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Kawhi Leonard trade: Toronto Raptors issued Boston Celtics challenge | Other | Sport


That is the belief of NBA analyst Amin Elhassan.

LeBron James’ departure to the Los Angeles Lakers makes the East playing field the most level it has been in some time, with James having reached the last eight straight Finals with the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs were heavily reliant on James’ superhuman brilliance last term, although the Golden State Warriors proved much for the four-time MVP in the Finals, are now expected to fall away.

And that leaves the Raptors, the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers as the three strongest teams who will look to try and take down back-to-back defending champions Warriors – who have claimed three of the last four championships.

The up-and-coming Celtics boast arguably the strongest five-man line-up in the East with all of their starters capable of making the All-Star team in 2019.

But the Raptors’ signing of Leonard, even at the expense of another All-Star in DeMar DeRozan, significantly increases their threat if the two-time Defensive Player of the Year can stay healthy.

Leonard, one of the best players in the league when fit, played just nine times last year with his injury at the centre of the deterioration of his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs franchise.

And the Raptors’ defensive end is hugely improved with Leonard and offers them a huge chance to compete with the Celtics, who are still the favourites.

At least that’s what Elhassan thinks.

“The continuity of it all, everyone knows their role and they trust Brad Stevens’ voice [at the Celtics],” Elhassan told Thb Jump on ESPN.

“[Toronto head coach] Nick Nurse was our D-League affiliate when I was in Phoenix [as assistant director of basketball operations for the Suns], he was in Iowa [with the Energy]. Great coach, great basketball mind and a very positive upbeat guy. 

“He’s been on that staff for a while, he’s no stranger to all these guys except the guy he’s just traded for. There’s a trust that has to be built there, not the easiest to build with Kawhi. 

“Toronto has some work in terms of the things that they have to do that Boston doesn’t have any of that work because those guys are in their building and they know that system. 

“Having said that though, Toronto is just as good in terms of a seven-game series almost a year from now. 

“Today? Boston, clearly. Almost a year from now? They have the talent, the depth and the coaching to win the East, I think.”

The Raptors, only founded in 1995, have never reached the Finals before. They have only ever reached the Conference Finals once, in 2015-16, when they lost 4-2 to James’ Cavs – the eventual champions.

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