Disappointing isn’t the right word. While head coach Dwane Casey and All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan were around, the Toronto Raptors won a franchise-record 48, 49, 51, 56, then 59 games. They became a staple playoff team in the East and made the conference finals one year.
The early exits started to hurt, though. Before the conference finals appearance, Toronto lost two-straight first-round series. After it, they lost in the semi-finals twice in a row.
A 4–0 sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last season was the last straw for general manager Masai Ujiri. The Raptors shipped DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Casey was fired and replaced by former assistant Nick Nurse.
Toronto was good, but it wanted to be great. It added a great player and hoped it added a great coach.
That great player, Leonard, was acquired with just one year remaining on his contract. There were no promises on him staying; it was a wait-and-see situation.
Nearing the two-month mark of the season, there are still no promises. The Raptors, however, are 20–5. If they keep up this pace, they will win 65 games — a new franchise record.
James leaving the conference alone gives the Raptors hope, but even if he remained, this team would be a frightening challenge. Looking ahead can be dangerous but for this Raptors team, it would almost be more surprising for them to not make the Finals rather than make it.
But even if they don’t, it was worth a shot. Rolling over last year’s team was destined for the same result: a great regular season and short-lived postseason. At least now they have a shot at breaking through that ceiling.