Late this afternoon, the Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was making his way to Toronto on a one-year deal. Just over 27 hours after Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster lured one of the most attractive, young free agents remaining on the market, they were able to land another. Pairing Stanley Johnson with RHJ on the wing gives Nick Nurse a devastating defensive combo, not to mention the plethora of existing powerhouses at his disposal on that end of the floor.
With a late decision from Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green that kept us all on the edge of our seat, we got stuck in a tough situation. Free agents flew off the board this year, with the market having dried up by July 2nd. Given that we entered 4 days late to the party, we were still able to have a pretty good time, and I don’t think that we’re done yet.
I wrote earlier about what Stanley Johnson brings to this team as an individual, and RHJ brings much of the same: an incredible defender with great size, length, and versatility, along with a strong work ethic, and a team-first mentality. He’s also still very young at just 24-years-old.
What’s clearer now than before is the direction, and the identity of this team.
After the Johnson signing, it seemed as though Masai and Bobby wanted to take a low-risk flyer on the former number 8 overall pick, hoping that a change of scenery might help the 23-year old blossom into the player he’s supposed to be. After signing Hollis-Jefferson, it’s clear that the former was about more than giving a good prospect a shot at redemption.
Last season, the Raptors won a championship because of their defense. Obviously having the best player in the world was a big part of it too, but we would not have gotten by the Sixers, the Bucks, or the Warriors without our unprecedently good rotations, and our great overall team play on that end of the floor. After losing two all-defensive players in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, we have quickly found excellent replacements for each of them, albeit much weaker offensive players.
Upon Kawhi and Danny’s departures, one question remained: what’s the direction of this franchise? Yes we’re a good team this season if we leave the roster as-is, and yes we have a ton of cap space next summer, and yes we have some good young pieces, however barring the possibility of Giannis coming to Toronto in 2021 free agency, we’re not built to contend for another championship, and banking on the Greek Freak wanting to come to the Danforth that badly is not a good enough plan moving forward for a world-class NBA franchise.
Less than 48 hours after the “he gone” news, it seems as though we have an answer.
Our identity will not change. Though we’re light on shooting, we have a ton of defensive weapons, and are one of the best defensive teams in the league. If defense wins championships, we’re defending our crown. We cannot rely on talent to win us games anymore. In several games last season, our whole team was complacent, and waited to get bailed out by some tremendous play from Kawhi Leonard in the fourth quarter. Needless to say, we will have to compete 48 minutes a game. We have high-character, young, hungry, athletic players who understand what we need, and are going to give us exactly that, every single night. Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka are the perfect leaders for this team.
We might struggle to put points on the board, but basketball is a two-way sport. If we can make our opponents struggle even more than we are, we’ll win games. The defensive potential of this team is incredible, and building the rotation might be even more exciting for Nick Nurse to work out this season than last, with the likes of RHJ, Stanley Johnson, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell all fighting for minutes, who are all above-average defenders.
The only thing that’s different about this team is the direction. Last season, the average age of the players on our roster was 27.5. Right now, the average age of the 12 guys under contract is 24.3. Evidently, we’re a lot younger. You can expect to see more intensity from guys trying to prove that they belong in the league, and a lot more development than we’ve seen in previous years. With all of the defense, length, and athleticism on this roster as currently constructed, we’ll be getting a lot of stops, and we’ll spend a good amount of time on the fastbreak. If the Raptors’ world-renowned development staff, who are responsible for Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam’s emergence can work their magic on some of the young guys next season, the NBA’s Most Improved Player could be a Raptor once again.
The 2019-2020 Raptors season probably won’t be the best we’ve had, however it will be a lot better than people are thinking right now. Maybe we won’t defend our championship… maybe we will. Regardless of the outcome, we will definitely be a playoff team, and we’ll be a heck of a lot of fun to watch, as long as you make sure to bet the under.