Toronto Raptors 2018–19 Season Preview

The Toronto Raptors have made some big changes. After failing to get past the Cavaliers for 3 straight seasons, it was time for a shake-up. LeBron went West to join the Lakers, but there are other emerging challengers to worry about in the East. A new head coach and — for at least one season — superstar are in town.

MANAGEMENT

Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ President, is the ultimate architect of this team and the changes made this off-season. He took some heat for the way he traded DeRozan, but he’s still pretty bulletproof here.

Bobby Webster was promoted from Assistant GM to General Manager last year. He is a salary cap expert, and worked for the NBA head office before joining the Raptors in 2013.

Dan Tolzman joined the Raptors in 2013 as Director of Scouting. He also worked with Masai Ujiri for the Denver Nuggets.

COACHING

The Raptors fired Head Coach Dwane Casey after 7 years. An assistant from his staff, Nick Nurse, was promoted to take his place. While this is his first NBA head coaching job, Nurse was a head coach in Europe for 11 seasons, winning 2 Coach of the Year awards (2000, 2004) and 2 championships (1996, 2000) in the British Basketball League. He then coached in the NBA D-League for 6 years, winning 1 Coach of the Year award (2011) and 2 championships (2011, 2013). Add on the 5 years he’s been an assistant with the Raptors, and he brings over 20 years of relevant experience to the table. Nurse is also credited with the innovations in the Raptors’ offense last season.

Patrick Mutombo, who has been on the Raptors’ coaching staff the past 2 seasons, returns. He’s a former NCAA Division II star, with 2 titles (2000, 2002) and 1 Tournament MVP award (2002) to his name.

Jim Sann has worked as an advance scout or assistant coach for various NBA and NCAA teams since the 1990’s. He joined the Raptors’ staff last season.

Eric Khoury, a University of Toronto graduate, started off in the Analytics department, and joined the assistant coaching staff last season. Much of the Raptors’ new offensive direction that worked so well last year was analytics-driven.

Adrian Griffin played 9 seasons in the NBA, and has been an assistant coach with the Bucks, Bulls, Magic and Thunder for the last 10 seasons. As a player he was a defensive specialist.

Sergio Scariolo has been coaching in Europe for over 30 years. He has won an Italian League championship (1990), Italian League Coach of the Year (1994), AEEB Spanish Coach of the Year (2000), 2 Spanish Cups (1999, 2005), and 2 Spanish League championships (2000, 2006). He has been the head coach of the Spanish national team since 2015. This is his first NBA job.

Nate Bjorkgren coached a high school team and in the D-League before breaking into the NBA as an assistant with the Suns in 2015. The Suns cleaned house after an 0–3 start last season, firing Head Coach Earl Watson and his staff. Bjorkgren then joined the Raptors as an advance scout. Nurse selected him to be an assistant coach for the upcoming season.

Phil Handy has been an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the last 3 years. He started off as an independent one-on-one player development coach. Word of mouth spread and he got so big that Mike Brown hired him to join the Lakers’ staff in 2013. He has worked with both Kobe and LeBron, and with Kawhi Leonard expected to have more one-on-one responsibility than ever, will certainly be a valuable resource.

OFF-SEASON LOSSES

All-Star SG DeMar DeRozan, Backup C Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 1st-round pick (protected 1–20) were traded to San Antonio for All-Star SF Kawhi Leonard and SG Danny Green

Look, I loved having both of these guys on the team. DeRozan’s annual improvements and commitment to the franchise were admirable. Poeltl is going to have a long, productive NBA career. But when you’re getting a Finals MVP that’s still in his prime, even if it’s just for one season, that’s a trade you have to make. Check out my immediate reaction here:

Note: Greg Monroe was signed and Manu Ginobili retired after that article was written.

Backup C Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira is headed back to the Spanish League after 4 seasons in Toronto. Over the years, Bebe showed flashes but never had a consistent role. Those flashes were a lot of fun, though.

Malcolm Miller appeared in just 15 games, but started 4 and had some moments. Unfortunately he hurt his shoulder, and the Raptors rescinded his qualifying offer. He is likely headed back to Europe or the G League.

SF Alfonzo McKinnie signed a 2-way contract with the Golden State Warriors

McKinnie didn’t play much in his rookie year with the Raps, appearing in just 14 games. He’s athletic and has promise as a 3-point shooter, so the Warriors are taking a flier on him.

NEW ADDITIONS

SF Kawhi Leonard — acquired via trade

Kawhi Leonard is going to be the best player we’ve seen in a Raptors uniform. He has already won 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards, a championship, and a Finals MVP. He is elite on both ends of the court. He’s a free agent after this season, and the rumors are that he wants to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Whatever. For this year, he’s here. Enjoy this season and worry about next year next year. This time last year, Paul George was gonna sign with the Lakers, and we saw how that worked out.

SG Danny Green — acquired via trade

Green has been Leonard’s teammate for Kawhi’s whole career. They won a title together, and have good on-court chemistry. A great defensive player and reliable 3-point shooter, Green will be a valuable addition. He won’t put up big numbers every night but will open up space for others and get the kind of defensive stops that aren’t obvious when looking at a box score. Green is also a free agent after this season.

Backup C Greg Monroe, previously of the Boston Celtics — 1 year, 2.2 million.

Monroe will be the 3rd-string Centre, slotting into Bebe’s old role. He is more of an offensive player; scoring and passing out of the post are his strengths.

G Jordan Loyd —2-way contract.

Loyd played his way onto the roster through summer league and training camp. He will likely spend most of his time in the G-League with Raptors 905. He played in Israel last season, and is the only Raptor going into the season with no previous NBA experience.

C Chris Boucher — 2-way contract.

Boucher was with the Golden State Warriors last season, mostly in the G-League. He went to high school in Quebec. When the Raps played a preseason game in Montreal, the crowd went nuts for him, especially when he started blocking shots and hit a couple of 3's. His skillset is promising for a prospect, but he needs to beef up. He will spend this season eating, lifting and playing in the G-League.

RETURNING PLAYERS

Starting PG Kyle Lowry goes into the 2nd year of a 3-year deal worth 90–100 million dollars, depending on incentives. There was concern about how he would react to his good friend DeRozan being traded, but he has been professional and played hard even in preseason. At 32 years old and with Kawhi only guaranteed to be here for 1 season, Lowry is looking to seize this opportunity to get to the NBA Finals.

C Jonas Valanciunas has a player option that pays him $17.6 million after this season. Nick Nurse is more of a JV fan than Dwane Casey ever was, but it remains to be seen how the Centre minutes will be split between JV, Ibaka and Monroe.

C Serge Ibaka goes into the 2nd year of a 3-year, 65 million dollar deal. After starting at PF last year, the move to C looks permanent judging from the preseason rotations. That should minimize the Raptors’ vulnerability against the small lineups that are more popular than ever across the NBA. If a team goes with a jumbo lineup, Ibaka can always slide back down to PF to match up.

G Delon Wright certainly had a lot of moments off the bench last season. A 25-point, 13-rebound game at Chicago and 2 18-point playoff games against the Wizards stand out. A versatile defender, Wright can play in lots of different lineup combinations. He is a restricted free agent after this season, which might make him a trade candidate. The price will be high for any team that wants to deal for him, though.

PG Fred Van Vleet went undrafted 2 years ago. This summer, he signed a 2-year, $18 million deal to stay in Toronto. He is one of the best shooters and halfcourt playmakers among backup PG’s in the league. He hurt his shoulder in the last game before playoffs last year and the impact to the team was obvious. He missed 2 open 3’s that could have won Game 1 against Cleveland, and one wonders if the shoulder injury played a part. He shot 41% on 3’s during the season, and just 29% in the playoffs after the injury.

SF OG Anunoby enters his sophomore season likely to continue to start. He provided solid defense and 3-point shooting last season, and will be asked to do more of the same. Some more variety in his offensive game would be nice, but as long as he’s nailing open 3’s the rest is gravy.

PF Pascal Siakam made a mini-leap last season, and looks to have made another one this off-season. He’s still a sub-par 3-point shooter, but he rebounds, defends, passes, handles and scores inside well. Nurse is encouraging him to push the ball upcourt off rebounds more often, and he has been impressive finding trailing guards for 3’s in transition. The Raptors still have a team option to keep him next year before he hits restricted free agency in 2020.

Norman Powell’s 4-year, 42 million dollar extension kicks in this season. With an early-season injury and the emergence of the other young Raptors last season, Norm often found himself on the outside of the rotation looking in. He will look to re-establish himself as a player worthy of that 8-figure salary this year.

F CJ Miles is still around to provide 3-point shooting at both Forward positions. He has a player option for $8.7 million next season. His contract could also make him a trade candidate.

PG Lorenzo Brown returns as injury insurance. Both Wright and Van Vleet had shoulder injuries last season, and Brown is steady enough to eat up minutes in their absence. He’s looked better scoring the ball this preseason as well.

SG Malachi Richardson is a shooter. He joined the team at last year’s trade deadline in exchange for Bruno Caboclo, who is now with the Houston Rockets. Richardson has been pretty good in preseason, but it’s hard to see him cracking the rotation.

DEPTH CHART

PG — Lowry / Van Vleet / Wright / Brown

SG — Green / Powell / Richardson / Loyd

Forwards — Leonard / Anunoby / Siakam / Miles

C — Valanciunas / Ibaka / Monroe / Boucher

A LOOK AT THE LEAGUE

Eastern Conference

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics faced off in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. LeBron is gone, so Cleveland will be scrapping just to make the playoffs. The Celtics are bringing back Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to join Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford and will be the favorites to come out of the East this season.

The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers made up the rest of the East’s final four last year. Both teams believe they can beat Boston and make the Finals this season. For the 76ers, it’s just a single year in what should be a decade-long run with 3 young stars in Embiid, Simmons and Fultz. For the Raptors, they’re all in on this one year, and the team could look totally different next year.

The Milwaukee Bucks, led by the Greek Freak, finished 7th in the East last year and will make a run at that open spot vacated by Cleveland in the top 4. They brought in Coach Mike Budenholzer, who coached the Atlanta Hawks to the top of the conference in 2014–15, and Brook Lopez. A full training camp with Eric Bledsoe, who was acquired via trade last season, will also help.

The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat finished ahead of Milwaukee last season, but haven’t done as much to upgrade their teams. Miami is working on acquiring Jimmy Butler, which would help their cause. Indiana signed Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, and Myles Turner has been hyping his off-season workout and yoga regime. I still like Milwaukee’s chances better.

The Washington Wizards are probably still a playoff team with John Wall and Bradley Beal around. They added Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard and got rid of Marcin Gortat, who openly feuded with Wall last season.

So there’s one playoff spot left in the East. Cleveland — led by Kevin Love, who’s still one of the best players in the conference— will compete for it, along with the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets. The Pistons get a full season with Blake Griffin, and hired reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. The Hornets still have Kemba Walker. His backup this year will be old-ass Tony Parker, who replaces the train wreck that was Michael Carter-Williams last season. Malik Monk and Jeremy Lamb are a year older, and rookie Miles Bridges looks really good.

The rest of the East is trash. The Chicago Bulls have lots of young exciting players, but none of them play defense. The Orlando Magic’s rebuild is stuck in the mud, and they don’t have a starting point guard. The New York Knicks are missing their injured cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis, and will tank for another high draft pick to continue their rebuild. The Brooklyn Nets finally own their 1st-round pick again after trading them all away for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson years ago, so they are also a strong candidate to tank. The Atlanta Hawks will use this season to throw rookie Trae Young into the deep end, get their young guys some experience and get another high draft pick.

Western Conference

The Golden State Warriors are clear and overwhelming favorites to repeat as champs. That’s with or without DeMarcus Cousins, who they signed for cheap.

The Houston Rockets took the Warriors to 7 games in the Western Conference Finals, and added Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis. However, they lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah A Moute. Did they get better or worse? If they are just the same, that might be enough if Chris Paul stays healthy this time.

The Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James. That’s enough to make them a contender. They have some promising young guys in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma for Bron to run with. How they come together will be one of the more interesting things to watch this season.

The Utah Jazz are the basketball nerd’s darlings after finishing the regular season on a 29–6 run. They got to the 2nd round before falling to the Rockets after Ricky Rubio got injured. If Donovan Mitchell, who was sensational as a rookie, improves at all, that’s a scary sight.

The New Orleans Pelicans surprised everyone by sweeping the higher-seeded Portland Trailblazers in the first round before running into the Warriors’ buzz saw. Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle are a strong set of bigs, but it’s the rest of the roster that could hold the Pelicans back. The Blazers still have a couple of years of cap hell to get out of with Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner on the books for big money, but Lillard and McCollum could still drag them into the playoffs. They may be better off blowing it up and trying to reload with draft assets until those bad contracts expire.

The Oklahoma City Thunder kept Paul George despite the Laker rumors, added Dennis Schroeder for nothing and still have Russell Westbrook. Andre Roberson is out until December, and they will need him if they are going to do anything more than make a token playoff appearance.

The Denver Nuggets have barely missed the playoffs the last 2 seasons. Last season, it was a do-or-die game against the Minnesota Timberwolves that came down to the final possession that kept them out. With Jimmy Butler demanding a trade in Minnesota, I’d expect the Nuggets to be in and the Timberwolves to be out this season.

The San Antonio Spurs traded for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, but lost Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and most of their guards other than DeRozan are injured. It’s hard to see them making the playoffs with the competition so stiff and health already an issue.

The Dallas Mavericks traded up in the draft to get Luka Doncic, and signed DeAndre Jordan. They’ll be better this season, but considering they only won 24 games last year, that still probably doesn’t get them into the playoffs. They traded their pick next season to get Doncic, so there’s no incentive for them to tank. The protection on the pick is only 1–5, and the Mavs figure to be well out of that range unless they get very lucky in the lottery.

The Los Angeles Clippers have lots of nice players, but no real stars. They will be players in free agency, but a playoff run this season is unlikely. The Memphis Grizzlies need to go ahead and blow it up; they’re past the peak of the Conley & Gasol era.

Then we have the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, who will both be garbage once again. The Suns fired their GM a week before the season started, so they can’t be loving what they see out of their team in the preseason. The Kings already got booed off the court by hometown fans down 71–35 to the Jazz at halftime, and the regular season hasn’t even started yet.

Let’s NBA!