Raptors banking on championship pedigree of Leonard, Green
New acquisitions being counted on to end team's playoff failures
It would've been easy for the Toronto Raptors to stick with what they had.
Their roster and coaching continuity had yielded the most successful stretch in franchise history — five straight post-season appearances, an Eastern Conference final, and 59 wins last season en route to the East's top seed.
But none of that had yielded the ultimate goal of an NBA championship. Last season ended with a second-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So president Masai Ujiri felt he had to shake it up.
First to go was Dwane Casey, only the winningest head coach in Raptors history. Assistant coach Nick Nurse was promoted to take his place.
And then franchise star DeMar DeRozan was dealt to the San Antonio Spurs along with Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick for former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
With Raptors killer LeBron James moving to the Western Conference, the Raptors are arguably in their best-ever position to make their first NBA Finals.
But they aren't content in doing just that.
"If our team goal is to win a championship, you add some champions to the mix," backup guard Fred VanVleet said of the deal for Leonard and Green. "The goal is to have the best team possible and I like our chances. I think that come playoff time, those two guys will be vital to our playoff success."
More than just championship pedigree
Leonard and Green bring plenty to the table aside from their rings and leadership.
Leonard can take over during crunch time on both ends of the floor and has the ability to manufacture his own scoring with an arsenal of moves or make plays for teammates.
He and Green are also tremendous defenders and their ability to guard multiple positions provides Nurse with a lot more lineup possibilities, including the starters, which he noted will be more "fluid" this year as opposed to previous seasons.
"He's a versatile guy but he's not alone," Nurse said of Leonard. "We've tried to make a lot of these guys versatile – Pascal [Siakam], OG [Anunoby], and Delon [Wright] – these guys are playing two, three, four positions and that's what he does.
"We've worked hard on all of our guys becoming more versatile because that's what we want to be, and think is the most effective thing we can do. I think a lot of these younger guys, they'll see his game and be able to emulate some of those things he does [at] both ends. He can guard smalls and bigs and score inside and out."
While the Raptors made huge strides last year in being a more three-point-shooting team, they ranked only 18th in percentage made.
Adding Leonard and Green — a pair of reliable outside shooters — to a rotation that already includes threats like C.J. Miles, Kyle Lowry, and VanVleet could see the Raptors shoot even more threes with higher efficiency.
Raptors on corner three-pointers <br>C.J. Miles 51%, 49% past two years<br>Danny Green 45%, 43% past two years<br>OG Anunoby 45% (1-year)<br>Kawhi 44% (career)<br>Lowry 47% <br>Ibaka 44%<br>VanVleet 43%<br>Wright 42%<br>Thats, pretty good.—@WolstatSun
"It's not so much that we're trying to shoot a ton of threes, we're just trying to get good, high-value shots. Some nights it happens to be a lot of threes," Nurse says. "We've got more guys that can shoot em' at a higher percentage so that would probably tend to favour that we're gonna shoot a few more. But we've got to create them first with great ball movement, cutting, rhythm, chemistry."
Could Siakam take next step?
The Raptors' second unit — primarily composed of VanVleet, Miles, Poeltl, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam — was one of the league's most cohesive lineups last season.
They played the 25th-most minutes among all five-player lineups and their offensive rating of 117.3 was 15th in the league.
With the "Bench Mob" being so effective, they were almost inseparable as they finished games together or in combination with the starters.
This off-season, most of the reserves spent some time working out against a collection of superstars, including James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Paul George in five-on-five scrimmages at UCLA.
No Raptor turned more heads than Siakam.
His improved ball-handling allowed him to be more aggressive in his drives to the basket and the 24-year-old showed no hesitation in last week's pre-season game against the New Orleans Pelicans despite being guarded by a feared shot blocker in Anthony Davis.
ISO <a href="https://twitter.com/pskills43?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@pskills43</a> <a href="https://t.co/kbJ4FAJOxN">pic.twitter.com/kbJ4FAJOxN</a>—@Raptors
But for Siakam to take that next step, he'll need to improve on his 22 per cent shooting from three-point range and he's made some adjustments to his shooting mechanics to help with that.
"From seeing him his rookie year to now, his form on his shot looks really well," Wright said. "There's no hitch in his shot. He's just shooting it with confidence."
Taking Poeltl's place is eight-year veteran Greg Monroe, who joined the Raptors via free agency.
Nurse has told the six-foot-eleven centre that he'll be used in the post where he's comfortable as an interior scorer and passing big man.
While the modern NBA game has seen players of Monroe's skillset slowly phased out, he says he's done his best to adapt from being open-minded to shooting three-pointers to better decision-making with less touches.
But perhaps Monroe's biggest asset will be his grit — which aside from P.J. Tucker's short stint two seasons ago — has been missing from the Raptors since Charles Oakley played for the club in 2001.
Monroe was reminded of an old scuffle with Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas when he was with Milwaukee during their 2017 first-round playoff series. He appreciated that his new teammate wasn't intimated in such a moment and looks forward to adding some extra toughness.
"That's just competing, especially in a playoff series. [When] you're going against somebody four, five, six games in a row, things get chippy. You're playing hard. [The] season's on the line," Monroe said. "I would much rather that than someone to be timid. That's one thing I pride myself in is just being tough, not dirty. I think we both understand that."