Kawhi Leonard. Photograph from the Official Website of NBA
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From the bottom to here: looking back at the Toronto Raptors’ storied journey

The NBA’s lone based Canadian basketball team is on the big stage for the first time in its history. We take a look at the past 24 years of its existence and how they just may have a chance at toppling the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors
Josh Buenaventura | May 31 2019

“With the seventh pick in the 1995 NBA draft, the Toronto Raptors select Damon Stoudamire from the University of Arizona.”

These were the first words that came out of then NBA Commissioner David Stern’s mouth as he formally welcomed the Toronto Raptors into the league during that expansion filled offseason.

 

Bright beginnings and early struggles

The NBA welcomed two new teams in Canada at the beginning of that 1995-1996 season, with the Vancouver Grizzlies being the other. (The Grizzlies would eventually fold in 2001, leaving the Raptors as the only Canadian based team in the association up to this day.)

Damon Stoudamire. Photograph from ABS-CBN Sports

Stoudamire proved to be a gem, winning the Rookie of the Year award in his freshman season after leading the team to 21 wins. One of those even included a victory against what many feel to be the greatest basketball team of all-time: the 72-10 Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan. Stoudamire would eventually team up with 1996’s 2nd overall pick Marcus Camby the following year, winning nine more games and once again leaving a blemish on the Bulls’ record.

But come 1998, things started to turn for the worse. General manager Isiah Thomas, who drafted Stoudamire, resigned and sold his stake in the team. With Thomas out, Stoudamire requested a trade and was immediately shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers. After all the wheeling and dealing, the Raptors were left with one bright spot, albeit an unknown one: small forward Tracy McGrady, the youngest player in the league at the time.

 

Turn of the Century

When the Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. purchased the team in 1998, the Raps set the course for their new future with the draft day acquisition of Vince Carter who was selected 5th overall in that year’s NBA draft.

The young Carter quickly became the face of the franchise, teaming up with established veterans such as Antonio Davis, Muggsy Bogues, Doug Christie and Dell Curry (Yes, Steph Curry’s father). After introducing himself to the world at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, ‘Vinsanity’ led the team to its first playoff berth against the New York Knicks. With Carter now leading the way, the Raptors had no choice but to grant McGrady’s wish, parting ways with his second cousin for the opportunity to star in Orlando. (Oh, what could have been a one-two punch if those two remained together for years.)

Vince Carter. Photograph from Brandon Dill

Despite getting swept out of the first round, Toronto made a great comeback the following season. With experienced Hall of Fame head coach Lenny Wilkens manning the sidelines, they exacted revenge on the Knicks in a five-game first round series before losing in 7 games to the Allen Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers.

They had a chance to win that series as it came down to the last shot. As most predicted, Carter would have the ball in his hands for a series-winning shot. But his shot rolled off the rim and sent Toronto into the summer. People still blame him for attending his graduation ceremony on the morning of that Game 7 up to this day, believing he could have made that shot had he rested and stayed with the team.

This would prove to be the last bright spot of the Vince Carter era, as injuries and off-court issues marred the team in the succeeding years. With Toronto missing its star player for the majority of the last two seasons, they fired Wilkens and headed into the 2003 NBA draft with a chance to get a lottery pick. That pick turned into future NBA star Chris Bosh.

 

New Face of the Franchise

Despite a great talent such as Bosh now on board, Carter wanted out. His discontent stemmed from the belief that as long as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was in charge, they would never become a competitive squad capable of winning in the playoffs.

Chris Bosh. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

Carter’s departure immediately put Bosh in the spotlight. With the power forward leading the way and a new head coach in respected former player Sam Mitchell, Toronto continued to build the team around him. Not many fans today would remember the names Charlie Villanueva, Mike James, and Joey Graham. But it was those guys that went to battle for the Canadian city night in and night out. They also had veterans Morris Peterson and Jalen Rose, whom many people remember to be Kobe Bryant’s main defender when he torched the Raptors for the second highest scoring game in NBA history with 81 points. Yes, we’d like to remind everyone that it was this same Raptors franchise that Kobe scored that many points thirteen long years ago.

Combined with the emergence of Bosh into a perennial all-star, Toronto ownership brought in one of the most successful names in the NBA front offices with the hiring of general manager Jerry Colangelo in February of 2006.

 

A Failed Era

Colangelo quickly brought in some luck at the start of his tenure during the 2006 NBA draft. The Raps won the lottery, and the chance to select first overall. They would go on to draft a 7-foot shooting big man named Andrea Bargnani, which they projected to be the next Dirk Nowitzki. We all know today how Germany’s Nowitzki and his career played out in Dallas, playing all of his 21 seasons and leading them to their lone NBA title. Bargnani however, was out of the league after ten seasons, splitting time between the Raptors, Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets – without a single all-star appearance.

Bryan Colangelo. Photograph from David Dow, NBAE via Getty Images/AFP

The Bosh era did not prove to be that much effective, with Toronto only getting to the playoffs twice in his seven seasons with them (in 2007 and 2008). Both were first round exits and one of them came at the hands of Vince Carter. Despite Colangelo’s best efforts to improve the team, things never got going for the franchise, and Bosh eventually left in 2010 to join the Miami Heat where he formed a third of its big three with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

 

Building the Future

The Raptors were not left all empty-handed however. In their first season post-Bosh era, a lone bright spot by the name of DeMar DeRozan showed his upside. Picked 9th overall in the 2009 NBA draft, DeRozan was known early for his flashy dunks and athleticism.

It was in the summer of 2011 where things started to fall in place for the Canadian franchise. They hired an experienced and defensive minded coach in Dwayne Casey, who just won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks. They picked Lithuanian behemoth Jonas Valanciunas 5th overall in the draft. Come 2012, after a failed attempt to lure Canadian Steve Nash, they traded for veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, who back then was known more for his off-court issues and his weight. Despite all the moves however, the team still failed to reach its goal for the fifth straight season.

oronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) drives to the basket against New York Knicks center Kyle O'Quinn (9) during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports, Reuters

When 2013 hit, ownership decided to make a change. They brought in one of the youngest faces in the front office in the league, poaching general manager Masai Ujiri from Denver. The Nigerian back then was famously known for the heist he obtained for his former team when he facilitated the trade that sent star forward Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks.

Ujiri’s first season with Toronto was quickly deemed a success as they won their first division title since 2007. They would go on get to four more, with the exception being in 2017 when they finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference.

The Nigerian native is known to be one of the most hardworking executives in league front offices, with his ability to scout the draft early, make trades, and sign players that fit well within the team’s system. In his six seasons with Toronto, a number of notable players have come in and out of the Raptors locker room – with every single one of them being given the chance to help the team get over that playoff hump they have been targeting to overcome since their inception. His performance eventually made him President of Basketball Operations in 2017.

 

Playoff time: Turning into Barney

Prior to this year’s NBA Finals appearance, Toronto was always mocked and ridiculed come the postseason. In all of their playoff games the past half decade, they have always found a way to disappear when it matters most. From being a great regular season team, they always disappear come winning time. As people say, it’s like the Jurassic Park Raptor turns into Barney every single year come playoffs.

In the 1st round of 2014 NBA Playoffs, they lost Game 7 – at home – to the Brooklyn Nets via a Paul Pierce block on Lowry. In 2015, they got swept again in round 1 by the Wizards.

 

There is a concern that Kawhi Leonard could bolt Toronto and play somewhere else, but that’s a topic that can be discussed after the NBA Finals, as the Raptors eye a first championship. Tom Szczerbowski, USA Today Sports/Reuters

They eventually ended a fifteen year playoff series win drought in 2016, when they beat the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat in seven games each in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Problem was, LeBron and the Cavs were waiting in the conference finals, where they defeated the Raps in 6 games before winning the title over Golden State in the Finals.

Here was exactly the problem for the Raptors. That guy named LeBron.

His Cavs teams would beat them again in the next two years, both being 4-0 sweeps. Despite Toronto’s moves and trades to beat LeBron, King James actually instilled fear in those Raptors teams. So when the King decided to take his talents out west into Los Angeles, you could imagine the joy and thrill that these Raptors must have felt.

Maybe — just maybe — that was what made them pull the trigger in the trade for current superstar Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018.

 

Change of Personnel

Nobody thought the Raptors needed to change anything. Their team finished first in the East. Still, Ujiri saw the chance to improve, to finally propel this team into the Promised Land. So he pulled the trigger. He let go of his longest tenured player, Toronto’s loyal lottery pick in DeRozan. Despite all of the guard’s sentiments that he wanted to be a Raptor for life, Ujiri made the trade for Kawhi.

And it was not just in that Leonard trade. Head coach Dwayne Casey got the boot, and assistant coach Nick Nurse was promoted to lead the team in the sidelines.

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives against Chicago Bulls guard Justin Holiday (7) during the second half at United Center. Patrick Gorski, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Nurse was a coach who worked his way up the ladder without playing a single game in the NBA. After an early coaching career that started when he was only 23 years old, he worked his way up in the NBA’s G-League, where he won Coach of the Year in 2011 and two championships (2011 and 2013). He served as Casey’s lead assistant in the previous five seasons before the 2018-19 NBA season. With his appearance in this year’s Finals, he joins Steve Kerr, Tyronne Lue, and David Blatt as coaches who made the Finals in their first year of coaching in the league.

This year’s Raptors team is deep, with a great combination of holdovers from yester years and acquisitions this year that have molded perfectly into the Rap’s system and culture. Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby Serge Ibaka, and Lowry serve as the remainders from those heartbreak years care of James. But the additions of shooter Danny Green, the skilled Mark Gasol, and the sensational Leonard coupled with the additions of Jeremy Lin and Patrick McCaw helped Toronto reached this point. Who knows, McCaw might even play a big role in these Finals against his former team. (He was drafted in 2016 by GSW before winning the 2017 and 2018 titles with them).

 

The Big Stage, For All the Marbles

Each move the Raptors did this year was a risk, with no guaranteed return – especially from Kawhi. But the way this team is built, and how it’s been playing lately, it is now four wins away from giving the city its first professional basketball title and at the same time one of the greatest one-hit wonders in the history of all sports.

The last time Leonard faced the Warriors, his team was up 23 points before a certain center stuck his foot under Kawhi’s ankle. His team had a net rating of plus-21 in his 24 minutes in that game. They went minus 85 in the 168 minutes without him the rest of the way and lost the series 4-0.
Leonard has been bothered by a leg injury in these playoffs, but has continued to excel and affect his team on both ends of the floor. His health will play a major role in these Finals if they are to upset the heavily favored back-to-back champions.

Lowry may have served as this team’s leader for the longest time, but it’s been riding ultimately on Kawhi’s shoulders since the beginning of the playoffs. He anchors a defense that the Warriors have not seen since 2017 in the first 24 minutes of that Spurs series, and is now flanked by another Defensive Player of the Year in Gasol and two more reliable defensive-minded teammates in Green and Ibaka. Add to that a switch-ready wing partner in Pascal Siakam and this team will be ready to disrupt the pass-heavy offense by the Dubs.

Against a team like the Warriors, you can’t purely rely on physical prowess and athleticism. You got to have smarts in almost every possession of the game. The Raptors are equipped to switch throughout all five positions and close out with ease on the strong side of the ball without leaving the opponent’s other shooters wide open all day long.

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (right) celebrates with guard Danny Green (left after defeating the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports/REUTERS

The Raptors beat the Warriors in their two meetings in the regular season, but we all know that 2-0 record means nothing now. Plus, neither team was fully healthy in both meetings. Which leads us to the number one thing that will loom large in this series: Kevin Durant’s health.

His calf injury was worse than initially thought, and he has been out for more than 3 weeks. He has been confirmed to travel with the team, but his status remains questionable for the first two games. If Toronto wins a game or two at home, the call for Durant’s return to save this team will grow more as each second passes.

Pace is the main thing a team needs to control to have a chance against these Warriors. Controlling the tempo is what the last team that beat Golden State – the only team in fact in the last five years – did and that was the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers. Pushing the ball every chance they got down the floor should be something the Raptors remind themselves to do when the opportunity presents itself. But in the possessions that do not however, they can turn to Leonard who has the ability to slow down the pace to his favor and create the shot that he wants to. Leonard has proven that he can score however and wherever he wants to in these playoffs, but the question ultimately remains whether his teammates can help in scoring enough against the offensive juggernaut of Golden State.

But as the old adage goes, defense wins championships. Leonard is the Raptors anchor on that end, but as a team they have done amazingly well, especially in the last round. They play like a connected unit that has great focus, viciousness, and tenacity on the defensive end– similar to teams that produced upsets before such as the 2011 Mavs and the 2004 Pistons, both teams that nobody gave a chance to win. If only they rotate well and switch almost perfectly off the ball among the screens that are set up to free Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

This year’s NBA playoffs have an eerily similar feeling to the years those aforementioned teams won, and every lucky break so far has been in favor of the Raptors. Just look back at the bounces and calls in Games 5 and 6 in the East Finals against Milwaukee. It feels like they are meant for something special, something surreal, and something long-lasting for the city of Toronto.

In reality, it’s hard to believe they can beat a team that’s now labeled one of the greatest dynasties of all time, one that has been through all kinds of battles in the last half decade and proved so many doubters wrong. But it’s also believable that this Raptors team has the makings to win it all, and push the Dubs to the limit they have not seen since 2016 – hopefully a Game 6 and 7 in the Finals. After last year’s Finals sweep by GSW, that’s what most fans are hoping for.

The whole of America and Canada (with the exception of the state of California) is rooting for The Six. Imagine the pandemonium in the North if they do take down the powerhouse from Oakland.

It will be tough. It will be a grind-it-out series, especially if Durant does not return soon. And if the ball bounces just the way it did when it left Kawhi’s hands for the last shot in Game 7 against Philly then Drake’s famous line of ‘Started from the bottom now we’re here’ will be on full blast in the streets of Toronto.

It’s farfetched. But not impossible.