The Sixers have a game of massive importance coming up against the Eastern Conference’s best team to date, the Toronto Raptors. To become more acquainted with the Raps, I chatted with Joshua Howe of raptorsepublic.com.
A quick note before we get started: expect many more of these Q&As with people who cover the teams that the Sixers will be facing. This is something we’re looking to do regularly moving forward.
Question #1: The Raptors are the favorites to make the Finals right now, and it’s easy to see why. They have a superstar in Kawhi Leonard, a great sidekick in Kyle Lowry, and a versatile supporting cast full of both established veterans and promising young players across virtually all positions. But, what do you think the Raptors’ biggest weakness is?
Thankfully, the biggest weaknesses Toronto has shown thus far this season (the bench issues and three-point shooting) are resolvable, and one of them (the former) has largely been dealt with in recent outings with Head Coach Nick Nurse having Fred VanVleet play more off-ball and injecting Pascal Siakam to further weaponize the second unit. The shooting, too, should eventually normalize since the team has multiple guys shooting below their career percentages from deep.
More concerning than those obvious points, I think, is the over-reliance on 32-year-old Kyle Lowry. In every game the Raptors have played without him this season, the team has looked disjointed and discombobulated, and it’s been reflected in their Lowry-less 2-2 record. KLOE continues to be the engine of the team, the heart, the leader, and the most important player. Without him, Toronto’s offensive symphony becomes a garbled racket, a concern considering Lowry’s history of injury heading into the postseason.
In relative terms, this flaw isn’t so enormous, and I personally believe in Lowry as a gamer, but the sizeable burden placed upon him is undeniably more evident now that it ever has been, and that ultimately may prove to not be such a good thing.
2. The consensus in the basketball universe is that four teams have a chance of winning the Eastern Conference: Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee. As it stands now, which of the Sixers, Celtics and Bucks would you feel most nervous about as a Raptors fan?
Tough one. I think I still have to go with Boston. The Sixers are good, and I don’t imagine they’ll be the same group they are now after the trade deadline, but they’ve got several glaring flaws that I doubt can be completely fixed this season. The Bucks (who have beaten Toronto twice already this season) are terrifying almost exclusively because of Giannis. Hiring Bud was an excellent move, and as a result things are generally flowing better for them now, but they are essentially still the same team as last year, and that puts some concern to bed.
Boston, however, remains, at this point in time, an enigma. They haven’t impressed to start the season, and their recent run has been swallowing a lukewarm part of their schedule. But the potential that’s there is sky-high, and if they are able to figure out some sort of hierarchy and better cement team roles, then I think they could become quite formidable. As things stand, they are the only East club that makes me overly nervous as a Raps fan.
3. The upcoming free agency of Kawhi Leonard is a storyline that will help shape the Eastern Conference for years to come. According to many reports, Leonard is pondering over whether he should stay in Toronto, or move out west to a team like the Clippers. If he stays with the Raptors, they can contend to win the east for many more years to come. But if he departs, it could open the door for their aforementioned conference rivals to make a more serious run at getting to the NBA Finals. So, make the pitch for why Kawhi should stay with the Raptors this summer.
Here’s the pitch: The Raptors can offer Leonard a) the opportunity to remain arguably the best player in the conference, b) the opportunity to have his own team, c) a supporting cast (with a good mixture of youth and veterans) that has Finals-level potential, d) a culture of winning that the organization has been building for years, and e) a fanbase that is rabid about the notion of making The Finals and ultimately winning a championship.
Outside of those directly basketball-related reasons, it’s also important to note that Toronto can offer Leonard the most fiscally when the time comes. He will certainly opt out of his player option for 2019–20, making him an unrestricted free agent. Toronto can then offer him a contract up to five years and $190 million—if Leonard were to leave for a team with cap space instead, he would only be eligible to receive up to four years and $141 million.
And, finally, Leonard has stated since his arrival in Toronto that health, both now and in the future, is incredibly important to him, which isn’t surprising given all that we know (and don’t know) about what went down in San Antonio. Supposedly, Leonard has taken quite a liking to Raptors Head Athletic Trainer Scott McCullough, which can only be a good sign.
I really do believe that if Leonard leaves this summer, it will be due to one of two things: either the Raptors failed in shockingly disappointing fashion in the playoffs, or the pull of home proved just too strong for Leonard to pass up. I do think, though, the Raptors are in the driver’s seat as things stand.
Thanks again to Joshua Howe of Raptors Republic for taking the time to answer these questions!