The Toronto Raptors have been perhaps the most consistent team in basketball over the last few years. The issue with this has been that consistency has hung like a millstone around their necks, because to them, consistency meant getting bounced in the first two rounds of the playoffs, oftentimes to LeBron James, which led to early offseasons and questions about the ultimate ceiling of their group.
This time around, the Raptors were determined to do things differently, going all-in on making sure they brought a championship to the 6. As a result, for the next year or so, the Toronto by god Raptors are going to be the defending NBA champions.
Whether or not it’s sustainable or a model that other teams can replicate, Toronto was willing to do something awfully hard at a handful of points over the last year. Masai Ujiri and co. saw a window that opened up due to James’ departure from the conference and a number of other promising teams — namely the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, both of whom they beat on this run — being not quite ready to win a ring. Their times will come as long as their cores stay together; it just wasn’t meant to be in 2019.
To accomplish this goal, some brutally hard decisions had to be made. We have seen, in recent years, that this team had a ceiling. DeMar DeRozan is a good basketball player, Dwane Casey is a good basketball coach. Both were committed to sticking around in Toronto, through all the springtime ass kickings from James and questions about whether their group had what it took to win a championship, because they loved the city, and they loved the franchise, and they loved the opportunity to try and bring it to new heights.
Moving on from guys like that is hard, especially when your team has never really had the sort of extended success that they brought. The Raptors made the Conference Finals for the first time with those two. Never before had they made the playoffs five years in a row in the franchise’s brief history. Both the floor and the ceiling were raised thanks to them, it’s why Ujiri has made it clear that the pair played a crucial role in Toronto’s Finals berth.
The thing with ceilings is that they can always be pushed a little higher as long as you don’t win a championship. The thing with that is pushing your ceiling higher and higher oftentimes comes at a price that cannot be quantified. The love that Casey and DeRozan had for Toronto may never die, but in the scope of the Raptors’ championship-winning campaign, they were ultimately martyrs to a much greater cause. It hurt — Casey is the best coach in franchise history, DeRozan was the ultra-rare star who wanted to spend his prime in the city — but it was necessary.
What certainly helps is how the moves made that saw their tenures come to an end paid off. Casey was fired so his longtime assistant, Nick Nurse, could get promoted. Nurse is a wonderfully weird guy whose unconventional path to a head coaching gig paid off in the playoffs; the Raptors had to adjust on the fly, oftentimes never being quite sure what Golden State could throw at them due to injuries, and in response, Nurse put forth an excellent coaching performance. He was malleable and never quite afraid to try new things — we saw a dang box-and-1 in the NBA Finals, and somehow, it worked.
More importantly, while Casey is a very, very good coach, a breath of fresh air is sometimes needed. Nurse was that breath of fresh air, a new-but-familiar voice who managed a weird season as well as he could. Outside of, hopefully, joining the band PUP on stage to perform “Scorpion Hill” one of these days, he did everything that could have possibly been asked of him and then some.
And of course, there’s DeRozan, who had to get turned into Kawhi Leonard. After the single weirdest injury saga that basketball has seen in some time, Leonard was on the trade block. He wanted out of San Antonio, and while he reportedly wanted to head home to Los Angeles, the Spurs understandably wanted the best possible deal back. Those two things conflicted. It also meant the team that was going to end up trading for Leonard, quite possibly, was getting a rental.
Leonard still might end up being a rental. For all we know, Leonard believes he accomplished what he needed to accomplish up North, and now, he has cover to do what he wants to do. Or maybe the Raptors’ run convinced him to stay in Toronto for a long, long time. Or maybe Leonard doesn’t even know what he’s going to do.
What we do know is that the Raptors saw a chance to get one of the best basketball players on earth, rolled with it, and figured it would be worth worrying about any negative outcomes later. Of course, the only negative outcome at this point is Leonard leaving, but even that isn’t so bad because of what ended up happening. Leonard helped provide a sequence of memories that no Raptors fan will ever forget: his series-clinching shot against the Sixers that caused Scotiabank Arena to shake, his thorough domination of presumed MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Conference Finals, his herculean performance in the Finals, the sight of him front and center celebrating a championship, this picture with Kyle Lowry that makes me laugh very hard.
There were plenty of other moments that helped in this championship pursuit, too. Trading beloved big man Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol was a difficult but crucial move, as Toronto isn’t beating Philly without Gasol making Joel Embiid’s life hell. Bringing back Fred VanVleet when he hit free agency this past summer was gigantic, as he came up huge all postseason long and ended up being the only guy other than Leonard to get a Finals MVP vote. Keeping Lowry, who very easily could have been traded after DeRozan got dealt if the team wanted to completely hit reset, proved to be invaluable, as he became the only guy not named “Michael Jordan” or “LeBron James” to have 25 points and 10 assists in a title-clinching road game.
All of this happened, and all of the success came, because Toronto decided to go all-in. It’s a hard decision to make, and it’s awfully risky to jump without knowing for sure if you have a parachute, which is why you don’t see teams doing everything they can to trade for other disgruntled superstars that end up on the trade block.
The Raptors, however, did. They made difficult decision that could have set the franchise back years if they didn’t work out the way they hoped. And while the team’s future is unknown, the present will make anything that might end up happening 100 percent worth it.