One of the many NBA Playoff proposals floating around is a re-seeding of the 16 Playoff teams according to their record instead of limiting them to their respective conferences. If that happens, this is what it would look like:
With that idea in mind, what are the juiciest match-ups to come from that new format?
Last season, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors shocked the NBA when they went all-in by trading long-time centerpiece DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard. This was Ujiri’s last-ditch heave to break the LeBronto Curse that has tortured them for three years. It was a huge risk considering Leonard’s injury and his VERY clear intentions of going to Los Angeles after his contract expired. Thankfully for Toronto, the gamble paid off as The Klaw led the North to their first championship.
Despite the promise of potentially building a dynasty up north, the allure of sunny Los Angeles was too much to overcome. Kawhi left the Raptors after that championship, joining the LA Clippers to be closer to his family. With both teams firmly in title contention this season, a Raptors versus Clippers matchup will be an exhilarating affair, doubly so if they meet in the Finals.
Here’s what makes this matchup so interesting:
The New King of the North
When Kawhi left the Raptors, the biggest question around the team was who would step up as the new King of the North. Everyone pointed to Pascal Siakam, but there were a lot of valid concerns if he could take on that role. After all, the previous season was only his second season as a full-time starter, and a lot of people were not sold on his ability to lead a team like Kawhi did.
It’s hard to replicate the former’s insane production, but Spicy P has filled the Klaw-sized hole quite nicely in their first season post-Kawhi. While Siakam isn’t quite on the same level as Leonard (yet), he’s done well for his first time leading a contending team. He averaged 23.6 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.6 APG on 55.9% True Shooting, earning himself his first All-Star start. His improved handle, vision, and scoring on all three levels has been the primary catalyst behind Toronto’s bid to defend their title.
Leading the Raptors to their second-straight title will be the ultimate icing on top of the cake for Spicy P. Beating his former teammate and mentor along the way will only make that victory sweeter.
The Kawhi Effect
Throughout league history, there’s a handful of players who transcended greatness.
These were the players who immediately turned any team they played on as title contenders, no matter the supporting cast. Think of players LeBron James, or Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson. This is the highest tier of superstardom: players who were so good, it didn’t matter who played with them.
Kawhi has a legitimate case to be a part of this legendary group of players. He’s already won two championships with two different teams, winning Finals MVP in both series. After his breakout season with the Spurs, he routinely led them to title contention in multiple seasons before he got hurt. He then proved that the “system player” label pundits placed on him was very much wrong when he got traded to Toronto, turning a team known to “choke” in the playoffs to one of the most lethal and resilient teams in the league.
If The Klaw wins his third title in his first season with a new team, it would place him among the great team-elevating players in league history. Beating his old team would only cement the fact that his presence was the primary reason for their championship team.
Disproving the Narrative
The Raptors have always played with a chip on their shoulders, but they must be extra motivated this season.
Kawhi’s departure from the team was a significant blow to the team, and most experts and fans believed that this was going to keep the team from Playoff contention. Not even title contention, mind you, people were saying that Toronto would miss the playoffs completely. Pundits believed that Kawhi carried the team alone, and without him the Raptors would crumble.
This likely lit a fire under their collective asses, and they quickly proved that they were more than just Kawhi’s backup crew. They grinded their way to the second seed in the East, behind massive improvements from players like Siakam, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby. Surprise additions also helped greatly, as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis II bolstered their bench unit.
A victory against Kawhi’s new squad would be the ultimate middle-finger to all of the people who doubted the defending champions.
Will the Clippers be at full strength?
It’s not going to be an easy road to the Finals for the Clippers and Raptors, though. Both teams have significant hurdles to deal with before they can face each other in the grandest stage in basketball.
For the Los Angeles Clippers, their biggest issue isn’t any team in particular. The team, at full strength, can go toe-to-toe against anyone in the league. Paul George and Kawhi are the best two-way wings in the league, and with a solid group of players behind them (Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, and Patrick Beverley), they can be downright unstoppable.
… if they are at full strength. This is the first season this team is playing together, and already, they have been ravaged by the injury bug. Both George and Leonard have nagging injuries that have kept them out of more than a few games, and their supporting cast have all missed time due to random injuries. As a result, the team hasn’t been able to build chemistry around their two new stars.
Their Playoff performance might also be affected, particularly for PG. We all remember Playoff P’s poor performance last post-season on a bum shoulder, so the Clippers have to hope that his injury doesn’t flare up at the wrong time.
The Raptors have had their fair share of injury woes this season as well. However, that shouldn’t be much of an issue, considering that their core has played at least half a season and an entire Finals run together. There’s a (quite literally) bigger problem for them, though, and he’s clad in green and white.
The Milwaukee Bucks are stronger than they’ve ever been, and at the forefront of their destruction is reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’ve been bulldozing both lottery teams and Playoff contenders, and a Finals appearance is more and more likely as the season goes on. If the Raptors want to repeat as champions, they will inevitably have to face The Greek Freak at some point and beat them.
So far, Toronto is 0-2 against Milwaukee, which doesn’t bode well for their chances. They will have to dig deep and find a way to shut down the terrifying machine Coach Budenholzer has created in Wisconsin to have a shot at defending their crown.
There’s no bad blood between the Raptors and Clippers, but legacies and pride are on the line in this matchup. Expect an interesting series if these two teams face off against each other in the Finals this coming postseason, no matter what the format will be.