This is the year. This is the year the Toronto Raptors are going to win the NBA Championship, the only thing that can stop them is themselves. I know it seems that Raptors fans are constant in saying this year after year, holding on to a false hope that never amounts to anything except disappointment, but let it be known that the changes made in this year represent a significant shift in the Raptors odds towards making it further than ever before.
If you’re not a follower of the Raptors, let me walk you through what’s been going on for the last couple years, and what specifically happened this summer to shake things up. The team has been trotting out various versions of a lineup revolving around Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, two all-star level players with a love for the city. Yet every year they flamed out in the playoffs, unable to capture the coveted title. General manager Masai Ujiri had enough of the repetitive failure and took drastic steps to change the culture, firing longtime head coach Dwayne Casey and trading away Demar. In return, he got Kawhi Leonard, arguably the third best player in the world, but only for a single year before his contract runs out and he becomes able to leave.
From their first moments together, Kyle and Kawhi clicked on the court, while off court relations were obviously not as strong as they’d been with Demar and Lowry a year earlier. The team got off to a hot start, reaching top league defence and offensive while having a deep lineup that can handle most of the varying teams in the league. They even were able to beat the Golden State Warriors, two-time reigning champions, at home, without Kawhi. They obviously have all the talent in the world, all the skills they need, yet still, fans hold fear in the barricades they put in front of themselves.
While injuries may be a factor in a Raptor playoff burnout, it will come down to whether the team will allow for past demons to overtake their confidence in crunch time. For years, Lebron James has tormented the team, sweeping them in series after series, destroying their glimmer of hope that shines at the end of each April. Media has been no nicer, with the ‘baby dinos’ nickname being implanted upon the organization throughout their playoff tenure. But with Kawhi, the team is different, they have a new, championship mentality.
Kawhi comes from the Spurs, the most successful sports franchise of the last 20 years, and with that, he brings the strength of past champions. The culture in Toronto is no longer a team that fears the playoffs, but instead, one that becomes excited about it, one that knows their chances are high if they stay focused and never allow for one loss to eradicate their own confidence. Ego has already been eliminated, it’s now their task to leave fear at the door as well.
As they stand at the midway point to the season, they have a league-best record, an obvious sign that they’ve figured it out pretty well. But the true test is still to come, and while it is hopeless to many of the constantly heartbroken fans, to the team itself, it is a chance to change the entire narrative about themselves, both local and abroad.