Luke Skywalker is navigating through enemy trenches, being chased down by TIE fighters. He is on an improbable mission. Skywalker has one shot, at the very last hour, to destroy the Death Star. He took the shot, and against all odds, the laser fire from his X-Wing fighter found its way to the Death Star’s reactor and blew up the Empires beloved weapon. He had won the battle, with an individual moment of brilliance.
On 13th May 2019, a late and improbable shot was equally as successful. Kawhi Leonard hit the only walk off buzzer beating shot, in Game Seven. The Luke Skywalker of Toronto sent the Raptors into the conference finals, with an individual moment of brilliance. But what happens if Leonard’s shot misses?
Overtime. Five more gruelling minutes of overtime. Jimmy Butler makes the last basket to tie the game. The 76ers now carry all the momentum. Kawhi Leonard looks spent. He has carried Toronto on his back, scoring 39 of the Rap’s 90 points.
The supporting cast are struggling to find their rhythm. The Raptors now face a real struggle to win. It is too close to call which way this enthralling game will turn. I believe Philadelphia would have gone on to win, dumping the Raptors out in the second round of the play offs. Disappointment. Frustration. All too familiar feelings.
What would the abrupt play off exit have meant for Kawhi? Well, he would not win his second ring and second finals MVP. If the 2019/20 season resumes, and Kawhi leads the Clippers to the Championship, and in the process becomes a three time finals MVP, with his third different team, this would put him in the middle of ‘all-time great’ conversations.
If Kawhi doesn’t hit that shot, the Sixers win the finals. I will die on this hill.
— 𝙅𝙖𝙠𝙚 ♛ (@PhillyWRLD) May 25, 2020
Leonard now only has the one ring (not the one to rule them all, but the one he won as a Spur).
He does not get the opportunity to showcase his talent in a Conference Final and the NBA Finals. Instead of being a two time, and reigning finals MVP, Kawhi would be heading into free agency as a player who needs load management, who only played 60 regular season games, and couldn’t help his team progress further than the second round of the play offs – a much less powerful position to be in than the one he actually found himself in.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future is now different. The Bucks would have matched up better against Philly in the Conference Final than they did against the Toronto. Giannis goes on to win the finals with the Bucks. The decision to stay with Milwaukee when his current contract ends is now a foregone conclusion. Re-signing for a team where you can win titles is a far easier decision than staying with a team where you have not yet won a title.
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently in a good position to retain Antetokounmpo; he is the reigning MVP and has made a strong case to become a back-to-back MVP, whilst with Milwaukee, but he may be swayed to sign for a team with a more recent history of winning NBA titles.
What of the long-term impact on the Raptors? This is now the third year running exiting the play offs at the second hurdle – more frustration after going all in with a ‘win now’ roster.
Masai Ujiri now blows the roster up. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left regardless, but it is easy to see long term mainstays such as Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka, depart, as well as Marc Gasol, as Masai starts to rebuild Toronto. The only players safe would be young talent such as Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred Van Vleet, who would form the core of a new youthful looking Toronto Raptors.
Nick Nurse’s future is now in doubt. Masai Ujiri has decided to completely reset the team, would this include Nick Nurse? An NBA head coach with just one-year experience, who has failed to take the team any further than his predecessor. Perhaps Masai looks to bring in a coach that has a proven track record of play off success or even Championship success.
So the Sixers will be facing Kawhi again? 😬🤣 https://t.co/W514EDzuyK
— LakerNation (49-14) (@lakeeshooow) May 25, 2020
Would Masai have stayed? So far, I have talked about how Masai Ujiri reacts. But would he himself have stayed? He has been heavily linked in the media with the New York Knicks due to his success at Toronto. Would yet another play off failure be enough to convince the Raptors to let him go?
The 2019/20 season is now about consolidation, building towards the future. I do not think the Raptors go on to be a bad team, especially considering the current season, where a Kawhi-less Raptors, have played large portions of the season without Lowry, Van Vleet, Gasol and Ibaka.
Toronto currently sit second in the East with the third best record in the NBA. It is fair to assume that a Raptors team in rebuild mode, that was specifically built around Siakam, Van Vleet and Anunoby would have some success. It is difficult to see them falling outside of the play off places, but equally it is difficult to see how they would maintain such a high place in the standings. I would suggest Toronto would be fighting somewhere between the 6th and 8th seed.
Sport has always been a matter of fine lines, but a bounce of a ball has rarely had such an impact on a franchise, and indeed a wider impact on the league. Thankfully, the ball dropped in, and Toronto went on to win their first NBA title since their formation in 1995.
After the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors were forced to re-build after winning their championship. They have proven that they can be a successful team after a mini re-build, which has been proven over the course of the current season.
If Kawhi Leonard’s shot had not fallen in, and the Raptors go on to lose, the re-build would have been a far bigger task. However, the scouting staff have proven over time that they can pick out talent from the draft pool. Nick Nurse and his coaches have built a ‘never say die’ attitude deep into the heart of the franchise.
The future would have been different, but with the way the Toronto Raptors have built, they can overcome any set back and be successful, no matter what challenges they face.