Say this for Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri: he’s certainly not afraid to think big. Even with most NBA analysts predicting there’s virtually no chance Kawhi Leonard would consider signing long-term in Toronto when he hits free agency in July of 2019, Ujiri traded All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and backup center Jakob Poeltl to San Antonio for Leonard and veteran guard Danny Green.
DeRozan is extremely popular in Toronto, especially after committing long-term to the franchise when so many experts predicted the L.A. native would sign with the Lakers or Clippers. DeRozan is also extremely tight with the Raptors other All-Star, point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry was initially devastated by news of the trade, but he’s come back this season with a positive attitude about what the team can accomplish with Leonard added to the starting lineup.
Through the first month of the season, it looks like Leonard is back to the form that made him one of the league’s top 10 players. He’s still an elite defender, while leading the Raptors in scoring at 24.2 points per game, shooting .477 from the field and .364 from the 3 point line. Leonard is also averaging nearly 8 rebounds and 2 steals per game.
Lowry continues to play at a high level at age 32, averaging right around 16 points and 11 assists per game, and the Raptors are getting a big lift from young power forward Pascal Siakam, who’s come back as an even bigger part of the rotation after being a complementary piece on Toronto’s outstanding bench unit a year ago.
Green has fit seamlessly into the starting lineup alongside Lowry, with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas providing rebounding and rim protection to back up Leonard’s ferocious perimeter defense. Ibaka is now starting at center, with Siakam at power forward and Valanciunas coming off the bench.
So, is Toronto the best team in the East right now? Our Bulls’ analyst Kendall Gill is a big fan of the Raptors, citing the impact Leonard can bring on both ends in potential playoff series against the Bucks, Celtics and 76’ers.
I think it’s still too early to tell, since the Sixers are still in the market to add shooting, and Boston will only get better as the season goes on while they integrate Gordon Hayward back into the rotation. The Raptors are good, but their bench group of O.G. Anunoby, Fred Van Vleet, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles isn’t having the same impact it did a year ago, and the jury is still out on Leonard’s ability to stay healthy for an entire season.
For now, first year coach Nick Nurse has done a good job of sustaining the team chemistry built under Dwane Casey while making sure Lowry feels appreciated after his best friend was traded away. The Raptors won’t have to worry about LeBron James anymore come playoff time, but their overall talent figures to be a notch below Boston and Philadelphia.
With that said, the Bulls will have their hands full Saturday night at the United Center.
How can they hang with the team that owns the best record in the East?
1. DON’T TURN THE BALL OVER. Like most elite teams Toronto loves to cash in off opponents’ mistakes, so live ball turnovers are likely to turn into lay-ups and dunks on the other end. Leonard remains one of the best 2-way players in the league, and his ability to get his hands on loose balls and careless passes fuels the Raptors’ fastbreak.
2. LIMIT 2ND CHANCE OPPORTUNITIES. Valanciunas hasn’t developed into the low post scoring threat the Raptors envisioned, but he’s had a number of good games against the Bulls by attacking the offensive glass. Ibaka has also plateaued after a promising start to his career in Oklahoma City, but he’s still a strong offensive rebounder. Plus, Siakam has been an offensive terror over his last 6 games and he’s relentless in going after missed shots.
3. MAKE SOME 3’S. Nothing helps an underdog team more than a productive night from 3 point range. Zach LaVine has cooled off from beyond the arc after a hot start, mostly due to aggressive double teams limiting his opportunities. Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney and Justin Holiday are currently the Bulls’ best 3 point shooters, and they’ll need to deliver when the Raptors’ defense loads up on LaVine.
You can watch Saturday night’s Bulls-Raptors’ game on NBC Sports Chicago. Kendall will be in Charlotte, where he’ll be honored as one of the top 10 players in Hornets’ history as part of the franchise’s 30 year anniversary celebration. We send out our congratulations to KG on the well-deserved honor.
Stacey King will join Will Perdue and me for Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6:30, and he’ll help us out again on the post-game show after calling the action with Neil Funk at 7 pm. We hope you’ll make plans to join us.