TORONTO — Believe it or not, there was one team more excited than the Celtics to see LeBron James depart the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers.
There had to be champagne bottles popping, fist pumps, high fives, and streamers flowing from the offices of the Toronto Raptors, who were frankly embarrassed by the Cavaliers in the playoffs the past two years, including last season’s sweep when they entered as the No. 1 seed.
Shortly after James decided to leave for Tinseltown, the Raptors made the controversial and risky deal to acquire disgruntled San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard in exchange for perhaps the greatest player of their franchise, DeMar DeRozan. General manager Masai Ujiri also fired just-minted Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and replaced him with assistant coach Nick Nurse.
There is renewed optimism in Toronto blended with immense pressure. If this rebooted team doesn’t reach the conference finals, Ujiri will take the blame. Also, the organization will simultaneously spend the season encouraging Leonard to re-sign a maximum contract, or else that trade will be considered a failure.
So while there is excitement in Toronto there is also tension. The Raptors have tried feverishly to compete with the elite teams in the NBA over their history and yet they have always fallen short. Although they have enjoyed great success over the Celtics in the Brad Stevens era, the Raptors have been considered major disappointments because their production never matched their talent.
So a shakeup may have been necessary and now the central figure responsible for Toronto’s success is a masterful but reclusive player whose true motivation is not quite certain. It’s a difficult endeavor but the Raptors, talent wise, are the biggest competition in the East to the Celtics with Leonard serving as the wild card.
“I enjoy a new challenge, like I said, it’s a new team for me,” he said. “It’s going to take some time, but [Nurse’s] stuff is pretty simple. That’s what makes him a good coach, and he adjusts as well. I think I’m going to get the stuff going pretty quickly.”
The adjustments are going to take time, probably more than anticipated. During Wednesday’s season-opening win over the LeBron-less Cavaliers, Leonard asked teammate Danny Green about Cleveland forward Cedi Osman.
“Osman, you don’t see him, you don’t know how well he plays until you see him,” Green said. “And this guy is pretty damn good and I kind of forgot Kawhi didn’t play last year so he’s asking me about him and I said, ‘You’d know him if you see him’ and he was like, ‘No I wouldn’t because I didn’t play last year.’ ”
When he is at his best and more engaged, Leonard is a top 5 player in the league. He is probably the most physically imposing player this side of James with the ability to score at the midrange, the 3-point shot, and defend the opposing team’s best player.
By comparison, DeRozan is a pure scorer who didn’t make the same impact in other areas as Leonard has. It sounds like a beneficial swap for the Raptors, but DeRozan’s teammates were visibly hurt by his trade, especially fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry, who is now the face of the franchise.
Before Wednesday’s game with the Cavaliers, Lowry followed through with his usual pregame handshake routine with DeRozan before he entered the floor by doing it by himself. The Raptors proceeded to beat Cleveland, 116-104, with Lowry scoring 27 points and Leonard scoring 24.
Green estimates it will take a month for Leonard to return to previous form after missing all but nine games last season with a quadriceps injury. Nurse, who is acclimating himself to being a first-time NBA coach, has to try to accentuate Leonard’s strength, devise game plans to showcase his skills, and also create an environment where he is comfortable and would want to stay long term.
“I’ve tried to give him some big picture structure, paint with big strokes and kind of ask him [things], instead of just saying ‘hey here it is,’ ” Nurse said. “I’ll ask him if there’s anything you’re uncomfortable with or that you don’t understand and if he gives me some feedback, then I’ll explain it and then I’ll leave him alone for a couple of days.
“You’re right, we’re dealing with a lot of things here. We’re dealing him being out for a long time, so there’s some physical things and the speed of the game. There’s all kinds of things we’re dealing with so we don’t need to brain freeze him on top of that. But he’s really smart.”
Although DeRozan gave the Celtics fits during his time with the Raptors, the Celtics privately aren’t thrilled to have to face a potentially healthy Leonard along with Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, and the rest of the cast that beat them three out of four times last season.
Friday’s matchup could be rather deceptive in how these teams compare because it’s just the beginning of Leonard’s return. But the Raptors definitely view the Celtics as the favorites even though Toronto is the defending Atlantic Division champion.
“Again, it’s a tough game, a great test and a challenge and you guys [media] have already said it twice, it is a little bit more important than playing a team from the West,” Nurse said. “We hope that we’re in this chase. Everybody up and down the league is in agreement that they’re the best team in the East. Everybody keeps saying that and they’re picked to go to the Finals. We hope we’re in that race with them. So it has a little bit more importance.”
And the Raptors are banking they have the one player who could ruin the Celtics’ NBA Finals hopes. It may take him a few months to return to vintage form, but Leonard is a difference maker.
“I can only see what’s in front of me right now, and it’s nothing I’m looking back saying, ‘I want to get back to that level,’” he said. “It’s about right now, and what I need to do to be the best player for the Raptors, and that’s what my focus is.”