Road to the 2019 Finals: Northern Gamble
The city of Toronto is in the midst of a golden age of basketball. Every year seems to feature a new Canadien prospect entering the draft, and the Raptors are perennial playoff contenders. For the last six seasons, the Raptors have been featured in playoff play. In the last four seasons, the team from the North were considered legitimate threats to break out of the East as champions. Unfortunately for them, the Eastern Conference was in a firm stranglehold by LeBron James. As we know, LeBron ruled over the east for eight straight seasons with eight straight trips to the NBA Finals. Each would be power in the East ultimately failed to slay the King. But for the Raptors, their particular failure had to feel like torture.
In 2016, The Raptors made the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They managed to win two games in the series before losing in six games. During that series, franchise point guard Kyle Lowry was seen going to the locker room area to “decompress”. Reports also came out that players were seen walking around a local casino. More “decompressing” I suppose. The next year, things got even worse for the Raptors. This time, the Raptors were swept by the reigning champion Cavaliers. In this playoff series, LeBron was literally toying with them. He would spin the ball around in his arms before pulling up for three. He would casually walk to a side of the floor and just pull up as if it were nothing. The next year was the worst of all. The Raptors were the top seed in the east and one of the deepest teams in the league. Meanwhile, the Cavs lacked the overall talent to be considered a legitimate threat for a championship. But for Toronto, it was more of the same. This time, LeBron up the ante with ridiculous fadeaway shots, game winners. The defeated looks on the face of Raptors fans and players told the entire story. Three straight eliminations including two sweeps cost the city of Toronto their respect and their name. For the rest of the summer, they were known as the city of ‘LeBronto’.
Season after season of playoff failures left the Raptors at a crossroad. They could either reload and run it back or simply blow it up and start over. But how do you improve a team that was the top seed in the East? Masai Ujiri had to make a tough call. Despite the regular season success, it seemed like the star backcourt of the Raptors always came up small when it mattered. And as it just so happened, there was a superstar player available via trade. The NBA community was stunned when the Raptors shipped DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi wanted out of San Antonio, but Toronto was never mentioned as a potential destination. Also, DeRozan was the face of the Raptors franchise. He even received assurances that he wouldn’t be moved during the offseason. But when players like Kawhi are available, things change. It didn’t matter if Kawhi would just be a rental for one season. It didn’t matter that fans and players alike were running down the Raptors after trading their franchise player. All that mattered was maximizing the championship window.
The Raptors all in run didn’t stop with just Kawhi. Former NBA champion Danny Green came in with the Kawhi trade. The Raptors then added veteran big man Marc Gasol to solidify their run. Toronto wasn’t even hiding it anymore. They would do whatever it took to finally get out of the East. Thus far, their gamble has paid off big time. Kawhi has given the Raptors what they’ve lacked in this era: a legitimate superstar. For the first time ever, Raptors fans can claim they have the best player in the league. After years of seeing title runs downed by the league’s top player, they now have the luxury of seeing their top player cut down the competition. Kawhi’s presence has given the Raptors confidence they never had before. Suddenly, Kyle Lowry is coming up big in crucial moments. Suddenly, the supporting cast is playing up to their potential. Suddenly, the Raptors are moving like a champion and not a pretender. The gamble has paid off. And if they manage to win the championship, expect business to change in the NBA. Expect a random team to go out and rent a player like Anthony Davis for a year. If the results are similar to what we’ve seen in Toronto, it will be worth the price.