3. 2017-18 Toronto Raptors
The Raptors went into last offseason unsure of their direction for the immediate future. They had just suffered a second straight second round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, this time after posting a conference-best 59 wins with no perceived room for improvement.
It wasn’t until Kawhi Leonard’s sudden trade demands when president Masai Ujiri saw a golden (albeit risky) opportunity to raise what was thought to be a stagnant ceiling. He would ship off DeMar DeRozan, a fan favorite and the team’s all-time leading scorer, in exchange for Leonard and Danny Green.
With the very real possibility of having Kawhi walk in free agent this summer, the gamble was large, but also calculated. Even after sitting out for most of last season, Leonard is what many Toronto fans hoped DeRozan could become: a full-fledged superstar capable of leading the Raptors to the NBA Finals.
It was as all-in a decision as an organization could make, one doubled down on with the acquisition of Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. While not the player he once was, the former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year could still provide quality minutes in more of a complementary role.
The Raptors were one of the best two-way teams during the regular season, aided by the breakout campaign of Pascal Siakam. A former late first round pick, he’s since blossomed offensively with the ball in his hands more than ever, and continues to impress with his length and foot speed at the other end. His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed with a firm grasp on the Most Improved Player award.
With hounding perimeter options in Lowry, Danny Green and Leonard, the Splash Brothers will have a tough time getting off easy looks. Add in Siakam’s ability to cover ground and switch screens with Gasol’s interior presence and this may be the toughest defense Golden State’s ever had to face in the Finals.
The Warriors have the edge in experience, but Toronto isn’t exactly lacking. On the roster are two All-Stars and a former Finals MVP. For as inconsistent as they may be, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green have experienced Finals basketball, with Gasol having his fair share of postseason battles as well.
No team has been able to crack Golden State since KD’s arrival almost three summers ago. Without him, there may be an opening for an attack — one Toronto is well-equipped to take advantage of at either end of the floor that should make for a fantastic series.