Kawhi Leonard’s free agency gives Raptors new, intense fear ahead of playoffs | NBA

Spring is coming, and for the Raptors, which means an annual bout of terror and apprehension.

As a result of for the final 5 years, spring in Toronto has meant the native basketball membership is in its common push towards 50 wins or extra, quickly to be adopted by some kind or different of postseason calamity.

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To wit:

12 months Report Seed Playoff sequence End result
2014 48-34 No. 3 First spherical 4-Three loss
2015 49-33 No. 3 First spherical 4-Zero loss
2016 56-26 No. 2 Convention finals 4-2 loss
2017 51-31 No. 3 Second spherical 4-Zero loss
2018 59-23 No. 1 Second spherical 4-Zero loss

This 12 months is totally different, at the very least in a method. There may be not the identical degree of dread about this staff coming into the playoffs and really fizzling out in ignominy. There is no such thing as a monkey on the backs of those gamers, thanks largely to the vital adjustments the franchise has revamped the previous 12 months.

Coach Dwane Casey, who so usually took the blame for the staff’s playoff woes, was fired final offseason. Kawhi Leonard was acquired from the Spurs, with Danny Inexperienced, for guard DeMar DeRozan, the man who took the second-biggest heap of playoff blame.  

Up to now two months, the staff introduced in Marc Gasol (for middle Jonas Valanciunas, with C.J. Miles and Delon Wright) in a commerce with Memphis, then added Jeremy Lin off the waiver wire. The Raptors additionally signed former Warriors holdout Patrick McCaw again in January.

That has left star guard Kyle Lowry as the one Raptor to expertise all 5 of the staff’s latest playoff disappointments. Solely Lowry and Norman Powell have been in Toronto for the previous three postseasons, and three different gamers — Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam — had been there for each 2017 and 2018.

These usually are not the identical Raptors of 5 years in the past, or three years in the past, and even final 12 months. There isn’t the identical degree of concern about seeding, wins and alterations to the fashion of play, and the way all these issues will play into overcoming the franchise’s playoff rut. These points had been dealt with on the transaction wire.

However there’s fear in Toronto, and it’s extra severe this time round. Whereas the priority over the staff’s playoff positioning amounted to bouts of hand-wringing over the previous few years, there’s now a full-fledged, migraine-inducing, fetal-position-in-the-corner angst looming over what would possibly occur subsequent.

As a result of in buying and selling for Leonard final summer time, Toronto left open the likelihood that it’s simply months away from shedding out on a really daring and dangerous gamble — that Leonard will bolt in free company, and the franchise can be left solely with Lowry and a handful of promising younger position gamers.

There isn’t the identical feeling of an inevitable Raptors collapse with this bunch. That’s a very good factor. However, man, in the event that they do one way or the other fold with out breaking by means of to the Finals — or at the very least the East finals — then the implications determine to be that rather more extreme. There’s extra at stake right here.

Throughout the staff, there’s some confidence that the Raptors have performed all they will as a company to entice Leonard to re-sign this summer time. They haven’t poured on the “Preserve Kawhi” push too thick, which is smart as a result of that’s not one thing Leonard would discover interesting.

Nonetheless, the winter has not cooperated. When Leonard was talking on the All-Star break, Raptors people needed to cringe when he was requested concerning the metropolis, whereas attempting to place the absolute best spin on issues, and mentioned, “It’s an incredible metropolis. There’s lots to do. Um, it’s simply been chilly. The snow does look good on days, however you simply want a jacket to go outdoors. I’m not used to it, sporting boots and the whole lot.

“However so far as the entire metropolis, staff, teaching employees, group, followers, it’s been nice.”

MORE: Can Raptors’ new players exorcise old playoff demons?

Leonard, after all, is a Southern California man. It’s no secret that Toronto will at all times be at an obstacle in conserving Leonard due to the climate, and whereas the Lakers had been focusing on Leonard final summer time, speak with people within the Clippers’ ranks, and there’s an apparent confidence that they might lure Leonard into the blue-and-red subsequent summer time.

Requested to handicap Leonard’s future, one entrance workplace govt from one other staff mentioned, “I feel the Lakers are out, however the Clippers are those who suppose they’ve a shot at him in the event that they determine to go that route. You hear lots, he nonetheless desires to be on the West Coast. However give that group in Toronto all of the credit score on the earth. They’re making it a troublesome determination for him.

“It would come down to only, ‘All proper, how did the playoffs go, and the way far are we from a championship?'”

That’s the place the anxiousness creeps in. This staff is well-equipped for the playoffs. There’s a good mixture of youth (OG Anunoby, Siakam, VanVleet) and veteran expertise (Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka, Inexperienced). There’s a helpful versatility to the group that enables it to play huge with Gasol or play small with Ibaka and even Siakam at middle. The staff can play zone protection — helpful in opposition to the taking pictures barrage of the East’s high seed, Milwaukee — and defend the paint, particularly with Gasol on board.

However the Raptors additionally haven’t ironed out the chemistry with the addition of Gasol, who was in Memphis for 10-plus years and is attempting to acclimate to new teammates for the primary time in his profession. Lin has been a disappointment in 10 video games in Toronto, and McCaw has been worse in 19 video games.

The Raptors have break up their final eight video games and seem like muddling by means of the rest of the schedule.

Toronto is ready up for an particularly tough playoff street, too, probably dealing with Casey and the Pistons within the first spherical (Detroit received the primary two conferences between the groups). They may, conceivably, get the Celtics within the second spherical, a staff that has performed them effectively in splitting 4 conferences. That will most likely result in a convention finals in opposition to the Bucks, who’ve overwhelmed the Raptors in three of 4 video games this season.

These are causes to fret. A lot totally different causes to fret than the Raptors have had in previous years, actually, and that’s a very good factor for the franchise.

However with Leonard’s future on the road, the stakes could possibly be a lot increased for this staff this spring. Angst is allowed.

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