We the North and we mean it
By Hayden Koch, Contributor
It’s hot in the north with Kawhi Leonard in Toronto and Lebron James off in the west, the Raptors have a real chance of taking Canada to the NBA finals.
Last season, NBA fans all over Canada watched the playoffs with high expectations and left once again with broken hearts.
For the third year in a row, the Toronto Raptors, after enjoying a dominant regular season, found themselves head to head with James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. Just like the year before, this was to be a four game sweep by the Cavs.
It seemed that the writing was on the wall; James was an insurmountable obstacle and their star player Demar DeRozan consistently couldn’t handle the pressure of the playoffs.
This past offseason, both issues were quickly mitigated.
After a grueling season which saw Lebron carry yet another visibly unworthy Cavaliers roster to the NBA finals, The King decided to uproot his throne from the cold and dreary city of Cleveland to once again head to the beach. This time, it was Los Angeles.
Adjacently, Toronto’s head office did not respond well to the third consecutive playoff exit. Last year’s NBA coach of the year Dwane Casey, was promptly fired and a new home for Derozan’s lengthy contract needed to be found.
Enter Leonard, the former leading man of the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard is a two-way power house with both a championship and finals MVP under his belt.
Before sitting out last season due to an injury (as well as some not-so-secret disagreements with the Spurs) many ranked him as a top five player in the league, right alongside the likes of Lebron and Kevin Durant.
Leonard’s glaring issues with his previous organization resulted in the trade which brought him and fellow Spur guard Danny Green up north, in exchange for beloved DeMar Derozan who many found that he got backstabbed by the Raptors’ front office.
Here in Canada, it looks like he’s in career best form. It’s still early, but at the time of writing, the Toronto Raptors have the best record in the NBA and there are whispers of Leonard being an early front runner in the MVP race.
In the wake of James’ impending absence from the Eastern Conference playoffs, this bodes extremely well for the Toronto Raptors.
In the Eastern Conference, there are now three teams in particular that seem the most likely to get to the finals: the Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
The Celtics enjoyed much hype entering this season, with many preemptively expecting them to be the favourites for coming out of the east.
Last season, they entered the playoffs with their two best players Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sidelined by injury. Despite this, they still came within mere possessions of winning game-seven against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, due largely to their extremely talented and motivated bench.
Many naturally assumed that with Kyrie and Hayward back in the rotation, Boston would be second only to Golden State in terms of sheer talent, but the early season has been clunky and inconsistent for the Celtics.
As for the 76ers (who lost in the second round to the Celtics last year) things are on the up-and-up with Jimmy Butler now arriving from Minnesota to play alongside reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons and MVP candidate Joel Embiid.
Nevertheless, as of right now, the Raptors are the preeminent force in the Eastern Conference. Leonard, alongside franchise staples like Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, have exceeded all expectations and are on track to have a potentially record breaking season for the franchise.
Those who follow the Raptors are wary of having their expectations set aflame in the playoffs once again… But all things considered, this year is their best ever chance at finally representing Canada in the NBA finals.