If there is one fact that every basketball fan can agree on, it is that there is no easy path to winning an NBA title. For much of its existence, the Toronto Raptors has not found much success in the postseason, earning the franchise the moniker of being perennial underachievers. Following years of mediocrity since its inaugural season in 1994, the Raptors became a stable in the playoffs since President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri took office in 2013. But their inability to get past the first round for many years and repeated failures to defeat the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers have led basketball analysts and fans alike to believe that the team ‘always underperforms on the big stage.’
Building a contender
The road to build the Toronto Raptors into a title contender was not an easy one, and it took an unconventional route the likes of which perhaps no team has ever taken before. While there is no clear-cut method executives can turn to to transform their teams into title chasers, the blueprint to build a contender has always been through drafting top prospects, trading for established stars and creating enough salary cap space to lure superstar free agents. Ujiri took a different approach that was based on a philosophy he strived to establish since he was hired; create a winning culture in Toronto after years of dismal performance.
The Raptors saw much success under this new culture. Teams led by Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and former Head Coach Dwane Casey continued to exceed expectations in the regular season, and achieve progress in the postseason year after year. Despite it being a slow and tedious process, the team continued to build on its successes every season. But after years of playoff disappointments, Ujiri realized that the current formula he had was not working, and that changes were needed so that the team can take the next step.
In the meantime, a golden opportunity arose in the summer of 2018 when former San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard became available for trade. An established star who has already won a title and Finals MVP award with the Spurs, Leonard was coming off a major injury that cast doubt on his ability to regain his top form the following season. Furthermore, he had only one year left in his contract, which deterred most teams from heeding to the Spurs’ extreme trade demands at the time. But Ujiri knew that the NBA is a superstar-driven league and that historically speaking, almost all title winners had at least one superstar on their rosters. Knowing what his team was lacking at the time, he believed that the risk was worth taking, and made the decision to trade for Leonard in an unpopular move at the time that saw the team part ways with its leading scorer and fan favorite DeRozan.
Another controversial move Ujiri did was fire the reigning Coach of the Year Casey and replace him with his top assistant Nick Nurse, who had never been a head coach in the NBA before. That move proved to be worthy in the end, as Nurse – an established coach with a long resume of coaching overseas and in the G-League – introduced a new offensive system that broke away from the iso-heavy, guard oriented offense under Casey to a system that favored ball movement and utilizing all players on the floor to help create better scoring opportunities. This new system allowed using a versatile player like Serge Ibaka more efficiently in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets, and helped turn a prospect like Pascal Siakam into an offensive juggernaut by taking advantage of his vast offensive skillset. Ujiri’s final move to go ‘all-in’ for the title came ahead of February’s trade deadline when he acquired Memphis Grizzlies’ long-time center Marc Gasol. With his superior passing and floor-spreading skills, Gasol added a whole new dimension to the Raptors’ offense, while his elite defense proved very helpful in the playoffs especially in the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid.
The Golden State Warriors were heavy favorites to win the title for the third straight year before the season even started. Despite injuries to two of its top players in Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the Warriors still arguably had the advantage given the team’s experience playing in the finals and having a lot of weapons in the likes of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins. Especially for Curry; there was strong belief around the league that this would be the year he finally won the Finals MVP award that remains missing from his cabinet by leading his team to victory. But Leonard and company had other plans, and their excellent game-plan execution brought the first ever title for a franchise and a fanbase that have been hungry for success for nearly 25 years.
Being the only team located outside the United States has always given the Raptors an ‘international’ feel, which perhaps made the Raptors have one of the largest international fanbases in the league with supporters from all continents cheering for their team each year. The Raptors’ rise to prominence was also accompanied by a marketing campaign – with the #WeTheNorth social media hashtag coined for it – that focused on the team being a representative not only of the city of Toronto, but the entire country of Canada. This was evident as fans from various Canadian cities showed support for their team throughout the years, and took to the streets to celebrate when the Raptors finally became NBA Champions.
There are few feelings in the world that match that of triumphant jubilation sports fans experience when their favorite team wins the ultimate prize, and a win after years of failure makes that sweet feeling extra special. This is especially true for Toronto Raptors fans all over the world who celebrate today after having to endure years of frustration, heartbreak and being mocked for supporting a team that has been called all kinds of names; from ‘perennial losers’ to ‘a dysfunctional mess,’ and being laughed at for supporting a ‘joke franchise.’ But there is an old saying that goes like this: ‘He who laughs last, laughs best.’ So to everyone in the Raptors organization and their fans around the world, enjoy your good laugh. You have earned it.
By Ahmad Jabr