Every year, one team enters the season with a target on its back -- the lone team to have ended its playoff journey with a victory, the one lucky enough to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy the previous June. Of course, the size of this target is relative. Entering the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, no one expected the Dallas Mavericks to make a viable title defense with Tyson Chandler in New York, and in light of the fact that their playoff run was viewed as a quixotic mix of fate and luck rather than something that was the hard-earned end result of years of careful team-building.
As the season resumes, the Toronto Raptors find themselves in a similar situation, with most judging their Finals victory as a fluke brought about by injuries to their opponents and the luck to be the winners in the previous summer’s Kawhi Leonard Sweepstakes. With the Raptors consistently failing to get over the proverbial hump, being dispatched by LeBron James year after year, it felt to many like their victory was due entirely to Leonard’s arrival. In a preseason segment, already infamous amongst certain subsets of Raptors Twitter, Dennis Scott did not pick Toronto to even make the postseason while Sam Mitchell thought they’d be the eighth seed in the East. Few others were as brazen in their lack of belief in the Raptors’ ability to put forth a viable title defense, but it was nevertheless difficult to find many optimists regarding their chance in an Eastern Conference where the Bucks brought back a great team from the year before and the Celtics and Sixers both retooled in major ways.
Great as the Raptors were last season, it is impossible to imagine them winning the championship without Leonard, who put together one of the most impressive postseason performances in league history. Yet one cannot watch the Raptors this season without quickly realizing that the players who made up Leonard’s supporting cast last season have uniformly improved this season, as if his staying would only have ended up holding them back. Kyle Lowry has been tremendous, Pascal Siakam has transformed himself into an All-Star, Fred VanVleet has gone from being a reliable sixth man to a great backcourt partner for Lowry, OG Anunoby now looks like one of the best 3&D wings in the league, while Norman Powell, Chris Boucher, Terrence Davis, and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson have all been very reliable bench options. Even without Kawhi, the Raptors have not missed a step.
Kawhi himself is doing fine, having reshaped the Clippers in his own image, maneuvering behind the scenes to ensure that he would be joined by another superstar in Paul George. His presence alone would have made the Clippers immediate contenders, but adding George not only made the team more imposing; it also showcased his unique brand of power, just how willing suitors were to do whatever necessary to secure his services. As the Raptors’ title showcased, he was worth any asking price.
As the postseason looms, it almost feels as if two teams are defending the championship simultaneously. Though the Larry O’Brien trophy resides in Toronto, Kawhi was a driving force in the team’s earning it. Now he seeks to lead the Clippers to their first title in franchise history, as he did for the Raptors last June. Both the Raptors and Kawhi himself, though separated by the breadth of a continent, have something at stake, a chance to assert that they were the truly indispensable part of last year’s triumph and win back-to-back championships. The Raptors are eager to show that while Leonard was an essential part of their title run, he was not solely responsible for their triumphs, that they are a great team both with and without him. Kawhi is great, but far from the league’s most flexible superstar. Without him they are now able to roll out any number of line-up variants without giving anything up on either side. While their ceiling may not be as high this year, they make up for it with greater depth and adaptability. Yet it still feels like they are the modern equivalent of the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls — trying to defend a title without the man who helped lead them to it — but if Michael Jordan had joined forces with Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing instead of playing baseball in Birmingham.
Kawhi himself has less to prove. Despite being a superstar for a relatively brief period, his place in NBA history is already secure. He has shown himself to be a generational talent on both sides of the ball, simultaneously one of the best and most versatile scorers and defenders in recent league history — his game as effective as it is clinical. But his legacy and mystique is based less on his transcendent skill-set than the fact that he has already dispatched two separate dynasties, keeping both the Heat in 2014 and the Warriors in 2019 from winning their third championship in a row. This year, though, Kawhi will not be the underdog trying to slay an already established giant. Instead, as the postseason begins, he will be seeking a third title of his own as the king that others are trying to dispatch.
While the Bucks enter the postseason as presumptive favorites to win in the Finals, if anyone is going to beat them, the Raptors and Kawhi’s Clippers are likely to be the ones to do so. Though no matter what happens to Kawhi and the Raptors separately in the coming months, nothing can now erase the magical run that forever bound them together.