TORONTO — For those who believe the success of an NBA team is tied to its star power, the fifteen minutes of the Toronto Raptors fame, and the attention span that followed, is over. It either ended with the championship parade or Kawhi Leonard leaving for his ultimate heart’s trifecta: Los Angeles, the Clippers, and Paul George. The Raptors response to this? A nod, a shrug, and even a sigh of relief, because all it means for Toronto is getting back to business as usual.
The annual case of preseason amnesia by media and the NBA fanbase at large when it comes to Toronto has, for years, worked wonders for the team. It has meant impressive starts to the seasons via consistent, quiet work and the freedom for exploration of roster rotations without pressure put on the optics for its players. Granted, there has never been an NBA title in the mix before now to overlook, but rest assured, it will happen quickly, and Toronto will proudly wear it the same as all the other chips on the franchise’s shoulder.
With Leonard on the roster, Toronto did get unprecedented American broadcast time, and many fans and critics got a taste of a team not only foreign in location, but in familiarity. The things that were surprising to the more casual fan last year — the versatility of Kyle Lowry, the fearlessness of Fred VanVleet, all the extra gears the team was getting from Serge Ibaka — had been there for years. It’s not an oversimplification to say the only things missing from last year’s Raptors team are Leonard and Danny Green, which, admittedly, are major losses.
That’s where the line of thinking that takes Toronto out of contention in the East comes from. How could a team lose their superstar for nothing and not suffer a steep drop-off? What’s lost in that direct, A-to-B outcome is nuance, all the flourishes that make Toronto so tough to pin for the occasional observer. Chemistry, combativeness, and ingenuity are the foundations of the franchise by virtue of having been the key components to its long-time core’s success.
In a league that sustained so many shifts over summer, the Raptors are sitting in a unique position of familiarity despite losing a pair of starters. When looking at players chemistry, the team kept more than it lost. Its core, led by Lowry, have been together for a long time as far as team lifespans go, and there is something of a cultural knowledge keeping in Lowry’s continued leadership.
Asked on media day what the future looked like for Lowry and the franchise, Raptors president Masai Ujiri was frank.
“Kyle has an incredible legacy here that I think we all have underrated” Ujiri said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and bumps and grinds, but the inner core of who he is as a player and what he’s done with this franchise, he definitely deserves that [legacy status].”
He remains the core of the team not just by virtue of that fact, but because of his continued growth. Lowry is a player who can easily be written off as having hit a ceiling, or some preordained expiry. But every season Lowry has played for the Raptors, especially in a leadership role, he has grown, sought out ways to improve his game, and led by example to a team that never seems satisfied. Even now, with a title under their belt, the point every player came back to during the Raptors media day was that they wanted more. They’d had a taste, hit the top, and saw no need to rest on laurels. It wasn’t in their nature.