After getting swept aside in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri had had enough.
The Raptors’ 59 wins was a franchise best and their third straight 50 win season. Head coach Dwane Casey was on his way to winning the Coach of the Year award. But four days after winning the award, Ujiri fired Casey and replaced him with top assistant Nick Nurse. But the shocks weren’t done. Ujiri traded away the team’s best player, DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poelti, and a first round pick to San Antonio for an unhappy Kawhi Leonard going into the final year of his contract and guard Danny Green. Fans and media pundits questioned the deals. Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was angry that they’d traded away his best friend on the team. And at the trading deadline, Toronto traded two promising young players, Delon Wright and Jonas Valanciunas for 34 year old Marc Gasol who like Leonard, can opt out of his contract at the end of the year.
There were no guarantees that Leonard would even be healthy enough for Ujiri to acquire. He'd only played in nine games in his last season with the Spurs. With San Antonio's secretive nature and Leonard's quiet demeanor, the real story about his injury may never be revealed. So Toronto gambled on a possibly injured and seemingly unhappy superstar that could leave the team at season's end.
364 days later, the Toronto Raptors are NBA champions for the first time in their history, thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s Jordan-esque postseason numbers. He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 49% from the field, and 38% from 3-point range in 24 games. Along the way, he’s added this epic shot to baskeball lore, beaten the seemingly unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo, and dethroned the two-time NBA champions. Whether he leaves this summer or not, Leonard gave Toronto something they’ve never had and will certainly never forget.
All thoughts that this championship should have an asterisk are nonsensical. What happened to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were awful. Any true fan of sports would never wish that to happen to any player. At the same time, they shouldn’t be used as an excuse. The Warriors didn’t apologize when the swept away a decimated Cleveland team in 2017. Michael Jordan’s 1991 Bulls didn’t care that Magic Johnson was hobbled with a bad thigh. Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game.
I’ll end my column with this great factoid. Not one player on the Toronto Raptors was drafted above the 14th selection in the draft. Leonard went 15th. Kyle Lowry was 24th. Fred VanVleet was an undrafted free agent. Serge Ibaka is from Congo. Pascal Siakam is from Cameroon. Gasol from Spain. And leading them is a coach that spent time coaching in the G league, the USBL, Great Britain, and Belgium. They are the very definition of underrated.
What could be more American than that?