Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP after two turbulent years. Leonard played nine games with the San Antonio Spurs amid injury conflict in 2017/18 and was the subject of some criticism for his ‘load management’ this season. His playoff performances forced all of that into insignificance.
Toronto’s general manager Masai Ujiri gambled to land Leonard. He traded franchise star DeMar DeRozan, facing the wrath of not just the Raptor faithful, but also All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. Leonard arrived off the back of a severe injury and only a season away from unrestricted free agency. His desire to play in Los Angeles was no secret.
Ujiri took other risks, too.
He replaced Coach of the Year Dwane Casey with NBA rookie head coach Nick Nurse. Nurse is a journeyman, who had succeeded in Europe and the G-League, but this was not the obvious option for a team that excelled in the 2017/18 regular season under Casey.
It all started well in late 2018 and Leonard quickly showed that he was injury-free. Lowry’s frustration at the DeRozan saga remained, but it didn’t hold them back as they cruised well clear of preseason rivals Philadelphia and Boston.
Pascal Siakam was another success story. A late first-round pick in 2016, Siakam broke out in a big way: another victory for the Raptors’ front office.
Then there was the trade deadline. Toronto were cruising, even winning games when Leonard rested. Serge Ibaka was doing a more than serviceable job at centre.
Ujiri wasn’t satisfied with being good in 2019. The Raptors have been there and done that.
Gasol brought yet more playoff experience, and while he’s not the player he once was, he was an improvement on Ibaka, who shifted to the bench.
Plenty of teams would be content with where Toronto were. They were a top four team in the Eastern Conference, making the playoffs every year and progressing past the first round. Ujiri had other ideas – he seized the opportunity to take them from good to great, from playoff team to title contenders.
It started with Leonard and Nurse and it ended with the Raptors’ first Larry O’Brien trophy.
Ujiri, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, has already attracted the attention of the Washington Wizards. His boldness to break away from where the Raptors were for most of the 2010s will, hopefully, be a blueprint that other teams can follow.
Raptors fans will not forget the spring months of 2019. They can thank Ujiri’s courage for that.