The Raptors are coming off of a long playoff run that was capped of with an NBA Championship. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

After winning the NBA Championship this past June, the Raptors are in a unique position to start the 2019–2020 NBA season. Despite being the defending champions, they are still considered underdogs.

ESPN, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated all do not list the Raptors as a top-eight team in their preseason power rankings. Analytics website FiveThirtyEight gave them just a two per cent chance of repeating as NBA champions.

These tempered expectations are understandable: very few teams lose two starters — one of them being arguably the best player in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard — in the offseason and still remain competitive, much less title contenders.

What is left is a mixture of wily playoff veterans, like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, alongside young talent like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. The latter will be asked to step into even greater roles with the absence of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

Despite these losses, the Raptors can still compete for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Team President Masai Ujiri will have to decide whether he wants to run it back with the roster he has or liquidate his assets by trading away veterans and betting on the youth.

The precariousness of this position has not been lost on the numerous U of T Raptor fans. However, it is undercut with a sense of optimism that comes from having witnessed history as a Canadian team won the NBA Championship for the first time — a feat that awed even the most casual of Raptors fans.

“I’m a bandwagoner, “ admitted third-year life sciences student Deepak — but that didn’t stop him and other fairweather fans from being drawn into the fervour that swept Toronto. “The energy I felt when the Raptors won was incredible. It felt like the whole city went absolutely nuts… and I think the after-effects of that are still here.”

These good feelings even extend to the departures of Leonard and Green. “It’s heartbreaking,” acknowledged Dillon, a second-year engineering student, “[but] I would have been more resentful if they hadn’t won. I think the mindset now is ‘thank you, you won us a championship. If you want to leave now and do other things, more power to you. You don’t owe us anything.’”

Though interviewed students conceded that the Raptors’ ceiling had been lowered, they also expressed their strong faith in the Raptors front office, with Masai Ujiri being mentioned glowingly.

Thomas, a third-year medical science student, said “Masai is a special kind of genius… The Kawhi trade showed that he was willing to take big risks, [DeMar DeRozan] was loved by everyone and [Ujiri] knew that… but the trade gave us a championship… I have faith he knows what he’s doing.”

This faith is not without the expectation that the Raptors remain competitive. A general consensus among interviewees was that the rebuild should be held off for at least this year, and that the Raptors still have the talent to be a mid-tier playoff team. “We just re-signed [Lowry], and if the young guys take another leap, I don’t see why we can’t win a playoff round,” reasoned Dillon. He and others said that calls to ‘blow it up’ can wait for the offseason, or, as Thomas suggested, “at least until the trade deadline if they’re very bad.”

This season may not come with the expectations of a typical defending champion, but fans still expect the Raptors to be successful, and the afterglow of that magical time in June allows for them to believe in both the present and the future of this organization. 

The Raptors will start their 2019–2020 campaign with a banner raising ceremony at Scotiabank Arena, followed by a matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans on the NBA’s opening day. The game will be followed by a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers — for the fans who are still not over the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who signed with the Clippers and Lakers, respectively.

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