When Kawhi Leonard decided to head back home to Southern California and sign a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, most NBA analysts assumed the Toronto Raptors would drop back into the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff field at best and maybe begin an overhaul of the roster.
With Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka all getting ready to enter the final year of their contracts, it was believed Raptors' President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri would be in sell mode at the trade deadline, getting whatever assets he could for players that would no longer fit in the organization's plans.
But lo and behold, Lowry signed a contract extension before the season, the Raptors got off to a hot start, and all the talk of breaking up the defending champs disappeared.
Pascal Siakam built off his most improved player award in 2018-19 and quickly took over the primary scoring role vacated by Leonard. Fred Van Vleet moved into the starting shooting guard role previously held by Danny Green, who signed with the Lakers. And, young forward O.G. Anunoby emerged as a reliable two-way wing.
Toronto had a slight dip heading into the New Year when Lowry, Siakam, Gasol and key reserve Norman Powell all missed time because of injuries, but now the defending champs are rolling again, currently riding the longest winning streak in franchise history of 14 games.
The Raptors kept their roster intact at the trade deadline and now could be the top threat to beat Milwaukee in the upcoming playoffs. Leonard did most of the heavy lifting during Toronto's comeback in last years' conference finals, but head coach Nick Nurse deserve a lot of credit for designing a defensive scheme that limited the effectiveness of league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Raptors rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win the series.
Nurse is one of the league's brightest young coaches, and it's clear the Raptors won't be intimidated if they face the Bucks again in the conference finals.