Revisiting bold predictions from before the 2018-19 Raptors season

William Lou
·NBA reporter

For the past three years, I have written a bold predictions piece as a preview of sorts of the upcoming season. Predictions from the 2018-19 campaign can be found here, and those prognostications will be evaluated below.

Somewhat incorrect — Kawhi Leonard wins MVP

My initial prediction was that Leonard would win Most Valuable Player in the regular season, but he was disqualified by by most voters on account of sitting out a quarter of the season for load management. However, Leonard did prove his worth in the playoffs, where he was undisputedly the best player of the entire postseason and was rightly crowned as Finals MVP.

In retrospect, Leonard would be an unlikely candidate for regular season MVP simply because his focus is elsewhere. It takes an all-out effort — similar to Russell Westbrook’s first triple-double campaign, or what Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden did this year — to win MVP during the regular season. Leonard just isn’t interested in anything outside of winning at the highest levels, so you won’t catch him giving it his all during “82 practices” when he would rather save it for when it truly matters. He has bigger fish to fry.

It is curious that Leonard drew so little support for MVP despite being the best player on the team with the second-best record. Full results will be announced next Monday, but practically nobody had Leonard on their ballot. There were doubts coming into the season of Leonard’s health and of his ability to perform, and even after he established himself as the best player in the conference, there were still some in the analytics community that suggested Kyle Lowry was the straw that stirred the drink for the Raptors. Those narratives were soundly dispelled in the postseason.

Incorrect — Kyle Lowry is no longer an All-Star

Lowry wasn’t anywhere close to being named as a starter, and he was no sure bet to squeak in as a reserve, but he showed in the playoffs that he’s still capable of All-Star level performances when it matters most. Sure, the days of Lowry scoring 20 points a night are over, but he still impacts winning at the highest level.

That being said, Lowry was having his worst season since 2013 at the time of his announcement. He was averaging 14.2 points, 9.4 assists (second in the NBA), and 4.5 rebounds and his shooting percentages were down across the board. There was even chatter that an emerging Pascal Siakam was more deserving, but realistically, both Lowry and Siakam should have made the team in what was yet another weak crop of talent from the East.

Correct — C.J. Miles gets traded

Everybody should have seen this one coming after the Raptors added Danny Green, who was just flat-out better than Miles on both ends of the floor. Green was even an upgrade over Miles as the most media-friendly veteran on the team that everyone would go to for a good quote. Nobody could have foreseen that Miles would drop off so significantly (he went from being a useful microwave scorer to being legitimately unplayable for months) but it only made sense to ditch Miles and the $16 million remaining on his deal.

Correct — Norman Powell gets another shot

Even though the Leonard trade created a logjam at the wing, Powell was always too impactful to be ignored as he was in 2017-18. Powell failed to lock down a consistent spot in the rotation, and settled in as the eighth man in the playoffs, but Powell did quietly submit a bounce-back year with averages of 8.5 points while shooting 48 percent from the field and a robust 40 percent from deep. Powell was also instrumental in helping the Raptors overtake the Milwaukee Bucks, as it was the promotion of Powell in Game 2 that proved to be the game-changer in the series (along with Leonard switching onto Antetokounmpo).

If anything, with the Raptors having to reach deep into their pockets for the luxury bill, there might even be an opportunity for Powell to start next season. Green may become too expensive for the Raptors to retain, which opens up the starting shooting guard slot for Powell to step into. If Powell can maintain his marksmanship from this season, then he would solve a lot of problems for the Raptors’ payroll.

Jun 2, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Norman Powell (24) reacts after a play against the Golden State Warriors during the second quarter in game two of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Powell provided some memorable playoff moments yet again. (Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Correct — Benching Serge Ibaka solves the rotation

Ibaka was phenomenal to start the season in a platoon with Jonas Valanciunas, but he had to settle into a permanent bench role after Marc Gasol joined the team. And it’s good that Ibaka accepted his role, because he was still able to be an impact player with the second unit while Gasol turned the first five into the best starting lineup in the NBA.

Ibaka’s unselfishness was a huge reason why the Raptors were successful. The proud veteran put aside personal goals and sacrificed for the greater good of the team. Ibaka changed positions and became a full-time center, he conditioned himself to bang bodies with bigger players, he was the only functional center remaining after Draymond Green broke Valanciunas’s thumb in December, and Ibaka didn’t say a peep when he was demoted for Gasol.

Instead of pouting, Ibaka was a positive presence in the locker room and delivered clutch performances against the Warriors and Sixers throughout the playoffs. This is why every championship team stresses the importance of veterans that are focused on the right things — Ibaka just wanted to win and he got his just reward.

Correct — Greg Monroe plays fewer minutes than Bebe Nogueira did last season

It may seem silly in retrospect, but there was significant excitement over the signing of Monroe for the veteran’s minimum. Monroe clearly wasn’t a starting calibre player, but he was a walking double double as recently as 2017, and there was talk that Monroe would fill Jakob Poeltl’s vacated spot at backup center.

Instead, Monroe turned out to be mostly underwhelming. He was a non-factor on defense, which was to be expected, but Monroe also lacked lift around the basket and for some strange reason he lost the ability to covert point-blank layups. Monroe was just a run-of-the-mill third-stringer, and he failed to produce in an expanded role after Valanciunas went down. If anything, the Raptors might have been better off with keeping Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira around for another year.

Monroe was eventually salary dumped at the trade deadline and closed his Raptors account with 423 minutes played, which is less than the 442 minutes that Nogueira logged last season between the regular season and playoffs. Monroe eventually latched on with the Sixers and faced the Raptors in the second round, but he was a minus-31 in 49 minutes.

Thankfully, incorrect — Overzealous fans flip on OG Anunoby

Anunoby failed to build off the excitement around his rookie season, where some touted him as the next coming of Leonard. When trade discussions first swirled about acquiring Leonard, Anunoby was thought to be the most untouchable trade asset by most, even ahead of Siakam. That’s how high expectations were for Anunoby after he won a starting job as a 3-and-D type in his rookie season.

Anunoby never came close to meeting those expectations in his second season, but fans understood that it was through no fault of his own. Anunoby had a nightmare season dotted by minor injuries, a death in the family, and it ended with him missing the entirety of the playoffs after undergoing an emergency procedure after his appendix had burst. Fortunately, the Raptors fanbase understood the circumstances, and mostly laid off Anunoby for his sophomore slump.

Incorrect — Raptors attempt 40 threes per game

The assumption heading into the season was that Nick Nurse was some mad scientist that would entertain kooky ideas that he accrued from years of coaching overseas and in the G League. While that did prove to be true on defense (most notably with his “janky” box-and-one tactic against Stephen Curry), Nurse proved to be mostly traditional on offense instead of hopping on the wave of chucking up every triple imaginable.

Most of that speaks to the talent at Nurse’s disposal. Leonard primarily does his damage in the midrange, and he wasn’t quite the same slash-and-kick creator that DeMar DeRozan was, and so the main option on offense wasn’t creating many three-point looks. Lowry also took a step back from pulling up to becoming more of a facilitator on Ibaka’s pick-and-pop looks and on Siakam’s breakaway dunks. Green and Siakam both exceeded expectations from deep, but even still the Raptors only hoisted 33.8 attempts from deep, which was good for 11th.

The Raptors did eventually lead the league in three-point percentage following the trade deadline. Gasol’s ability to stretch the defense proved vital in the playoffs, and his playmaking also directly translated to more open opportunities. However, the Raptors never made a concerted mathematical decision to bomb away in the same way that Houston, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee did, and based on how the playoffs shook out, it was probably for the best that they didn’t.

Incorrect — Raptors win 60 games

The thought process here was straightforward. Toronto had won 59 games in 2017-18, and they made a blockbuster trade that clearly upgraded their talent. With that in mind, 60 wins seemed like a foregone conclusion.

However, the Raptors jus didn’t have the same luck with injuries as they did the year prior. Lowry battled back issues, Fred VanVleet was banged up all year, Valanciunas missed months, Leonard sat out for precautionary reasons, and there was simply too much inconsistency on a nightly basis just in terms of who would be on the floor that it affected the Raptors’ ability to get into a groove.

Having said that, 58 wins wasn’t too shabby as it won them home court advantage over every team in the league outside of Milwaukee, and their laissez-faire approach to the regular season ultimate translated to their first-ever title run, so the trade-off was clearly worth it.

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