NBA Fans Real Talk: Is Kawhi the game changer the Raptors need?

The NBA Playoffs are in full gear. This is the time everyone calls, “the REAL season.” Rotations are shortened. The game slows down and gets tougher. Players flip a switch and find that extra gear, all for the chance to be the ones to raise the trophy in the end.

The Playoffs are also the time when fans are more engaged. Fans also bring their A-games. Whether it’s through analysis, memes or straight-up fanaticism, there’s always something to see outside the game.

That’s why SLAM PH is telling the stories of several playoff teams through the lens of some of their loyal Filipino fans. Distance, background and nationality don’t matter when it comes to NBA Playoff basketball. These Pinoy fans speak up and give their honest outlook for their respective teams in this year’s Playoffs.

When LeBron James bolted for the Los Angeles Lakers last July, no NBA franchise was as secretly ecstatic as the Toronto Raptors. From 2016 to 2018, The King was an immovable roadblock for the Raptors, who won just 2 out of 14 total playoff games versus LeBron’s Cavs in that three-year span.

“[I felt] a huge sense of relief. [LeBron] had owned us so many times, it was getting ridiculous,” Toronto resident Jeremy Miranda said of LeBron’s move to La La Land.

Jeremy is my childhood friend dating all the way back to our Prep days in 2001 (shoutout to the pre-K to 12 era). Before we entered Grade 6, Jeremy and his family uprooted to Toronto, Canada, but we been able to keep in-touch due to the advent of social media and the binding force that is the NBA.

Before moving to Toronto, Jeremy was a massive Laker fan (meh), and according to him, that still hasn’t changed. But he’s developed an affinity for his hometown team largely because, well, he didn’t really have much of a choice.

“Everyone in Toronto is a Raptors fan. Even if [they] don’t watch sports, they all come on for the playoffs and cheer for the Raptors. People who’ve never played or seen basketball before will be all, ‘Yo, Go Raptors!’”

That type of massive NBA fandom is something that may seem typical to us Filipinos that live and breathe the NBA despite living halfway around the world. But basketball has never been close to the top of the sports hierarchy in Canada the way it is in the Philippines. That spot has always (and still does) belong to hockey, with the NHL having 7 of its 31 teams representing cities north of the border.

Even professional baseball has had its roots in Toronto longer, with the Blue Jays of the MLB laying ground in The 6 in 1977, nearly twenty years prior to the Raptors inception in 1995.

But according to Jeremy, at least in Toronto, the Raptors share the bulk of the sports spotlight with the Maple Leafs of the NHL.

“I’d say it’s about 50-50,” Jeremy said about the split between hockey and basketball fans. He also mentioned that the Toronto community is largely multi-cultural, and that does play a factor in basketball gaining favor in the community. However, there was another major player in sparking Toronto’s basketball interest, particularly the interest in a Raptors franchise still that’s still in its adolescent phase in the NBA.

“The entire DeRozan-Lowry [era] was what made some people actually become Raptors fans,” Jeremy said. “Like Jurassic Park didn’t really exist before the DeRozan-Lowry era. [But] when they started to win, and the whole ‘We The North’ thing came about, that was pretty huge.”

That was a five-year stretch that started in the 2013-2014 season when the Raptors won 48 games and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. At the time, the 48 wins were already the most regular season victories in franchise history. But the DeRozan-Lowry tandem — together with Head Coach Dwane Casey — would win more than 48 games a year for the next four years, including a 59-win, first-seeded season in 2017-2018.

But while fans in both Toronto and all of Canada rallied around the country’s lone NBA squad, the playoff woes made most of those seasons end with a resounding feeling of disappointment. So after another sweep at the hands of LeBron in 2018, Team President Masai Ujiri made a pair of the business decisions. He first fired eventual Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, and replaced him with his assistant, Nick Nurse. That was the domino that everyone expected to fall.

The real shocker was the domino that fell next: DeMar DeRozan. Midway through July, the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan, former lottery pick Jakob Poeltl and a top 20-protected 2019 first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Jeremy’s personal reaction to the trade was positive. “For me, the Kawhi trade was very good. The fact that we have Top 5 or 10 player and the chance to keep him was definitely worth the risk.”

But Jeremy’s a diehard basketball fan. And I’ve known ever since we were little that — at least with regards to the business of the NBA — he knows how to value logic over emotion. That wasn’t the case for most of the Toronto faithful.

“For everybody else, what I found was that they basically hated the trade because all of them are fans of DeRozan. These guys only became [basketball] fans because of the DeRozan-Lowry era. For them, DeRozan was The Raptor,” said Jeremy.

It hasn’t helped that Leonard played just 60 games this year due to everybody’s favorite ‘Load Management’ excuse. That’s made Kawhi become a polarizing watch for Raptors fans that know they may only have one shot to keep the coveted superstar.

However, when looking at the big picture, resting Kawhi may be the best option to make sure he remains happy in The 6. And when The Claw has suited up, he has delivered, with career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3), mixed together with his usual great defense (1.8 steals per game) and high efficiency (49%-37%-85%).

When I asked Jeremy about his feelings about Leonard, he seemed at a loss for worthwhile adjectives. His speechless banter figured into constant repetition of the same, simple statement: “He’s really good, man.”

His tongue-tied speech was enough to summarize who Kawhi Leonard was: A two-way elite superstar whose talent has never before been seen sporting the Raptors Red.

However, at the end of the day, it feels as though the most important question remains: Is Leonard the game changer for the Toronto Raptors? Can he get the cursed franchise over the hump?

The 2018-2019 regular season went par for the course for the Raptors of the last half decade; 58 wins, second best record in the NBA and the second seed in the Eastern Conference. But as I mentioned earlier, the playoffs have usually been a different story. And with LeBron gone, the Raptors have a legitimate shot to make it out of the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history.

“I think they can make the finals,” Jeremy said when I asked about his home team’s ceiling. “Theoretically, their ceiling is the NBA Finals. But I think they’re going to lose to the Bucks in the Conference Finals.”

As for whether the rest of Toronto expects to make the Finals, Jeremy responded, “No, they know about Giannis. They know how good the Bucks have been.”

Well that’s incredibly depressing.

And who can blame them? The Raptors fans have seen this story before. They’ve marched through numerous regular seasons only to find a Superman just waiting to obliterate them in the playoffs.

At this point, I had already written this piece in my head. I had already penciled in the main idea to revolve around how the Raptors are hopeless team just willing to enjoy the ride.

But Jeremy responded with one more rhetorical question:

“Have we really seen Kawhi at his peak?”

He’s right; Leonard is a former Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year that’s still just 27 years old, and has played less than 70 games in the last two seasons.

But beyond the objective factors, Jeremy’s question simply showed the value of Leonard to Toronto: Hope. Because amidst all the turmoil and uncertainty that surrounds his free agency, and besides all the misfortune that has followed the Toronto Raptors, this is still a juvenile franchise that shelters the sports fandom of an entire country. They will embrace any glimmer of hope.

For as long as Leonard has not “reached his peak”, Raptors fans will continue to hope. Hope he can bring them their first NBA Finals berth. Hope he will be the savior that can help them topple the New King of the East. Hope that he will stay to give them more than Vince Carter. More than Chris Bosh.

More than DeMar DeRozan.

So, is Kawhi the game changer the Raptors need?

Only he can answer that question.

But for these playoffs, all of Toronto, including Jeremy, will continue to hope that he can be.

Photos from the author and Getty Images

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