The Philadelphia 76ers’ top challenger in the Eastern Conference might not be the division rival everyone expects.
As the regular season approaches, the Philadelphia 76ers are ranked third in most Eastern Conference power rankings. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors have been the overwhelming favorites, with Boston garnering the most hype from major media outlets.
After losing to the Celtics in five games, the Sixers — and most of their fans — have pegged Boston as the primary obstacle in reaching the NBA Finals. That’s fair given the Celtics’ matchup advantages, but it might not give Toronto enough credit.
There are obvious health concerns with Leonard, but through two preseason games, the former Finals MVP looks like his old self. He’s long, spry and really good at this whole basketball thing. If he’s at 100 percent in the regular season, the Raptors become an extremely difficult opponent.
At the peak of his powers, Leonard is the best player in the Eastern Conference. Some might argue that he’s the second best player on the planet, trailing only LeBron James. His offensive brilliance is complemented by perennial Defensive Player of the Year consideration, which can’t be said for most superstars.
Leonard alone makes the Raptors an imposing force. The fact that the roster around him is both talented and versatile only makes them more dangerous.
Kyle Lowry is the perfect co-star for Leonard, defending at a high level and providing value both on and off the ball offensively. He’s a smooth shooter and a high-I.Q. facilitator, controlling the tempo and affecting the game in ways that extend beyond the box score.
Beyond their dynamic duo, the Raptors have an arsenal of quality three-point shooters, wing defenders and versatile bigs. Jonas Valanciunas will probably be the starting center, but once the postseason starts, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam are excellent small-ball fives.
Ibaka is a rangy rim protector with elite instincts, while Siakam has proven himself capable of defending quicker guards on the perimeter. Danny Green, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are all quality players on the perimeter. O.G. Anunoby is another defensive cheat code next to Kawhi.
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When defending Ben Simmons, the Raptors will be able to throw several good-to-elite defenders in his direction, to an even greater extent than the Celtics. Toronto doesn’t have someone who matches up with Joel Embiid in a vacuum, but Valanciunas can bang when needed, while Siakam and Ibaka are versatile enough to stretch JoJo outside the paint on defense.
If you need proof that Leonard is the best perimeter defender in the NBA, look no further than his Cleaning The Glass stats. He ranks toward the top of his position in virtually every category.
The Raptors have several different lineup options depending on the matchup. Lowry is among the league’s best point guards and Leonard is among the league’s best players. Add in a highly respected new coach with a revamped system, and Toronto poses a very serious threat to the Sixers.
Due to coaching and the sheer depth of talent, Boston probably gets the (very slight) edge over Toronto to begin the season. Barring injury, however, the Raptors should get far more credit than they’re currently receiving in some circles.
There’s a chance they end up representing the East in the Finals.