The Eastern Conference is having quite the crazy summer.
LeBron James appeared to open the door in the East earlier this month by bolting from the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, it appears the Toronto Raptors are trying to step through, reportedly agreeing to acquire San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard in a blockbuster trade centered around All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan.
So, does landing Leonard make the Raptors, who won a franchise-record 59 games last season, the new favorite in the East? The Boston Celtics might beg to differ.
To break down how Toronto stacks up with the Celtics and the rest of the East, let’s first examine its new-look roster based on the trade’s reported specifics: Leonard and Danny Green in; DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick out.
Projected starting five: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas
Key reserves: Danny Green, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam
Losing DeRozan’s consistent scoring — 20 or more points per game in each of the last five seasons — obviously hurts, and the 28-year-old had developed great chemistry with Lowry. But if Leonard is healthy (and that’s a big “if”), he should be able to fill that offensive void while making Toronto instantly better on defense.
The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year arguably is the best perimeter defender in the NBA. Teaming him with a 21-year-old freak athlete in Anunoby and a solid rim protector in Ibaka should make the Raptors, who ranked third in the East in team defense last season, a scary good defensive team that could fluster a high-powered offense like Boston’s in a playoff series.
Toronto also managed to keep its strong bench intact, losing a promising young big man in Poeltl but adding a seasoned veteran and excellent 3-point shooter in Green.
That’s the glass-half-full view. But the Raptors’ success all hinges on Leonard, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since January due to a mysterious quad injury that may or may not be fully healed. The enigmatic forward also reportedly doesn’t want to play in Toronto, and exchanging him with a fan favorite in DeRozan could cause some serious chemistry issues.
Which leads us to the bottom line: The Celtics still are the team to beat in the East. Brad Stevens’ squad remains largely intact (pending Marcus Smart’s restricted free agency) after falling one game short of the NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are expected to be fully recovered from their injuries, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should take further steps toward NBA stardom.
The Raptors, meanwhile, enter with uncertainty after firing the reigning NBA Coach of the Year and trading away one of the faces of the franchise. Could Toronto vault over the Philadelphia 76ers and other East contenders to return to the conference finals? Absolutely. But it still doesn’t have enough firepower to top the C’s and emerge from the East.
Thumbnail photo via Sergio Estrada/USA TODAY Sports Images
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