So who had the Toronto Raptors, defending NBA champions, as legitimate threats to repeat the next season after their best play Kawhi Leonard left in free agency?
Not too many. Like the Memphis Grizzlies, who Pascal Siakam and company take on this afternoon, Toronto is overachieving. They had the talent and coaching to stay good - but the Raptors are more than that. They’re a top-5 (ish) team in the NBA that, if they can get past the Boston Celtics in a likely semifinals battle, would be a Giannis and the Bucks showdown away from another Finals showing.
They’re doing it as a group. Nick Nurse may win Coach of the Year. Kyle Lowry is going through a career renaissance. Up and down their organization is success story after success story - even Grizzlies icon Marc Gasol is getting in on the fun.
Oh yeah, today is also the first game against Big Spain for the Grizzlies. Which of course will come with emotion.
With all that in mind, I reached out to Raptors HQ, the SB Nation team blog for Toronto to try to get some answers to questions on my mind. Site author Dylan Litman got back to me - here are his responses.
No Kawhi Leonard, no Danny Green, no problem apparently. How have Nick Nurse, Pascal Siakam and the Raptors pulled this off?
Nick and Pascal have both been fantastic, though Kyle Lowry should receive most of the credit! His uncanny ability to command the floor is unlike any other, and his basketball IQ is off the charts. However, it should be noted that Kyle missed a relatively large chunk of the season, and the Raptors wouldn’t have fared nearly as well without the emergence of the team’s younger rookies and role players.
Up until the Bubble, Terence Davis had been a revelation (ironically, we just discovered a less pleasant, mask-related revelation about Terence Davis, but I digress), and Norman Powell nearly doubled his scoring output from the previous season. The Raptors have been focused, and nearly everyone on the roster improved year-over-year. It’s a testament to the Raptors’ coaching and training staff, as well as the mindset and work ethic of the team’s players. It’s a “run-it-back” mindset, and everyone is on board.
Grizzlies legend Marc Gasol arrived in Toronto via trade in February of 2019, helping the Raptors win a championship in the process. Memphis gained Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, and a 2024 2nd round pick which have helped their rebuild in various ways. Given that this is the first time Gasol will play Memphis, let’s revisit the deal - most folks in Memphis feel it was a win-win deal for all involved - do you agree?
Yes, the trade was definitely a win-win. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of Raptor fans who ended up regretting that deal (though they do exist, strangely). Marc Gasol quickly won over our hearts as a smart player whose prowess as a secondary playmaker helped breathe new life into the Raptors’ offense. Defensively, Marc’s impact was felt so significantly that I don’t believe the Raptors beat the 76ers in the playoffs last year without him. He scared the daylights out of Joel Embiid, who may never fully psychologically recover.
I’m glad to hear the trade was generally well-received from the Grizzlies’ perspective, because it sure hurt letting those guys go. Of course, Marc Gasol’s relationship with Memphis is incomparable, though Jonas and Delon were both drafted and developed by the Raptors, so naturally the fans felt a sort of attachment to them emotionally. More than that, they’re both talented players and instrumental pieces in transforming the Raptors’ franchise from the lowly struggler it once was to a respected and successful franchise.
Marc’s game can be...infuriating at times. How many times have you said to yourself “SHOOT THE BALL, MARC” in the last year or so?
Haha, I’d say far too often but he was injured for so much of this season that I suppose Marc wasn’t given a chance to bother me much. I’m kidding, but Marc indeed works best when he doesn’t hesitate to shoot upon receiving the ball. He’s an intelligent player, so he generally knows which shots to avoid taking – it’s the over-avoidance that’s the key issue. That said, his positive presence on both ends of the floor is undeniable and the Raptors are usually a better team while Marc is playing.
There’s another former Grizzly on the Raptors that seems to be thriving as his career begins its twilight - Kyle Lowry has really had a strong bubble for the most part and season overall. How’s he doing this at 33-years old?
I’d say Kyle has aged like fine wine, though recently, he seems to be aging more like Benjamin Button! This past season has been Lowry’s best since 2016, looking as spry as ever and taking charges like a champ (pun intended). He’s been more aggressive driving with purpose into the paint, and he remains a confident and adept shooter.
As you know, Lowry hasn’t been an All-Star in this league forever; his being a late bloomer and the accompanying limited usage has likely aided his body’s progression into the twilight of his prime. Kyle’s usage dipped to a Raptor-career low last year when Kawhi was carrying the offensive burden, which further delayed the effects of aging that often plague this league’s stars. Lastly, it certainly helps having a fellow trustworthy guard in Fred VanVleet, who has shown he can successfully relieve the weight on Kyle’s shoulders when needed.
Memphis has struggled in Orlando, but they obliterated a Thunder team on Friday that was down a couple of key players. Assuming everyone plays that’s expected to for both squads, which matchup are you most looking forward to watching?
Kyle Lowry facing off against Ja Morant is sure to be fun. Who wouldn’t want to watch an experienced veteran with a high basketball IQ take on a young, impressive rookie with peak athleticism and a nifty feel for the game? That sounds like basketball heaven to me. Both guards are excellent distributors, though Morant’s passes tend to produce more highlights.
Another matchup I’m looking forward to is Marc Gasol versus Jonas Valanciunas, certified battle of the trade pieces (not that there’s any bad blood, of course). I’m always excited to watch our defensive powerhouse face off against an offensive specialist, and it’s even more fun when a shared history is involved. Valanciunas played brilliantly last game, going off for 19 points on 8-11 from the field. While the Raptors were pummeled by the Celtics, Gasol still played decently in limited minutes. I’m excited to compare their games while reminiscing about the pre-title era Raptors.
Thanks again to Dylan and the entire crew at Raptors HQ for their great work. Us (with the Grizzlies formerly) Canadian franchises have got to stick together.