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Eastern Conference preview: Raptors reboot with Kawhi Leonard, new coach and plenty of pressure

Eastern Conference preview: Raptors reboot with Kawhi Leonard, new coach and plenty of pressure
Kawhi Leonard walks across the court before a practice at training camp in Burnaby, Canada. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press via AP)

Everywhere outside the gymnasium is calm.

Next door is an empty, perfectly manicured soccer field. Across the street, a single archer slings arrows at a target on a range. Down a nearby dirt road, trees on the edge of a thick forest guarding Burnaby Lake are still damp from the morning dew and add a piney smell to the crisp fresh air.

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It’s a postcard everywhere you look, part of the reason why the Toronto Raptors choose to have their training camp here in British Columbia, a little more than eight miles east of Vancouver’s coast.

But behind the guarded doors inside a modern fitness center, there’s no serenity. The Raptors are in the first days of the most important season in the team’s 23-year history.

They traded their all-time leading scorer and the best friend of the team’s star point guard. They fired their coach, a man who has won more than twice as many games as anyone else on the Raptors’ sideline.

They traded for a mysterious superstar coming off of a more mysterious injury-plagued season entering the final year of his contract. They hired a first-time NBA head coach, someone who made a name for himself in the British Basketball League, to make sense of it all. And they did this, all of this, after a 59-win season, most in team history.

At stake? A season that will ultimately determine whether Toronto continues contending at the top of a LeBron James-less Eastern Conference or detonates and starts over at the bottom.

“Uh, yeah,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of pressure.”

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard takes a phone call during a practice in Burnaby.
Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard takes a phone call during a practice in Burnaby. (Jonathan Hayward / Canadian Press via AP)

Among the Eastern Conference contenders this season, Toronto’s path is the murkiest. Philadelphia has a roster with some of the most exciting young NBA players in guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid. Boston’s roster is a perfect mix of veterans and youth that’ll be lifted up with All-Star forward Gordon Hayward back from a horrific leg injury that cost him all of last season. Indiana, the sleeper of the group, will rely on the continued development of Victor Oladipo, the NBA’s most improved player.

The Raptors could’ve been squarely in that group had they kept moving in the same direction, making small changes on the fringes. Dwane Casey, after all, had been named the NBA’s top coach by his peers, after leading Toronto to the No. 1 seed in the East. And in DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors had an All-Star guard who loved playing for the city. After being drafted No. 9 overall and scoring 8.6 points a game as a rookie, the former USC star has averaged at least 16.7 points in each of the next eight seasons.

While his scoring dipped last season, his playmaking improved and Toronto set a franchise record for wins for the fourth time in five years.

But playoff success eluded the Raptors. They lost in seven games to Brooklyn in the first round in Casey’s first season. Then, they got swept by Washington in the opening series in Casey’s second season.

Then, like so many teams, they had the bad fortune to run into James’ Cavaliers three conseuctive times in the postseason, losing in six in the conference finals before back-to-back sweeps in the East semifinals.

“We did the same things over and over again,” Toronto president Masai Ujiri said. “I think sometimes that might be the definition of insanity, to keep doing something over and over again.”

At the time of Casey’s firing, James hadn’t yet committed to the Lakers, though people all around the NBA had their private suspicions he’d be leaving Cleveland. Ujiri, who has been with the team since 2013, was about to get his first chance to pick a coach.

“When you’re in these kinds of positions, sometimes, I believe in consistency. I believe in building a program,” he told The Times. “I think that’s what we’ve done. We tried to build a culture. But then, once you keep doing it and doing it and it doesn’t work…”

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You make a change.

Nurse was a bit of a surprise. A former Toronto assistant under Casey and a basketball grinder, Nurse was twice selected the British Basketball League’s coach of the year before moving to the more glamorous sidelines of the Iowa Energy and Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA’s development league.

Ujiri got a close look at him during Casey’s tenure and was impressed with his creativity and people skills during a series of interviews before he was hired.

Nurse’s approach to the pressure-packed season is essentially to shrug, to trust that he’s ready to handle the high expectations.

“What’s the alternative?” he asked. “I wouldn’t say, ‘I’d love time to grow with a 20-win team.’”

Nurse will be thrown directly into the fire — and the flames only got bigger and hotter with Ujiri’s next move — to swap DeRozan, center Jakob Poetl, a former lottery pick, and a first-round pick (protected 1-20) to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

DeRozan’s loss was a big one for the franchise. He and point guard Kyle Lowry are incredibly close, and DeRozan fumed on social media after being dealt. Lowry said at the team’s media day that he hadn’t had a chance to speak with Leonard during the offseason, despite the trade happening two months earlier.

Leonard, who once was named Finals MVP for San Antonio, had his relationship with the Spurs quickly spoil last season while he dealt with a right quadriceps injury that cost him all but nine games. He’ll be a free agent after the season, and indications are that he’d like to sign in Los Angeles. The Clippers are considered to be one of the favorites.

Toronto can offer Leonard more money and they have a year to convince him to stay with the team, a situation similar to Paul George, who had made clear his intention to sign with the Lakers after his contract expired this past offseason. George, instead, was traded to Oklahoma City, and in the first minutes of free agency this summer, he re-upped with the Thunder.

It’s thought to be more of an uphill battle with Leonard, though Ujiri felt it was more than worth the gamble.

“The Kawhi thought is simple — you’re getting a top-five player in the NBA. It’s as simple as that, in my opinion, “Ujiri said. “He’s a championship player.”

Ujiri said Leonard seems energized by the changes, with the notoriously quiet star even speaking up more than anyone expected.

His arrival in Canada has definitely sparked a curiosity in the Raptors. While the team trained in Burnaby, people pressed their noses to the frosted glass, peaking through the far margins of the windows for a look at the team. Some even tried to snap pictures.

Raptors point guard listens to a question during media day on Sept. 24.
Raptors point guard listens to a question during media day on Sept. 24. (Chris Young / Canadian Press via AP)

The optics, so far, have been promising.

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“We all hope … that the transition brings out the best in us,” Ujiri said.

The team has been energized by the changes, joking about the music playing before practice and competing for championship belts in one-on-one contests. But, you can also see Leonard, head buried in his phone in one corner of the gym after practice, while Lowry hurriedly dressed on the opposite side of the room.

On the court, the two have been paired together for almost each drill, as a way to bridge those gaps.

“We have to be on the same page,” Lowry told reporters. “And, we’re going to be on the same page.”

In Burnaby, it’s easy to believe all of this. The late September sky was too clear, the air too clean, the trees too strong for anything but calm and optimism to be the guiding principles.

The Raptors, though, won’t be cloaked in serenity this season — questions about their big changes, about their uncertain future sure to follow them out of the picturesque west coast of Canada and into the gritty world of the NBA season.

And, uh, yeah, there’s a lot of pressure.

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