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NBA champion Toronto Raptors a product of their Masai-ah

By in Sports & Health

For the first time in their 24-year history, the Toronto Raptors are the NBA champions, defeating the Golden State Warriors 4-2, capped off with a 114-110 win in game six of the NBA Finals.

Not long ago, the Raptors were consistently one of the worst teams in the league. From 2001-02 to 2012-13, the team made the playoffs just three times in those 12 seasons and never advanced past round one.

Things changed after the 2012-13 season when they hired the reigning NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri. Since then, Toronto has not missed the playoffs in six straight seasons and they capped it off with the sport’s greatest achievement, an NBA championship.

The win can be credited to Ujiri, who had his work cut out for him upon arrival.

Ujiri’s first order of business as president was a trade few thought possible: trading Andrea Bargnani. Two years and about $22 million remaining on his contract made it unfavourable to include in a trade. And yet Uriji successfully dealt the former first overall pick and received substantial assets in return from the New York Knicks, which included a first- and second-round draft pick.

The deal was so unfavourable for the Knicks, it was speculated that their ownership did not want to deal with Ujiri years thereafter.

Soon after that, Ujiri made another surprising deal. Rudy Gay, Toronto’s second leading scorer at the time, was traded to the Sacramento Kings. Gay was dealt alongside two bench players in exchange for four Kings players.

As a result, the Raptors improved and made the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08.  Although they lost out in the first-round exit, just making it to that stage in year one of Ujiri’s reign provided a benchmark to build on.

The Raptors’ record improved 49-33 in the following 2014-15 season, but the playoff result was the same — an early exit in the first round. Ujiri had work to do that summer to get them over the hump. 

He traded Greivis Vasquez, a backup point guard acquired in the Rudy Gay deal, in exchange for Norman Powell and a 2016 first-round pick. This was the second time Uriji received a valuable first-round pick in exchange for a replacement level player. Powell’s acquisition is also notable as the young player  had good potential.

In 2015-16, the Raptors put together their most successful season ever, making it to the conference finals before losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Despite the deep playoff run, Ujiri would once again stay busy in the off-season.

Thanks to the Bargnani trade, the Raptors held two first-round picks in the 2016 draft. They selected Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. In the following weeks after the draft, Ujiri would sign undrafted college player Fred VanVleet.

During the 2016-17 season, Ujiri would trade for Serge Ibaka, a three-time NBA All-
Defensive Team player. 

Despite the beefed-up defensive presence, the Raptors still fell victim to the hands of James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs. This time, it was a four-game sweep in the second round.

Getting to the post-season was no longer good enough as expectations on Ujiri heightened year after year.

In the 2017 off-season, Ujiri re-signed an ageing pair of starting players and decided to keep Kyle Lowry and Ibaka on the team for the foreseeable future. The pivotal decision turned out the right way for Toronto.

The Raptors put together their best regular season ever in 2017-18, producing a 59-23 record and earning the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference — their first time doing so in franchise history. Going into the playoffs, Ujiri had done all he could to field the best roster the Raptors have ever had. At this point, responsibility was laid in the hands of a coach who had been there since before Ujiri arrived, Dwane Casey.

For the third year in a row, a matchup with the Cavaliers in the second round awaited Toronto. That series was over in four games, becoming the first time in 49 years in NBA history that a first seed was swept in the playoffs — an unprecedented upset.

Enough was enough, and Casey had to go. After Casey’s dismissal, Ujiri could hire a coach he wanted and decided to promote from within. Nick Nurse, Casey’s former assistant, took over as the head coach. It was Nurse’s first head coaching opportunity. 

The coaching change was not enough for Ujiri, and he had to shake up his team.

Seldom does a top-10 player become available via trade. When it does happen, even amidst the most controversial circumstances, smart teams jump on the opportunity, and the Raptors did just that. Ujiri cashed in substantial assets for just one guaranteed season of Kawhi Leonard’s services.

For them to acquire Leonard, lifetime Raptor and face of the franchise for nine seasons DeMar DeRozan became the sacrificial lamb. 

First-round picks DeRozan and Poeltl — the player acquired in Ujiri’s first trade in Toronto five years earlier — were traded to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard and Danny Green.

Despite the upgrade in talent, the deal was a risky one. Leonard played in only nine of 82 games in the previous season due to an injury. The Spurs’ team doctors had cleared him to play, but Leonard himself did not believe he was healthy enough to do so which created a “lack of trust” between the two parties.

While it was reported that Leonard was only considering signing in Los Angeles with either the Lakers or the Clippers after the 2019 season, now Toronto may be a serious consideration.

Regardless of whether or not Leonard leaves Toronto this July, the trade will forever go down as one of the best in league history. 

Ujiri’s consistent ability to flip assets and continually improve sounds simple, but in reality, it is nothing short of remarkable.

If not for his resiliency to improve Canada’s team, the Raptors would not be world champions and Leonard would not be a sports legend that Canadians can always call their own.

Tanner Michalenko / Sports & Health Editor

Graphic: Shawna Langer / Graphics Editor

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