Updated: Jan 8, 2019
Well the holidays are over, 2018 all in the bag. Most, if not all of your presents opened, and it feels that all the cheer left with the reindeer as we all look over those lovely bills that follow the season of "giving". I'm more than certain sports fans across the nation are still wearing their fresh new jerseys from Christmas morning (I’m still wearing my Matthews jersey while writing this article). And the excitement is rapidly building for what the calendar change will bring Toronto sports organizations.
As much as I would love to talk about how Toronto sports is skyrocketing to an all time high in popularity, and how across multiple organizations it appears to be "the year". If I summarized Toronto sports as a whole into one article, I wouldn't be giving those clubs the attention they've deserved; the attention they've sweated for,
worked for and earned from us as the supporting cast. For this reason, I'm going to give my first article of the year to the Toronto Raptors. They're the perfect team to "Rap Up" the year with and one of the most deserving teams to have all eyes on them. This is a team who I feel has the most legitimate shot to be the kings of the court, and bring a championship home to Toronto for the first time in franchise history.
This hot start is certainly not by accident. These Raptors have finally turned that corner and have become one of the NBAs most elite teams. So what changed? What're some of the reasons that make this year’s second place Raptors seem more legit than years prior?
GO DADDY CURSE
Now I'm not sure how many of you actually pay attention to commercials anymore (thank you PVR). For those attentive enough sitting through those dreaded ads, it may have caught your eye of a consistent sponsor. Seemingly one of the Raptors favourite sponsorship partners is GoDaddy.
Each year, one "lucky" member of the Toronto squad is chosen as the face of GoDaddy for the year. I'm not complaining about the commercials themselves, as they've had some ingenious ideas and even more creative commercials to promote those ideas. However the responsibility of being the face of the partnership seems to carry an apparent and frustrating curse.
Let's go back a couple years and look at the very first representative of the sponsorship, Jonas Valanciunas. Oh heavier set, caveman game style JV, how I do not miss the days of your mini figures. The year may have brought laughter from your figurines, but it also was accompanied by laughter of you game play. The predictability of your 2 step sky hook could be seen from another arena, and your time on the floor in key situations… well let's just say your figurines stood longer than you on the court. Next up was Norman Powell to be dawned with the curse, which couldn't have come at a better time than the season he signed a fairly nice extension. Both have since turned their fortunes around, most notably Jonas who's not only more toned but has found a fairly consistent stroke from the land beyond. Unfortunately this year’s victim has put us all to sleep with his performance.
CJ Miles and his patented "CJs PJs" have had him sitting cozy on the bench for most of this season. Seemingly being one of the few not enjoying individual success that's brought the Raptors to their team success, CJ has struggled to be the "three baller" the Raptors were looking for when they gave up hometown favourite Cory Joseph to have Miles on the roster.
Instead Miles struggles mightily to find any consistency with his deep range game and is now a running meme when with his reaction to a call against him. The only positive note of this struggle is that newcomer Danny Green is undoubtedly the "Three & D" player the Raptors have searched for year in and year out. No competition for who to turn too when that's what you need on the court. At least the PJs are fashionable right?
WIN BY COMMITTEE
How ‘bout we roll on to a more positive side of things for this Toronto squad. As we all know, as with with any sport, the risk of injury is usually there. The Raptors have been no different this year as they've had their fair share of players spending time on the bench rather than on the court. What's been key for the Raptors though, is their ability to win by committee.
Now what I mean by that is no matter how key the player missing may be, the team has still been able to get the job done and showcase some exciting matches. They have a bunch of players who are able and willing to show they can be the "next guy up" and perform when their number is called. How many times in this season have we seen VanVleet be the one to knock down a clutch three? Or when OG decided to go off for almost a point per minute against Cleveland. How could we forget the game against the Warriors, when Kawhi was inactive due to rest, and they still managed to convincingly beat the defending champions?
This team shows no fear when playing other powerhouse teams. And why should they? The separation of Valanciunas & Ibaka’s playing time has giving the team even more depth to add to the “Bench Mob”. Kyle Lowry has now thrusted himself into the conversation as one of the league’s premier floor generals with his ability to spread the ball to the open man. Lowry is leading the team with an average of 9.8 assists, almost a whole 3 assists more a game than he averaged last year.
Kawhi Leonard is proving he was worth all of the heartache by consistently being the best player on the floor. He has been the best player on the team, arguably even being the best player in the league with his elite gameplay on both sides of the court. Raptors fans are finally able to watch a true MVP caliber player during a potential MVP season. This is the perfect segway to talk about the third piece to this triangular puzzle of success.
KAWHI IS THAT GOOD
He currently wears number 2 for the Raptors, but is no doubt playing like a true number 1 on the court. Kawhi Leonard has shown us on multiple occasions he's more than capable of carrying the team during key moments of the game. His mid range game may ring bells of an old, tenacious guard that once was the other half to the pair of Toronto’s All-Stars. Kawhi’s able to flex a little muscle and continue to find creative ways to the basket. Even when he wasn't seemingly deserving of the foul call from the referees (although some of us sofa zebras would disagree), he would continue to grind his way through defending players to the basket. With a little help from his coach flexing a little muscle of his own for his star player, those whistles seem to be singing quite the jingle for Leonard.
He's finding shots at a more frequent pace from the line, as seen over the last 5 games where he’s only taken less than 10 shots from the free throw line on one occasion. Kawhi doesn't usually turn to the ref to complain about non-calls. Instead he pulls up his shorts, gets low on D, and gets ready to move his feet to stay in front of his man. Kawhi understands that his best asset on the court is his ability as a player, and not his ability to convince the officials they were wrong.
His game is only getting that much more impressive as the season rolls along. His rebounding is leading the team at an average of 8.2 boards a game, proving his aggressive play style can be effective on both sides of the ball. Accompany those with his 27.3 PPG (points per game), and you have undoubtedly the most feared player on the eastern side of the conference.
This could very well be Kawhi’s one and only year up north, but theres no doubt he's following through on his promise to be the best player he can be for the franchise. With no obvious intent on halting his elite playing style, Leonard should surely solidify himself as a 2019 All-Star, and will make it extremely difficult to ignore his bid as an MVP candidate. Once the small forward starts featuring himself in back-to-back games, the league should be shaking in their boots as it could only spell the recipe for more success for the Toronto Raptors.
Its pretty clear this season that the championship is not as much of a foregone conclusion as years prior. The Warriors will most definitely be a better team down the road. Especially if/when the Raptors met them again in the playoffs, also known as the NBA Finals. But like every other playoff perennial team Toronto was able to expose a hole in the opposing teams game plan. "We the North" have proven time and time again they refuse to let this season be the same old song and dance. The Raptors All-Stars (Lowry & Leonard) are showcasing even more talent then they have on their own seasons past. The Bench Mob is bullying all other teams and refusing to say sorry, unusual for the good ol' Canadian boy. Toronto Raptors have gifted all fans with a great start to the season. And it would be foolish of them for their New Years resolution to be to halt that trend.