The Toronto Raptors are the reigning NBA champions. Yet, their odds to make the playoffs are just -340 with FanDuel. They are +280 to miss out.
The Detroit Pistons are -135 to play in the postseason. The Indiana Pacers are -550. Toronto’s odds have them as a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference team, more likely to miss out than Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Indiana.
That’s the impact of Kawhi Leonard waving goodbye to Canada after leading them to an NBA title. The Raptors aren’t in ruins right now – they’ve still got a solid experienced core and young talent – but predicting their season is challenging. Finals MVPs don’t just leave the summer after a title. This is unchartered territory.
After winning 58 games last season, including a 17-5 record without Leonard, the line of 46.5 wins seems a little harsh. In reality, it’s just a reflection of the Raptors’ situation. A franchise on the back of the highest of highs, but with a roster missing a true superstar. Leonard was recently ranked the second-best player in the league by ESPN – many will tell you he deserves to be a spot higher.
That All-NBA-shaped hole on the team could be filled by last season’s Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam. The Cameroonian made the power forward spot his own in 2018/19, becoming the second-best player on the team and was very unlucky to miss out on an All-Star spot.
Siakam evolving into a 20 points per game scorer, which isn’t improbable with the offence focussed on him, changes the Raptors drastically. A top four seed in the Eastern Conference isn’t out of reach by any means, and Toronto could become a favourite for one of those spots if Siakam adapts well to being the focal point of the team. Opponents will be prepared for him this year, their defences set up to counter his game – how he develops is as crucial as any other factor for Nick Nurse’s team.
Being an All-Star should be the aim for Siakam. The long arms, the three-point shooting, the touch in the paint, give him a high ceiling. He’s Toronto’s main building block.
OG Anunoby is the other key pillar. Anunoby’s 2018/19 was disrupted by the tragic passing of his father and injury. He was the leading young player on the roster prior to last season. The London-born 22-year-old should be the franchise’s long-term small forward, locking down the three and four for several seasons to come.
Toronto are as long as +1400 to come out of the East this season.
Expectations are markedly lower than last season, and despite Kyle Lowry’s recent contract extension, the possibility of a retool shouldn’t be discounted. While Siakam and Anunoby represent major upside alongside a veteran core, Masai Ujiri is one of the boldest executives in the NBA. Selling off Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka (both on expiring contracts) would likely eliminate the Raptors from playoff contention.
Their +280 to miss the playoffs accounts for the possibility of Ujiri moving the veterans for draft picks. The Leonard trade was a shock – Ujiri plays a role in the unpredictability of the Raptors. If they start the season well, with Siakam and Anunoby thriving, a win-now move shouldn’t be ruled out either, perhaps using one of the veterans to balance salary.
Evaluating this Raptors roster is challenging. There’s an argument for the decline of Gasol, Ibaka and Lowry. There’s an argument for the improvement of Siakam, Anunoby, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet. Being the number three seed isn’t out of reach, if healthy they will be a playoff team.
The loss of Danny Green has gone under the radar, his elite defence and knockdown three-point shooting was vital. A limited amount can be read into the 17-5 record without Leonard – Toronto picked those games carefully and struggled against teams with a winning record.
A world can be envisaged where the Raptors are competing with the Sixers and Bucks deep into the playoffs. It’s just as easy to imagine Toronto enjoying 41 games of adulation at home and collecting a few assets for their veterans while dropping into the lottery.
The first scenario feels the more likely right now. There are so many variables with the Raptors; their situation is unprecedented for a reigning champion.
Like their NBA Finals opponents, the Golden State Warriors, the range of outcomes is vast. Toronto are the hardest team to predict in the NBA this season and might be the best value in the Eastern Conference at +1400.