Several months ago we witnessed the Toronto Raptors reach the NBA mountaintop for the first time in history. The main reason as to how that became possible was no mystery — the 2019 NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard.
The circumstances of Leonard’s second career NBA title was made that much more significant because he didn’t do so surrounded by a heap of star talent.
So taking Kawhi out of that equation as he left to join the Clippers rightfully raised the question of just how relevant the Raptors would even be this season.
I did not think the Raptors would still be this good.
— Martin S. (@marsoaries) November 26, 2019
The Raptors are 12-4 after their win against the Philadelphia 76ers without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka on Monday. Joel Embiid was held scoreless in that game for the first time in his career. Needless to say, the question of Toronto’s relevance clearly should never have been in question.
Losing Kawhi and Danny Green has not disarmed Toronto’s defensive calling card. The Raptors are holding opponents to 41 percent shooting, good for best in the league.
The roster is still made up of a combination of wise and athletic defenders. That has helped Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, for instance, thrive with this group so far.
Overall this team is still made up of players who can and want to defend at a high level consistently.
I don’t know what this says about me, but I would watch a highlight mix that was just Marc Gasol sniffing out Hammer action. pic.twitter.com/AuocUxrH4E
— Ben Falk (@bencfalk) November 27, 2019
There’s no question that Nick Nurse has been a difference-maker coaching this team. Now we’re able to gauge his ability on the sideline without having a star talent at his disposal (though Pascal Siakam might be contending that notion soon).
Stan Van Gundy breaks down Nick Nurse's innovative defenses. Raptors, by the way, are the No. 1 team in the league in opponent field goal percentage. pic.twitter.com/ZI6Fd088LE
— William Lou (@william_lou) November 26, 2019
Coaching also has to do with development. Toronto has been masterful as of late with Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and now newcomers like Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis, who finished with 11 points off the bench in Monday’s win against the Sixers, to show for it.
Nurse isn’t shy about praising his coaching staff — former NBA player Adrian Griffin, Olympic medalist Sergio Scariolo, and Nate Bjorkgren who came up with Nurse in the G-League.
“I’ve said it many times and I should probably say it more often — as far as a coaching staff goes, those guys are big time. All three of those guys — Adrian, Nate and Sergio — they’re all head coach level guys. They take these game plans and they dig into them, and they eat them up and spit them back out to our players in an incredible way, an incredible format. They’re really good, man — they’re really good. That’s all I can say.”
That old saying about hard work beating talent when talent doesn’t work hard? If they are the more talented team they don’t stop working hard. As the less talented team, the Raptors do pose a serious threat if said talent does not commit to outworking them.
And don’t forget the context of the league. There are no super teams right now. The playing field is dangerously even, and Toronto still plays with championship effort.
The effort isn’t all that you need to win games, of course not a championship. The right assembling of a roster mixed with the right circumstances, individual talent, coaching, and high effort has more of a winning formula.
More than just the presence of Kawhi, that’s how the Raptors became champions in June.
And that’s why they’re still this good.