NBA

The Toronto Raptors Are Still Eastern Conference Contenders Without Kawhi Leonard

After Toronto made the most of their one-year Kawhi Leonard rental, there's still plenty of room for optimism for Raptors fans next season despite Kawhi leaving.

Now that Toronto Raptors fans have been given 48 hours to grieve the loss of Kawhi Leonard and the dust settles on articles about how good the Clippers are going to be, we can start looking at the other side of this equation.

It's all but unheard of for a defending NBA champion to lose their best player the following offseason, so we don't have a lot of precedent to draw from here, but just how worried should Toronto be about this upcoming season?

Obviously, losing the Finals MVP and one of the best players in the league is a huge blow, especially without anybody even close to Leonard's level in a position to be brought in to help soften the blow of his departure. Losing Danny Green to the Los Angeles Lakers -- while obviously not nearly as impactful -- is not insignificant, either.

With the addition of Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson being the only other real changes to the roster (Marc Gasol accepted his player option), the 2019-20 Raptors squad is going to look a lot like last year's in terms of personnel. But with the importance of superstar players in today's NBA, does last year's non-Kawhi core stand a chance in the Eastern Conference?

Past Success

For as unexpected as a championship run was last year, it's not like like the Raptors were wallowing in losses before Kawhi came to town.

Before trading for Leonard, the Raps had won a franchise-record 59 games in the 2017-18 season, marking their third straight season with at least 50 regular season wins and their third straight season making it out of the first round of the playoffs.

Yes, that 59-win team had DeMar DeRozan, but overall, that roster didn't look a whole lot different than what the Raptors have now.

The 34-year-old Gasol may not get the kind of regular season run that Jonas Valanciunas did, but he's still an upgrade over JV. Gasol ranked 14th among centers in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric last year, while Valanciunas has finished no higher than 31st in any of the last three seasons.

Valanciunas may have an edge on the glass (with a total rebound rate above 20% in four straight seasons), but Gasol stretches the floor in a way JV never did. The Spaniard averaged 2.0 three-point attempts per game as a Raptor in the regular season, while JV never put up more than 74 in a season in Toronto. Gasol also facilitates in a way that isn't common for a center, averaging 5.6 assists per 36 minutes for Toronto in the regular season, with Valanciunas' highest average in a full season in Toronto being only 1.7.

That DeRozan-led team also didn't have the same Pascal Siakam that the Raptors do now. Last season's Most Improved Player, Siakam generated 50% more win shares in the 2018-19 season (9.3) than he had in his first two NBA seasons combined. His 9.3 win shares and .175 win shares per 48 minutes were both in line with DeRozan's marks from his final season in Toronto (9.6, .170 per 48 minutes).

If Siakam continues on the trajectory he has improved at over his first three NBA seasons, he could very well already be an upgrade over DeRozan.

Also, the 2018-19 Raptors didn't look lost when Kawhi was off the court. They went 17-5 in games without Leonard, and while they were far better with him on the court, they still outscored their opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in minutes he didn't play.

New Additions

Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are moves that wouldn't garner much attention in even less exciting NBA off-seasons, but during this year's chaos, they've gone almost entirely unnoticed. That doesn't mean these two can't prove to be valuable additions, though.

The first thing that immediately jumps off the page about this pair is their defensive prowess. Last season, ESPN had 514 players ranked in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and Johnson finished 60th while Hollis-Jefferson sat 178th. Obviously, neither come close to touching the versatility of Leonard, but they do soften the blow of losing one of the NBA's premier wing defenders.

Johnson does look to be a liability on the offensive end, though. Both the Detroit Pistons and New Orleans Pelicans had offensive ratings below 100.0 when he was on the floor last season, and their offensive ratings increased by more than 12 points when he was off.

The Nets' offense also produced less efficiently with RHJ on the court last year, with 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he was off. It is worth noting, though, that they had produced more efficiently with him on the court than off the year before. Their net rating has also been higher with Hollis-Jefferson on the court in every single one of his NBA seasons.

Competition

With Leonard back in the Western Conference and Kevin Durant not expected to impact the East this year, star power in the Eastern Conference is relatively thin, so the Raptors' path to playoff relevance isn't filled with landmines.

The Milwaukee Bucks return largely the same team that pushed the Raps to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and even without Jimmy Butler, the Philadelphia 76ers should be taken seriously as a potential conference-winner.

Things quickly fall off after that, though. The Boston Celtics added Kemba Walker, but they're also down Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Marcus Morris this year. The Brooklyn Nets are positioned to compete with the addition of Kyrie, but they likely won't get the benefit of their KD addition until the 2020-21 season, and with D'Angelo Russell out of town, they aren't necessarily going to take a huge jump this campaign.

We can't write off the Indiana Pacers with Victor Oladipo returning or the Miami Heat with Jimmy Butler, but that still only gives us six non-Toronto teams with any hopes of contending in the East. Even if you're worried about how the Raps will fare in the Kawhi fallout, they have to be considered as massive favorites to land at least a low playoff seed.

The Betting Odds

Looking at the championship odds for next season on FanDuel Sportsbook, there's clearly still some optimism for Toronto.

They're +3200 to win the championship, the 11th-best odds in the NBA and the fifth-best in the East. The line implies them as only 1.2 percentage points less likely to win the championship than the Celtics or Nets, who are tied for third in the East at +2300.

Oddsmakers are also projecting a ton of parity in the East. Even the second-ranked 76ers are implied with only a 10% chance to win it all (seven percentage points ahead of the Raps), while the favored Bucks are implied a 14.3% chance, with +600 betting odds.

The Raptors' title chances may be some of the lowest we've seen in recent history for a defending champ, but that doesn't mean they're suddenly doomed to obscurity like they were in the Andrea Bargnani era.

This is a team that still has plenty of the pieces that contributed to a 59-win season without Kawhi two years ago, and in all likelihood, they still represent an upgraded version of their pre-Leonard squad.

The East has a couple of scary contenders at the top in Philadelphia and Milwaukee, but once the disappointment of Kawhi's departure wears off, there's still plenty of reason for Raptors fans to carry optimism into next season.