The moment Masai Ujiri put all his chips on the table, NBA Twitter went on a frenzy. The Toronto Raptors had just acquired Kawhi Leonard off a trade with the San Antonio Spurs. The madness online should have been to celebrate the Raptors. But instead, reactions from the public were mixed. A big part of this was because the trade involved Toronto’s golden boy then: DeMar DeRozan.
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At that point, most Raptors fans acknowledged DeRozan as the greatest Raptor of all time. More than just being good at the sport, DeRozan had been a Raptor ever since he began his career as an NBA player. Vince Carter had an ugly breakup with the Raptors during the 2000s. Chris Bosh opted to go to South Beach instead of staying in Canada. There’s been too much heartbreak and perceived lack of loyalty in Toronto. Then there was DeRozan, the loyal hero who looked like he’d be a Raptor for life.
Thus the frustration brought upon by Raptors fans. They felt like Ujiri disrespected DeRozan with this move, as he had told the latter he had no plans of trading him a few days prior. Even his best friend Kyle Lowry felt strongly about the trade. “When they make a trade, as a friend, my emotion was there,” Lowry says.
More than just the emotional attachment to DeRozan, what worried Raptors fans was the lack of security brought upon this move did to them. This was a gamble being done by Ujiri. It’s either he’d win his chips back and then some, or he loses them all in an instant.
Other than trading away the Raptors golden boy, Ujiri also took in Leonard, who at that point was filled with plenty of questions. The most pressing of which was his commitment to Toronto. Before he ended up in the hands of the Raptors, Leonard had requested a trade to the San Antonio Spurs, most preferably to a big market team. At the top of the list was a team in sunny Los Angeles, California, located in his hometown state. The plan was to end up in Los Angeles then sign a long contract there. Straightforward and simple.
But the world had other plans. He was traded to wintery Toronto, which despite having a large market hadn’t been considered as a prime free agent destination. The chances of resigning Leonard to a long-term deal looked slim. More than that, others harped he might even choose not to play in a Raptors jersey at all after the hullabaloo he had gone through with San Antonio in the 2017-2018 season.
He’s just faking an injury. He didn’t want to play.
It was easy to understand the hesitation from fans. Yes, Leonard is extremely talented. But doubting this gamble wasn’t a matter of skill. It was his heart which was in question.
In the first place, it was difficult to gain any idea of how Leonard felt about the trade. He’s been a silent operator his whole career, to the point where when he’d even laugh, media would go crazy about it. But, that’s the thing: he doesn’t do things for the sake of attention. While everyone doubted his heart within public circles, he was already doing work to try and get the trust of his new teammates.
“Let’s go do something special,” Leonard texted to Lowry on the day of the trade. “I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out.”
Even before the start of the 2018-2019 NBA season, Leonard and the Raptors were expected to be among the best in the East—if Leonard played. Once the ball got rolling, the predictions of analysts looked on point. During the entire season, the Raptors hovered between the top two spots, ending up with the second seed and home court advantage in the Finals if they had made it.
No one was surprised nor amazed, that was the expectation anyway. Save for trades and pickups, which nabbed them Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin, it was business as usual for Toronto. Small moves that did not feel game-changing at all.
That’s the thing though; it’s in these small details where Toronto was able to get to where they are now. Grabbing Gasol gave Toronto a true center who provided two-way presence Jonas Valunciunas couldn’t. “As soon as the trade happened. You read the roster, it was pretty simple,” laments Gasol.
Also ignored by many was how Toronto masterfully handled Leonard, whose health had been a concern coming into this season. The Raptors abused the term “Load Management” to the brim, something many didn’t exactly care much about during the 82-game season. It felt insignificant. The reality of it was, it made the difference between championship and failed gamble.
During the course of the Raptors’ playoff run, they faced various teams who ended up with injuries. Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers faced illness and injuries during the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Raptors beat them in seven games.
Come the Finals after beating the first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in six games, the Raptors faced a hobbled Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant was nursing a calf strain. Ultimately, Durant did come back in Game 5. The problem was, he got injured two quarters into the game, ending up with a ruptured Achilles.
The best center of Golden State, Kevon Looney, was dealing with physical issues as well. Klay Thompson missed Game 3 due to a hamstring strain. Late into the third quarter of Game 6, he landed awkwardly on a dunk attempt, holding on to his knee once he fell. He’s since been declared to have a torn ACL.
That’s the thing though; all we can talk about are mere possibilities, while ignoring the reality we face. That’s what the Raptors did; take on whatever they had in front of them and play their best basketball. You do need a little bit of luck to win championships. But it isn’t like you’re handed over a championship with a silver platter without doing anything. The Raptors did their thing which is to play beautiful basketball and simply focused on what they could control.
It’s June 14, 2019, almost eleven months ever since Ujiri put all his chips on the table with the trade for Leonard. Plenty of questions remain. Leonard’s free agency remains imminent. This roster isn’t getting any younger.
But today, Ujiri can lay down on his couch with a smile, with the chips back in hand. He had done it. The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions, the first in the franchise’s history. The questions can be answered later. For now, he celebrates, along with the rest of his team.
Leonard is happy. Lowry is elated. Most importantly, the entire country of Canada cannot help but go crazy. The gamble paid off.