About a week before the season, two members of an NBA front office were discussing predictions for the year to come. One was going with chalk at the top—Warriors followed by the Rockets in the West, Celtics followed by the Raptors in the East—when the other staffer threw a curveball into the conversation: "The Raptors are going to be the best team in the East," he said.
They had the same supporting cast that won 59 games a year ago, he explained. The difference is that all the young role players would be a year older this season, and All-Star DeMar DeRozan would be replaced by MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard—plus, they'd have Danny Green. Nick Nurse would be excellent. Everything was pointing to a huge year in Toronto, and while most of the league spent the summer fawning over Boston, the Raptors would be even better.
While it's still early, all those arguments look prophetic now. After one week of the regular season, the Celtics are still putting things together at 2–2, while the Raptors are looking very, very good at 4–0—including one win over that same Boston team.
Most of the Toronto case made sense even before the season. No one could deny that the Raptors were returning almost the entire roster from a team that was excellent a year ago, and the young guys would be even further along a year later. The one, massive variable was Leonard.
To review: He was entering this season after a year going AWOL in San Antonio. He was recovering from an injury that had divided various doctors for at least 12 months. The only games he'd played for the Spurs last season had seen him look sluggish. He arrived in Toronto amid skepticism over his long-term commitment to the team. He came to media day and unleashed the laugh of nightmares. And even apart from questions about durability and mindset and how any human being could laugh like that, there were reasonable doubts about exactly how much of his dominance would translate outside of the Spurs offense.
Against Cleveland in the first game of the year, Kawhi played hard and answered any questions about whether he's bought in to this season. But there were signs of rust. Late last season ESPN reported that doctors couldn't decide whether Leonard's injury was "quadriceps tendinopathy" and "ossification" of that same quadriceps, but in either case, it seems clear that the injury wasn't merely a pretext to force a trade. Leonard didn't look right in the handful of games he tried to play in San Antonio last season, and he was still finding his footing after a few weeks of preseason games in Toronto. The lift on his jumpers wasn't quite there in game one, and his drives to the rim looked a little bit wobbly.
That story continued through the first half against the Celtics two nights later. The same way Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward fumbled through possessions for Boston, Kawhi looked like he was determined to take over the game but he'd forgotten how to do it. It took him several moves to get into lane, his explosion wasn't there, he forced shots, and none of it clicked. He finished the half 3–11 from the floor. The Celtics were up four points.
Then the second half began, and Kawhi looked like it was 2017 again. In his final healthy season in San Antonio, Leonard became so dominant on offense that he forced his way into the Harden/Westbrook MVP debate. That's the player the Celtics were dealing with down the stretch Friday night. He opened the second scoring eight of Toronto's first 12 points. There was a dunk, there were midrange pull-ups, post-ups that turned into turnarounds in the lane, and all of it looked easy. He was bullying one of the better defenses in the NBA. He finished that second half with 22 points on 7–14 shooting. The Raptors won by double digits. And in 31 minutes against Charlotte on Monday, he had another 22 points on 9–14 shooting. He might have done more damage, but the game was getting out of hand by halftime.
It's not really about stats. The way Leonard's moving and asserting himself is what's most encouraging. If he stays healthy he's only going to get more comfortable, and he's going to be a problem for teams all year long. And if that player is who we're watching in Toronto, it's a win for basketball fans everywhere.
He's just so much bigger than most wings—6'8" and 230 pounds, with a 7'4" wingspan—and he can get whatever he wants on offense. He does a lot of his work in isolation, and that may look odd next to the motion offenses in the modern NBA. But when he's healthy, Kawhi is never really settling for tough shots. He's just calmly leveraging his size and footwork into open looks, and then rising up to knock them down. The best version of his game is like Kobe Bryant with the DNA of Tim Duncan. There's no star quite like him.
Now, obvious disclaimers: it's October. It's been four games, one of which Leonard sat out for rest. Nobody is launching an MVP campaign here. Continued health is not guaranteed. Anything can happen.
Any Raptors story is always fraught. There's an extended history of playoff disappointments (albeit mostly at the hands of LeBron), and for NBA fans everywhere, that frustration is compounded by the annual ritual of spending another five months debating whether Toronto can actually make a Finals run. The team has always been good enough to be in conversations about May and June, but there was never one player who was great enough to capture imaginations in the meantime. In some ways, debating the ceiling was inevitable. It was the most interesting conversation anyone could have about the Raptors.
After that Boston game, there are reasons to believe in this year's Toronto team as legit Finals contenders—Danny Green looks fantastic, Kyle Lowry is playing out of his mind, Fred VanVleet remains a truly elite role player, and with a collection of rangy athletes like Green and OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakim, Nick Nurse has weapons to harass anyone his team faces in the playoffs. There are also reasons to be cautious—Lowry's playoff history isn't great, Siakim and OG remain a work in progress on offense, and the best big man on the roster is Serge Ibaka, who will be a wild card all year long. Ibaka looked great against Boston, but trusting him in the postseason will be its own adventure. Also, the Celtics should be much better in May.
In any case, and with all due respect to predictions and the friendly debate that began this article, it may be possible to sidestep the Celtics and Raptors conversation altogether.
It's more fun to appreciate the potential return of a full-blown superstar. The creaky player that everyone saw in the first half of the Celtics game is the version of Leonard that many people expected to see all year—or at least for the first few months. It's rare to see any star essentially miss an entire season to injury and return to what he was before the injury. Just look at Hayward and Kyrie in Boston. Those stories are how this one is supposed to go. Given how mysterious Leonard's leg injury was, his future was cloudier than anyone.
So far, for Kawhi and the Raptors, the outlook is about as encouraging as anyone could've expected. He's not all the way back, and there will be setbacks along the way, but he's ahead of schedule. He's already shown why Masai Ujiri took the risk to trade for him. DeMar DeRozan is gone, and in his place is a superstar who can overpower people and make basketball look easy. If this year is really going to be different for Toronto, the best place to start would be not worrying about how it will end. Just watch Kawhi each night, and let's see how crazy this can get.