So Taylor Swift famously sang “Shake it off” and for many a Raptors fan that is what we have had to do for the last few seasons. We have come so close the Holy Grail of an NBA Championship only to fall short, time and time again. We all knew that change was on the horizon, but how it unfolded and how fast it came caught most of us off guard. At least I think so.
It all started of course with Dwayne Casey getting the axe and then the bombshell that DeMar DeRozan THE FACE of the Raptors was being traded to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. Ok so Casey was not as much of a surprise, despite his impressive record. Coaches usually get the axe for post-season failure. But with DeMar, how many saw that coming?
For all intents and purposes DeRozan served the Raptors very well in his tenure with the team. He averaged 19.7 points per game with a Field Goal percentage ranging between .413 to .516 over nine illustrious seasons. He simply could not get the monkey off his back that was LeBron James and the once formidable Cleveland Cavaliers. Now to be fair it was not all DeRozan’s fault. There were many on the team that failed to show and step up when it was needed. We all know that one or two players cannot carry a team forever, just ask LeBron; he fled Cleveland faster than a cat flees a bath after last season.
However, when DeRozan was traded, we were left wondering how Leonard would fit into the mix. We never heard from him, he was laying low, he never gave the fans a glimpse of what he would bring to the team until August 9, 2018. I mean we all knew he was talented, we all knew he could play and elevate a team to the next level and we knew he was a League MVP.
However, his reputation in San Antonio was less than stellar. He left the Spurs under less than ideal circumstances. He was plagued by a quad injury that many were skeptical about, he sat out most of the season and he left with many knowing he wanted out of San Antonio, it did not matter how he went.
After the trade it was obvious he was disappointed to come to Toronto and he made it very clear he wanted to go to the Lakers or the Clippers from the beginning. Toronto was not the place he wanted to call home long term. All the while Leonard sat silent, he never responded to rumors, he never quashed them and did little to repair the broken image many had of him. Raptors fans simply did not want to hear what other people thought, what other people said he would do, or what other people said he could do. We wanted to hear from Kawhi and he wasn’t talking.
So when he finally broke his silence I think most Raptors fans were cautiously guarded and equally curious. Leonard started off on the right note. He thanked his former team and coach; he stated that he was looking forward to the next chapter in his career. Really though for me, I did not relax until I had actually seen him smile, and break into that Eddie Murphy-esqe laugh. Then my heart stopped racing. I thought he looked content to be in Toronto and although he seemed less than comfortable speaking to the press, he pulled it off. Then we had to wait and see how he would play. I think we can all appreciate how that’s working out. Shouts of MVP are drowning out all the noise that came with Leonard during every home game. He is truly soaking it in.
And let us not forget how the rest of the team has begun to shine. The post-DeRozan Kyle Lowry looks like a new player. Averaging 11.6 assists per game, more than anyone else in the league, Lowry has found his own spotlight and is thriving in it. Ibaka, Valanciunas, and all the other top-rated players have elevated their game to new levels. Nowhere was this more evident than the latest win over the LeBron-era Lakers, all without Leonard in the lineup.
The Raptors are now sitting at 10-1. Fans are salivating at the mouth; there is an inherent buzz in the air. Could this be the year the Raptors win it all? Could this be the year they overcome the past and cement themselves in history? I will remain cautiously optimistic as it serves me well. I know all Raptors fans want it, we need it and we have been craving it for a long time. Will Leonard be the deciding factor or will it be an entire team that has finally found its stride, filled in the missing blanks and regained its confidence?
I think the only way is up from here. Now we just have to convince Kawhi to stay for a few more years.