The Toronto Raptors have been the nearly men of the NBA for the past three seasons. They have seen their campaigns ended by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the last three years on the bounce in the post-season. However, LeBron’s departure and the decline of the Cavaliers have thrown the NBA Eastern Conference wide open.
Toronto made a serious move to fill the void of the Cavaliers’ dominance in the East. Nick Nurse’s men beat off competition from several teams to lure Kawhi Leonard to the club in a trade deal with the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors parted with DeMar DeRozan in exchange along with a first-round pick. Although DeRozan had been an outstanding player for the club during run to the playoffs, Leonard is the transcendent player that could put Toronto on the map in the NBA.
The city of Toronto and their fanbase have not enjoyed a great deal of success in the major sporting markets in North America. Toronto FC won the MLS Cup in 2017, while the Argonauts have lifted the Grey Cup twice in the decade. However, elsewhere life has not been as fruitful.
The Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since the 1960s, while the Blue Jays’ last triumph in MLB’s World Series came in 1993. The Raptors have never reached the NBA Finals, with their closest run coming in the 2015/16 season when they were beaten 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cavaliers. Further defeats came in the Conference Semi-Finals even when the Raptors secured the number one seed in the East last season, suffering a second humiliating 4-0 whitewash.
Toronto’s defeat resulted in the end of Casey’s reign at the club even though he had been named NBA Coach of the Year after a franchise record 59-win term. The addition of Leonard has seen the Raptors take control of the Eastern Conference once again, although the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers will be battling for the Finals berth.
Nurse’s men are considered to be the leading contenders to emerge from the fray to reach the Championship series at odds of 9/1, although the odds are altering all the time, including those of in-play betting options on live NBA matches. There’s enough talent on the Raptors’ roster, but they have to get the job done this time to capitalize on their title window.
There’s not another player to match the quality of Leonard in the Eastern Conference. Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all exceptional players, but none of them have taken over an NBA Finals against an elite outfit like Leonard has in the past. The 27-year-old was named Finals MVP when the Spurs defeated the Miami Heat, featuring LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the 2013/14 campaign. Leonard even had the Golden State Warriors on the ropes almost singlehanded in the 2016/17 season before he suffered an ankle injury that resulted in a San Antonio defeat in four games.
Leonard can become what LeBron was for the Cavaliers in their four-year run in the Eastern Conference. He has ability and enough support around him, but the Raptors have to get over their playoff woes. Only then will the team be able to put Toronto on the map in the NBA.
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