Kawhi Leonard, Raptors find right mix to silence off-season chemistry concerns
Unlike other teams with new stars, Toronto has not yet experienced rough patch
In LeBron James' first season in Miami, the Heat started 9-8. In James' first season back in Cleveland, the Cavaliers began 5-7. This year, in James' first in Los Angeles, the Lakers are 7-6.
Even for the best player in the world, new beginnings have never come easy.
But for Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, the unlikely partnership couldn't have started any smoother.
At the time of the trade that sent Toronto icon DeMar DeRozan, budding centre Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green, critics were wary of the Raptors' off-court fit.
It's no secret that DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are best friends; how would Lowry adjust? It's also no secret that Leonard is reportedly seeking a return home to Los Angeles; how would he fare in the north?
And, most importantly: would those issues infect the basketball team on the court?
On top of the East
Thirteen games in and the answer is a resounding "No." And in an interesting twist, two of the Raptors' top competitors in the East have struggled to re-integrate their own key players.
For various reasons, Gordon Hayward's second crack with the Boston Celtics and Markelle Fultz's first full season with the Philadelphia 76ers have not gone swimmingly. And it's left those teams staring up at the 12-1 Raptors.
The Raptors, whose one loss came without Leonard, have beaten both Atlantic division rivals and led by double digits in every game but one.
So how have the Raptors been so good at something James has now failed at thrice?
For starters, none of the off-court issues have presented themselves. Lowry didn't say a word in the off-season, which concerned some. Turns out, his reason for silence, as told to ESPN's The Undefeated, was completely rational.
"My best friend in the world [DeRozan] got traded. He was upset. Things were hectic," Lowry said. "For me, I'm going to support him and I have his back. But I understand it's a business, and everyone made peace with it. And everyone continued to do great things."
Lowry leads the league with 11 assists per game, easily a career high. His shooting percentage also represents a career high (49.7 per cent). And to watch Lowry is to watch a player clearly in command of his team – someone who understands exactly where Serge Ibaka wants the ball to help him to a recent 27 of 30 shooting stretch.
The point guard also leads the league in charges drawn with nine, in case you were still concerned about effort.
"I'm fueled by everything," Lowry said. "It's not even bad fuel. It's good fuel. I try to think as positive as possible. Everything happens for a reason. You can't get mad about things you can't control. All you can control is yourself."
Lowry's control is why Leonard's transition to Toronto has been so seamless. In fact, Leonard has taken to Toronto quite well.
"It's basically like being in New York," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm enjoying the city so far, but I have a lot I'd like to venture off and see still."
So Leonard's main issue with Toronto, almost one month into his first season, is that there's too much to do. A good problem to have.
In fact, the Raptors' roster is filled with good problems. Third-string centre Greg Monroe probably doesn't deserve his end-of-bench treatment, but Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are playing too well to be supplanted.
Toronto's rotation legitimately runs 11 deep, which is useful when Leonard still isn't 100 per cent healthy, and isn't yet playing back-to-backs.
But when Leonard is in the lineup, his presence is obvious. Besides averaging 24.4 points along with a career-high 7.9 rebounds per game, Leonard is a menace defensively, constantly harassing the opposing team's best player into turnovers. This was no clearer than against the 76ers when Ben Simmons committed 11 turnovers on his own.
Watch Leonard's defensive dominance:
Leonard's integration into the Raptors has been simple.
"I've been playing this my whole life. It's a big life adjustment. You're in a different country. You're not used to some of the things or the cities out here. But, really, it's the same thing as when you're in the United States," Leonard said.
"It's still basketball."
More tests await this week, as the Raptors take on Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans before former head coach Dwane Casey makes his return to Toronto. Then, on Friday, the Raptors will travel to Boston to square off against their Eastern rival.