Updated: Oct 9, 2021
Toronto didn't even have a month to celebrate their first NBA championship before Kawhi Leonard announced his intentions to play closer to home. An LA native, he made the decision to team up with Paul George on the Clippers in July of 2019. "The Klaw" made history during last year's title run, scoring the third-most points ever in one year's playoffs. With such a major loss, how did the Raptors manage to post an even better win-loss record this year?
First and foremost, the 60 games Kawhi Leonard spent in Toronto made a profound impact on the organization. His defensive effort and leadership by example, according to head coach Nick Nurse, inspired his teammates.
"(Kawhi) took care of his body, he did everything he needed to do skill-wise," Nurse said. "A lot of things, the way he handled the ups and downs, he didn't show much emotion. I think there's a lot to learn from, and hopefully sticks with some of our younger guys."
Although both Leonard and 3-point specialist Danny Green left in free agency, different faces on the Raptors filled in the gaps. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, two young forwards who made major strides in the last two years, accepted the challenge of keeping the same defensive mindset. Undrafted rookie Terence Davis has also impressed Nick Nurse with his rebounding prowess and defensive discipline. This year, Toronto finished second in the league in defensive rating, relinquishing 104.5 points per 100 possessions.
Meanwhile, the combination of guards Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell have more than filled in the offensive production that Kawhi provided last season. The three have increased their scoring averages since last year by 5.2, 6.6, and 7.4 points, respectively.
VanVleet's offensive and defensive improvement has greatly benefited the Raptors' starting lineup. Despite his small stature at 6'1", his lateral quickness and anticipation have allowed him to stay in front of defenders. His performance this year has drawn interest from the Suns, Pistons, and Knicks, organizations looking for a point guard who can score with ease and set up his teammates.
The heart and soul of Toronto's gritty style, Kyle Lowry has also played an integral role yet again. The wily 14-year veteran energizes those around him, averaging 7.5 assists and 0.59 charges drawn per game, second in the league this season. You'll see him dive on the floor for loose balls at any given opportunity, taking pride in the "little things" every game.
Naturally, questions arose about the future of the Raps following Kawhi Leonard's departure. It is said that defense wins championships, and they have embraced that mantra. Nick Nurse and his team will never stop taking pride in their hard-nosed style of play. Now, without one of the best players in the NBA on their roster, Toronto is once again seeking a Finals appearance.