, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller, Devin Robinson, Oshae Brissett, Dewan Hernandez, Sagaba Konate.
Likely Starters Guard: Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell Wing: Pascal Siakam Big: Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol
Predicted Record: 47–35 | 11th in NBA | 4th in East
It’s not easy to articulate what, exactly, makes Kawhi Leonard such a great basketball player. Yes, the evidence is obvious. He’s been the best player on two title teams (aside: if you agree with me that Pau Gasol won the 2010 NBA Finals pretty much by himself, that’s one more than Kobe Bryant). He’s the best defensive player in the league—an impossible combination of strength, speed, and balance. He’s a great shooter, and he’s great at finding buckets in other ways. He’s a good passer—still improving. All of this isn’t it though.
In last season’s playoffs, when Kawhi was at his best, you could feel his teammates feeding off his quiet confidence. He plays with towering grace and endless dignity. I can’t think of another basketball player more purely himself. One finds oneself talking about shit like this when one talks about sports. Ineffable confidence. Unusual combinations of skills that seem poised against one another. Kawhi’s self-possession feels to me—I’m reaching, I know, I know—like a kind of statesmanship.
The Raptors had the man for a year, and look what happened. The best players make the people around them better. Not just the players—the people. Consider Nick Nurse, who now has an unimpeachable resume exactly one season into his NBA head coaching career. Consider how much we talked about Alex McKechnie last season. I don’t mean to take anything away from these people, but you can’t possibly disagree that having Kawhi Leonard roll through your life alters the terms of your existence.
Consider, then, the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, who will now go on without him. If you take a look at their offseason, the strategy seems to have centered around finding guys who are roughly the same physical size as Kawhi Leonard. They already had OG Anunoby. They added Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The latter, in particular, still has a kind of untapped potential and some of the sneaky bits of verve Kawhi had when he came into the league out of San Diego State. Of course, these dudes are not Kawhi Fucking Leonard. Nevertheless, I find myself admiring the strategy. It’s like finding a cardboard cut-out of a lost loved one. It makes no fucking sense whatsoever, but what are you supposed to do?
What’s left here is a fantastic basketball team, actually. That starting lineup has a nice mix of offense and defense, size and speed, spacing and juice off the bounce. There’s not going to be a lot of cheap wins against the Raptors. They’re going to make you work, and outsmart you, and beat you most nights. They’re deep and tough. One of these peripheral players makes a leap this season, and the Raptors are going to be a huge pain in the ass for some team with high expectations in the playoffs (I’m looking at you, Philly and Milwaukee).
Here in the present though, things remain a little unclear. What are the right metaphors for what happened last year? Was Kawhi like a dying star, leaving a black hole in the space where he once was here, doing his thing? Was Kawhi a comet we saw one crisp, dark night, inspiring us and leaving traces of that inspiration behind him in the form of ever slowly fading memory? Was he a dream? A mirage? Every season, every team must turn the page, so to speak, but the 2019-20 Raptors face an endlessly interesting challenge. How do we get over a momentary dalliance with fleeting perfection? A false question, I know. There’s no getting over, there’s just going on.