The Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors to become the 2019 NBA Champions. This marks the Raptors’ very first championship title in the franchise’s 24-year history. The title holds more historical significance due to the fact that a Canadian, James Naismith, invented the game of basketball in 1891. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver mentioned that in his address to Oracle arena following the game, “Basketball has come full circle in Canada. It was invented by a Canadian. The first NBA game was in Toronto – and now an NBA championship.”
Things had been set in motion a long time ago in order for all of the stars to align for the Raptors to pull off this incredible accomplishment. Probably one of the most pivotal adjustments that the Raptors organization executed was the decision to let DeMar DeRozan, a Raptors franchise player, go. General Manager Masai Ujiri saw that the team had gone as far as it could go as it was currently constructed so when the opportunity to trade for Kawhi Leonard came along, Ujiri took it. DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first round pick were shipped off to the San Antonio Spurs while Leonard and Danny Green flew North to join the Toronto Raptors.
Leonard has been clear about his focus being on the game of basketball and wanting to win. Feelings were felt but at the end of the day, Leonard stood beside his desire to “make this thing work out.” It more than worked out. Leonard was responsible for the single greatest moment of the 2019 playoff run, in which he hit a game-winning shot against the favorite Philadelphia 76ers. It was during the Eastern conference semifinals in which the game was tied at 90, Leonard released a shot right before the time expired on the shot clock only to watch the ball bounce 4 times before falling in. His incredible play didn’t stop there. Over the course of the Final series against the Warriors, Leonard averaged 28.5 points, shooting 43.3 percent, along with 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2 steals and 1.2 blocks. Often the best player on the floor, contributing offensively and defensively, he ultimately became the MVP of the playoffs. With that, Leonard became the third player to deliver a championship to multiple teams while earning the MVP honor. The only other players to accomplish that were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
While Leonard was very much the MVP, there were members of the Raptors team that came through in big moments for the team; in particular, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. VanVleet impressively shot 40% behind the arc and averaged 14 points. Siakam shot nearly 37% beyond the arc, averaged 19 ppg and was disruptive on the defensive end. Another late addition to this championship squad was Marc Gasol who was traded from the Memphis Grizzlies in February. Gasol averaged 9.7 ppg, 3 assists, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks during the Warriors playoff series.
Another key element to the successful playoff run was the team’s willingness to manage Leonard’s playing schedule during the regular season. Leonard was able to rest during the insanely demanding 82-game season and that greatly reduced his risk of injury. It became evident during these play match-ups in particular that the grueling regular season can and will catch up with players as key players were devastated by injury. Wow. Who would have thought managing a player’s workload would result in post-season success? (side-eyes everyone)
In conclusion, it only took Kawhi Leonard a single season with the Toronto Raptors organization to win a Championship. As a matter of fact, he brought the country of Canada their very first NBA title. With that, a new bar has been set. As the league moves into free agency, it will be interesting to see whether Sir Leonard decides to take his talents elsewhere or build a dynasty in Canada as King of the North.