The Raptors Won the NBA Title by Actually Trying to Win the NBA Title

Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Fred VanVleet
Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and Fred VanVleet Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions, just like they planned it. They beat the Golden State Warriors in Thursday’s Game 6, clinching their first title with a thrilling 114–110 win. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet added 22 of his own off the bench (12 of which came in the fourth quarter), and the Raptors held off an injury-depleted Warriors team that lost Klay Thompson to a knee injury in the third quarter. His absence, along with Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles in Game 5, doomed Golden State, but Toronto’s success didn’t come down to lucky breaks. This was all about timing.

Good fortune presented itself in early July when LeBron James, the boogeyman responsible for Toronto’s last three playoff exits, departed the Eastern Conference. The 2017–18 Raptors had won 59 games, and no one would’ve harangued the front office for resting on its laurels. The pain-in-the-butt from Cleveland was finally gone, and—with a heavy dose of luck—they could conceivably make a run. In the NBA, that’s what’s expected from good-but-not-great teams in an era when the Warriors appeared unbeatable: Play hard and hope for the best.

The other option available to Toronto was one made popular by the Philadelphia 76ers: Blow up the roster and stock up on draft picks—”trusting the process,” if you will. This also requires luck (and patience), but it’s at least a way out of the kind of purgatory that, for Toronto, meant losing in the playoffs for five consecutive years. The Raptors’ roster was far from perfect—and not getting any younger—and so a total tear-down would’ve been a logical, if desperate, move to consider.

But the Raptors didn’t take either of those paths. They didn’t want to be a terrible lottery team, nor did they want to stand still and hope to luck their way to the Finals. They wanted to win a title, and so they did something that is surprisingly rare in the NBA: They tried to win a title.

Given the organization’s dire history with luring marquee players to Canada, Toronto couldn’t wait for free agency to land a franchise-changing star. They had to take a plunge, and so they traded for Leonard. While Leonard is a former Finals MVP and a two-way basketball genius, the move was still risky. Reports at the time suggested that the disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star had no interest in committing to the Raptors and would be as good as gone after his contract expired at the end of this season.

And then there was the matter of Leonard’s health. Due to a mysterious quadriceps injury and the ensuing dispute with San Antonio over the team’s handling of said injury, Leonard played only nine games in the 2017–18 season. The Raptors traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan, young center Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round draft pick for one year of a guy who might not even suit up. This was a calculated risk, a move to get the best possible player at what may or may not have been the best possible time. If luck wanted to join the party later, it knew where to find the Raptors.

The blueprint for “small market” teams (a signifier that applies to Toronto for no other reason beyond the fact that it’s in Canada) has always been to draft well and develop from within. That’s how Oklahoma City became, for a time, an NBA powerhouse. But in what was a precursor to the Leonard swap, the Thunder traded for Paul George two summers ago during the final year of his contract. George would reward Oklahoma City by signing a long-term deal last offseason. Impatience, it seemed, was becoming a virtue in the NBA. The Raptors, meanwhile, did the Thunder one better. They won the whole damn thing.

Leonard had a postseason worthy of knighthood (were that honor still available in Canada). He averaged 30.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, and four assists and hit every big shot, including the four-bounce Game 7 buzzer-beater against the 76ers that sent Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals.* (Hey, there’s our old friend: luck!)

For all Leonard’s greatness, he was more or less held in check in Game 6. The Raptors got huge performances all series from Pascal Siakam, the aforementioned VanVleet, and point guard Kyle Lowry. After Toronto traded center Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol in February (another bold move), Lowry was the last remaining core member of the Raptors teams that had consistently come up short in recent seasons. He was their top scorer on Thursday night (26 points) and finally put to bed his reputation for going missing in the playoffs. First-year head coach Nick Nurse made one mistake all series (a silly timeout in Game 5 that killed Toronto’s momentum), which is perhaps one mistake more than the organization had made all year.

Toronto’s decision to trade for Leonard seems obvious in retrospect, but no other team was willing to sacrifice as much for a slim-to-none chance to beat the mighty Warriors. The Raptors made that sacrifice. On Thursday, they were rewarded for it. Sure, Leonard could still leave the team in free agency, but he’d be departing a potential dynasty. If he cares about timing, the immediate future looks pretty bright in Canada.

Correction, June 14, 2019: This post incorrectly stated that Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers sent the Toronto Raptors to the Finals. It sent them to the Eastern Conference Finals.