Entering every NBA season in recent years, the respect level for the Toronto Raptors always seemed to be a touch lower than other contenders.
No matter how many division titles they earned or how many playoff series they won, the tag of league favourite was never really applied.
That hasn’t changed now that they’re the reigning NBA champions.
A wild summer filled with stunning free agent signings, unexpected trades and big-name player movement left the Raptors on the periphery of the league’s basketball conversation.
Talk instead centred on how the Los Angeles teams have loaded up, how several superstars are on different clubs and how the deck has been shuffled around the new-look league.
The Raptors were quiet and Las Vegas noticed. Toronto is a 30-1 pick to take the 2020 crown with 10-12 teams — depending on the sportsbook — favoured to take the title ahead of the Raptors.
“We’ve always been the least-favoured to win, to make it out of the first round, the playoffs, the East, whatever it is,” Raptors forward Norm Powell said Saturday. “We’ve always had that on us. Nothing changes. Our focus is still the same. We know what we’re capable of.
“We know what this team can do with the players that we have.”
The Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors last spring to win the NBA championship for the first time in their 24-year history.
With superstar Kawhi Leonard and fellow starter Danny Green lost to free agency, the Raptors will rely on a veteran core of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol this season along with breakout star Pascal Siakam.
“The Toronto Raptors are always known to be that team that everyone doesn’t look at,” Siakam said. “It definitely puts a chip on our shoulders. We want to continue to grind … be who we are and work hard. That’s what we’ve always done.”
Go-to bench options like Powell, Fred VanVleet, Patrick McCaw and OG Anunoby should get more minutes too. Head coach Nick Nurse said he’s prepared to try things out and see what works.
“Opportunity abounds,” Nurse said. “It’s a new season. I feel almost exactly the same as I felt a year ago. The expectations are the same that I had.”
New faces like Stanley Johnson and Matt Thomas could also be factors and players like Chris Boucher and Malcolm Miller might get more of a look.
“Dudes are thirsty,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of shots and minutes to go around. It’s not out of selfishness. It’s out of wanting to win. We got a taste of winning at the highest level.
“Everyone wants to do their part and work on their game to show, ‘All right, I can help my team win.’”
The Raptors will hold a training camp in Quebec City before flying to Japan for their pre-season opener Oct. 8 against the Houston Rockets in Tokyo.
The championship banner will be unfurled in the regular-season home opener Oct. 22 against the New Orleans Pelicans.
“I think that’s when it’s going to finally hit me,” said Lowry. “I still haven’t let it sink in that much. But I think when the banner rises and the rings come on, that’s when you really feel it.”
The L.A. Clippers, Houston Rockets and L.A. Lakers are among the favourites this season along with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. Despite prognosticators not showing the Raptors much love, the theme during media day at Scotiabank Arena was one of optimism and confidence.
“I think the guys are up for the challenge,” said team president Masai Ujiri. “For me the focus on our team is always going to be winning.”
The Raptors finished with a 58-24 record last season. Toronto dispatched Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the playoffs before topping the Warriors in six games.
“We lost Kawhi and we lost Danny but we are still the same group of champions,” Ibaka said. “Those two weren’t the only champions. We have other guys who are champions.
“We have the mentality of a champion and we know what it takes to be a champion.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2019.
This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.