Finally, the Toronto Raptors are the 2019 NBA Champions. After coming up short for many seasons, Masai Ujiri’s enormous gamble paid off. For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors have risen to the top.
Raptors Have Risen to the Top Following Championship Win
For a very long time, the Toronto Raptors have been synonymous with postseason defeat. In the 2013-14 season, the Raptors lost in game seven of the first round to the Brooklyn Nets. The following season they were swept by the Washington Wizards in the opening round. The next three years would find the Toronto Raptors defeated over and over again by LeBron James. James was considered the owner of the Raptors, as he owned them in the playoffs, and LeBron fans went so far as calling the city of Toronto “LeBronto.” In the 2015-16 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Raptors in six games. The conference finals saw James averaging 26 points and shooting 63% from the field. The next year, James again met the Raptors in the second round. There he led his Cavaliers to a sweep averaging 36 points in four games while shooting 58.6% from the field. Again, for the third straight year, the Lebron James led Cavaliers met the Raptors in the 2017-18 playoffs. The Cavaliers swept the Raptors for the second year in a row and James averaged 34 points in four games. In these three years, LeBron James completely demoralized and embarrassed the Raptors.
Masai Ujiri’s Risky Gamble
After the Raptors’ disheartening sweep in the summer of 2018, Kawhi Leonard, former NBA champion and finals MVP, known for his astounding two-way game, requested a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. Being from Los Angeles, Leonard’s favored destination was the Los Angeles Lakers. However, on July 18th, the Raptor’s President of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri, obtained Kawhi Leonard in exchange for Raptors fan favorite DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan was not just the face of the Raptors; he was the face of basketball in Toronto. He loved the city of Toronto dearly and planned to spend the rest of his career there. Not surprisingly, when he was traded for Kawhi Leonard, DeRozan felt betrayed by the Raptors’ organization. Also, Raptor fans knew that Leonard’s ideal location was Southern California, and believed he would only give Toronto one year. Fans were less than happy when Masai Ujiri gave up Demar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors icon, for a rental player.
Raptors Hit the Jackpot
Masai Ujiri’s enormous wager paid off for the Raptors. Despite all the criticism surrounding the DeRozan-Leonard trade, Ujiri ultimately got the last laugh as he is now the architect of a championship team. Without Kawhi Leonard, it is likely the Raptors would not have made it past the Philadelphia 76ers in round two, as they would need Leonard for his average 34.7 points per game against the 76ers and his iconic game seven buzzer beater dagger. They certainly would not have made it to the NBA Finals and beaten back-to-back defending champions the Golden State Warriors. In the process, Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors were able to unify the country of Canada and continue the global spread of basketball.
A Big Risk Means an Even Bigger Reward
Along with this reputation, Masai Ujiri bet on his job security, and in doing so made some question his competency as an executive. However, the daunting reality was that the Raptors were probably never going to win a championship with Demar DeRozan. Ujiri could have settled for mediocracy and been happy with second-round exits and conference finals appearances. Instead, Ujiri traded away his franchise player for Kawhi Leonard, an elite two way player with offensive ability. It was not a given that Leonard would take the Raptors to the promised land as he had a lingering injury, and only played nine games the previous year. While Masai Ujiri’s gambit was considered a joke, and a year from now the Raptors may still be left without DeRozan and Leonard, the decision to trade DeRozan would still be the correct one as it led Toronto to a championship.
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