A year ago, the Toronto Raptors had begun their quest for what would result in the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship. Kawhi Leonard was at his best, especially in the NBA Finals, and the Raptors defeated Golden State in six games.
With Leonard now in Los Angeles with the Clippers, the general consensus among fans, pundits, and the like is that there is simply no way Toronto can repeat as NBA champions. Or is there?
Oddsmakers at most major online sportsbooks seem to be drinking the Kool-Aid and give the Raptors +2000 betting odds to win the 2020 NBA title. A deeper look into Toronto’s 2019-20 season reveals why bettors should consider a small wager on the Raptors to repeat.
The 2019-20 Season
Before NBA commissioner Adam Silver halted play due to the coronavirus epidemic, Toronto was well on its way to capturing the No. 2 seed in the postseason. At 46-18, the Raptors trailed only Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings and they had a three-game lead on third-place Boston.
While Toronto likely will not catch Eastern Conference leader Milwaukee (53-12), the Raptors were hot just before the season was suspended. They had won four straight and 21 of their past 25 games.
Without Leonard leading the way, the Raptors were still 12th in the league in scoring averaging 113 points per game, but where Toronto excels is on defense. The Raptors hold opponents to just 106.5 points per game, the fewest in the NBA. In their final game before league play stopped, Toronto held Utah to just 92 points.
Taking Over for Kawhi
Last season, Pascal Siakam was voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player. Without Leonard in the team’s starring role, Siakam has taken over. He started his first All-Star game this season and is averaging 23.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game this season. The 6-foot-9-inch Raptors star also shoots 46 percent from the field and has emerged into a star.
In Los Angeles, Leonard is averaging 27.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists for the Clippers. He also shoots 46 percent from the field. Essentially, Siakam has stepped into the role that Leonard filled a year ago…but Siakam doesn’t have to do it all himself.
The Raptors Backcourt
Before this year, Toronto had just one All-Star – point guard Kyle Lowry. The veteran continues to live up to his All-Star billing averaging 19.9 points and 7.3 assists per game. This season happens to be Lowry’s highest season scoring average since his career-best in 2016-17.
Lowry is not the only backcourt star in Toronto. Fred VanVleet, a former undrafted free agent, averages 18.0 points and 6.9 assists a game. His 3-point shooting is what sets the former Wichita State product apart. He is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
What gets lost in the statistics is the fact that both Lowry and VanVleet are outstanding on-ball defenders. They are one of the big reasons why Toronto leads the league in points allowed per game.
The Raptors avoided the urge to go out in free agency and add a star to the roster after Leonard defected to the Clippers. That decision has paid big dividends in the form of a rotation of bench players that have played together for some time.
The foursome of Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell make up what might be the best bench in the NBA. The group combines to average 44.6 points, 20.3 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game.
That group doesn’t include the Raptors sixth man O.G. Anunoby. Toronto’s first man off the bench scores 10.7 points per game and averages 5.4 rebounds. With a bench like that, Toronto can go deep into the postseason, maybe even deep enough to win a second straight championship.
The Rest of the Story
Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers are the presumptive favorites to win this year’s NBA title. Both teams’ odds are listed at +185 to win it all. Typically, teams that win it all are very good on defense. Toronto ranks in the league’s Top-5 in points allowed per game, defensive rating, and defensive efficiency.
Another characteristic of a championship-caliber team is rebounding. Strong defense and rebounding often go hand-in-hand. Toronto ranks 10th overall in defensive rebounds. Seven-footer Serge Ibaka leads the team with 8.3 boards per game. Siakam is next at 7.5.
The only other teams in the championship mix are the Clippers in the West and the Boston Celtics in the East. With Leonard’s arrival to pair alongside Paul George in L.A., the Clippers (+250) have been considered a betting favorite to win it all since the beginning of the season. The Celtics are a bit more of a betting longshot at +950.
While Milwaukee is considered the team to beat this season, the one team that can match up with the Bucks is Toronto. The Raptors did beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, though that was with Leonard. Still, Siakam is a gifted defender and can match up with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
With all the pieces in place for a repeat, the big payoff is worth betting on Toronto at +2000.