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Toronto Raptors

NBA Season Preview 2019-20: Are the defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors still title contenders?

#LowryNursePascal

With the 2019-20 NBA season quickly approaching, we're rolling out 30 Teams in 30 Days. Between now and opening night, we'll dedicate one day to each team in the league.

Today, we're looking at the Toronto Raptors.

2018-19 season record

58-24 (2nd in the Eastern Conference)

Projected 2019-20 season record

46-36 (5th in the Eastern Conference)

Notable additions

Cameron Payne (free agency)

Matt Thomas (free agency)

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (free agency)

Stanley Johnson (free agency)

Devin Robinson (free agency)

Dewan Hernandez (No. 59 pick)

Notable departures

Danny Green (signed with Lakers)

Kawhi Leonard (signed with Clippers)

Jeremy Lin (unrestricted)

Jodie Meeks (unrestricted)

Eric Moreland (unrestricted)

Depth Chart

Starter 2nd 3rd 4th
PG Kyle Lowry Fred VanVleet Cameron Payne Isaiah Taylor
SG Norman Powell Matt Thomas Patrick McCaw Terrence Davis
SF OG Anunoby Stanley Johnson Malcolm Miller
PF Pascal Siakam Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Dewan Hernandez
C Marc Gasol Serge Ibaka Chris Boucher Sagaba Konate

3 key storylines

Fred VanVleet the closer?

We know that Kyle Lowry is the starting point guard for the Toronto Raptors and with news of him signing an extension, we know now that he'll be with the team for at least two more seasons. That gives the Raptors enough time to slowly figure out who will take over for the franchise's best player. The answer may already be on the roster.

Fred VanVleet has always made his intentions clear - he thinks he's good enough to start on an NBA franchise. That plan can be put in motion this year. VanVleet is entering the final year of his two-year, $18 million deal and he's likely to get a raise when it's up. He proved he belongs with his stellar performance in the NBA Finals impressing enough to even garner a Finals MVP vote.

Should he start over Lowry right now? No, but the transition as the closing point guard should begin this season. In the clutch last season - which is defined by NBA Stats as the last five minutes of a game within five points - Lowry's net rating was a solid 8.1. VanVleet posted a net rating of 10.9. In the playoffs, the gap got wider. Lowry's net rating in the clutch in the postseason was 7.5, VanVleet finished the playoffs with a 17.1 net rating.

At age 33 with a ton of miles on his tires, Lowry has started to slow down athletically. He's still able to use his smarts to be an effective player, but he's not quite as quick as he once was. The Raptors should go to VanVleet more in the clutch this season for many reasons. First, to keep Lowry fresh for another potential deep playoff run and ultimately to see what they have with VanVleet as the lead decision-maker down the stretch of games.

What do the Raptors do with Gasol and Ibaka?

If trade rumours are going to hover around the Raptors this season it's likely going to include the names of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Both are in a contract year and both can become unrestricted free agents after the season. Both are now over 30 which leaves many questions whether or not they'll be a part of the Raptors long-term planning.

If the Raptors stumble out of the gate to start the regular season expect the trade rumours to intensify, but what if they Raptors are rolling by mid-January and are at the top of the Eastern Conference looking poised for another deep run? What if they become buyers at the deadline instead of sellers? What if they don't move either Gasol or Ibaka, lose in the Conference Finals and lose both to free agency for nothing in return?

If a tough spot to be in and one that will likely play out all season long. Gasol and Ibaka can either continue to be the best duo at the five spot in the league or can be assets in a Raptors rebuild.

Who becomes option number two?

We've heard it a million times in the offseason - now that Kawhi Leonard is in L.A., Pascal Siakam is the guy in Toronto. But who is option number two?

Kyle Lowry is still the Raptors' heart and soul but as mentioned above it's time to start finding out what the rest of the team has to offer. OG Anunoby is the most intriguing candidate to be Toronto's most consistent number two scorer, but with VanVleet, Stanley Johnson and Norm Powell on the wing with plenty to prove, Nick Nurse will have a couple of options there.

If Toronto can find a consistent secondary option behind Siakam, it will give the team the pieces in place to continue to build and make a pitch to a key free agent in the offseasons to come.

If any outsider looking in can clearly see how they can best fit onto the roster it makes team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster's jobs easier to see what the team needs and how they can add to it.

5 games to watch

Oct. 22 vs. New Orleans Pelicans

Opening night. Ring ceremony. The championship banner being raised to the rafters. The Canadian National anthem blasting through Scotiabank Arena. The first game of the NBA season with the basketball world watching. Oh and the most hyped rookie this side of LeBron James making his regular-season debut? Of course, this makes the list.

Nov. 2 at Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks feel they let one slip away in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. They'll be ready to send a message that they are the team to beat in the East. This will be the first real test for the Raptors to find out if they have enough to go into a hostile environment and come away with a victory.

Nov. 25 vs. Philadelphia 76ers

The first meeting between the two teams since four bounces and a bucket sent the 76ers packing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season. The 76ers believe they gave the Raptors their toughest series in the playoffs and now with what looks to be a better team on paper, they'll want to send a message to the defending champions.

Dec. 11 vs Los Angeles Clippers

Kawhi Leonard's back. Enough said.

Dec. 25 vs Boston Celtics

The Raptors will host their first-ever Christmas Day game against their divisional rivals the Boston Celtics. The Raps and their fans have been waiting a long time for this to become a reality, it's finally here. Expect one of the loudest crowds of the season as the city, country and franchise get to be showcased on the league's marquee day.

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