Raptors will eventually need Kawhi Leonard — but they can win without him for now

The Toronto Raptors sport a 7-1 record without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup this season, compared to 16-9 with him. It's hard to believe the team is better without its superstar, so what's the reason for the wide discrepancy?

Toronto's 7-1 mark without its superstar shouldn't be a season-long trend

Fans cheers after Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard makes a basket against the Denver Nuggets earlier in December. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Toronto Raptors are better without Kawhi Leonard — their record says as much.

Over a four-game West Coast trip, Toronto went 2-2 against the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.

The two wins shared one thing: Leonard, the former NBA Finals MVP, sat with an injured hip. He played in both losses. The team is now 7-1 without him in the lineup, compared to 16-9 with him.

Still, Leonard is a top-five MVP candidate. Depending on where you look, his MVP odds range from 5:1 to 7:1.

And despite that shining record in his absence, the Raptors are definitely a better team with their superstar on the court. Still, the success without Leonard is worth noting, if only because his offensive impact continues to feel stilted even with efficient production.

To wit, Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.3 points per game along with 38.1 per cent shooting from deep and nearly seven free throw attempts every outing. In the boxscore, Leonard has outstripped all early expectations after playing just nine games of an injury-riddled season with San Antonio.

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But watch Leonard operate within Toronto's system and something seems off. A staple of the non-Leonard wins has been an abundance of passing in a high-paced offence. But when the San Diego State alum takes the court, the Raptors slow down and pass less.

This is not a trend likely to last; Leonard is too good a player and is perhaps still finding a rhythm and comfort zone on a new team in a new country. Toronto head coach Nick Nurse has said the team will experiment during the regular season, and the entire offence would not be implemented immediately.

As this Toronto group continues to gain reps with each other, the offence should continue to look smoother. After all, it's not like offence was the main issue in the Raptors' 128-122 loss to the Trail Blazers.

But will he stay?

Should Leonard choose to re-sign with the Raptors in the off-season, the team will be able to continue the progress made through their initial campaign.

That's a big 'should,' though.

And Raptors fans received bad news when ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski said earlier this week that "[the Raptors] can't change the geography. They can't change the weather in Toronto. Those were always things against them in this. Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this."

Yikes — and the weather hasn't been particularly cold or snowy so far.

When the July trade went down, the overwhelming response to the Toronto side was that it was a great deal if Leonard would re-sign. If he doesn't, the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan — the charismatic all-star who previously chose to stay — for a surly superstar salty about snow.

There's that whole geography issue, again.

Of course, the Wojnarowski report is just one report seven months away from free agency. So much can, and will, change. And judging on the team's first 32 games, the trade has been a runaway success so far.

Toronto holds a firm grasp on the East's top seed that would guarantee home-court advantage throughout the playoffs even though it's dealt with various injuries, including missing five rotation players in its most recent loss to Denver.

The unfortunate reality of the NBA is that regular season wins don't mean much, so the real evaluation of the trade won't occur until playoff time.

What about DeRozan?

Of course, two teams were involved in the trade, and the Spurs' side hasn't received nearly as much attention.

Perhaps that's because San Antonio owns a perfectly average 15-15 record in the middle of a messy Western Conference. The Spurs don't boast a particularly great offence or porous defence. If anything, their anonymity is notable for the fact that it's weird not seeing the Spurs atop the wins column.

DeMar DeRozan's trade to San Antonio couldn't free him of LeBron James' presence in his conference. (Harry How/Getty Images)

It appears that as DeRozan goes, so go the Spurs because the four-time all-star isn't enjoying his best season — though it's also not alarmingly bad. DeRozan is averaging nearly one more assist per game than last year, but has also seen a precipitous drop in three-point percentage down to 16.2 per cent.

The Spurs will battle to make the playoffs in a Western Conference that sees the top seed separated from the 14th seed by just 6.5 games.

The Raptors visit San Antonio in just over two weeks when the teams will get their first look at the former stars in different jerseys.

'Tis the season

Before last week's game against the Clippers, Leonard was asked if he could talk about his favourite Christmas memories.

"Not right now," replied the Raptors forward.

For a player who doesn't seem to enjoy the media, maybe he should reconsider Los Angeles as his next NBA destination.

In the same Christmas spirit, fans will soon begin to make their naughty-or-nice lists when all-star voting begins on Friday. Leonard is a lock to make an appearance in Charlotte, most likely as a starter. He should be joined by Kyle Lowry, with Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka also boasting strong cases to make the trip to North Carolina.

Leonard could get a taste of playing with LeBron James or Kevin Durant there, as the leading vote-getter from each conference will pick his team schoolyard-style for the second straight year.

Perhaps Leonard will even be a captain and earn the chance to test out some teammates for next season.


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