Lucas de Grandpré
Most championship teams complete their journey to the top by either drafting a foundational player that defines everything to come or acquiring a player who agrees before stepping in the door to stay for a long time. The Raptors had neither. This is what makes the 2019-2020 Raptors championship run impressive and special. They were a team of grinders and players who did not have high expectations for themselves coming into the league and had to work hard to get where they are.
Coming into the 2018-2019 season there were high expectations for these Raptors. With the immovable pillar of Lebron James gone from the East, it was time for the Raptors to step up and put to bed their playoff nightmares.
Only 2 months after being swept out of the playoffs by Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was announced that Toronto had acquired 2014 Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard as well as 3 and D man Danny Green in return for 2017-2018 All-NBA guard DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. While that trade now seems like an obvious one to make, at the time, it was met with many questions. To start with, Kawhi’s health was doubtful as he had only played 9 games in the 2017-2018 season as well as the implications of his pending free agency in 2019. However, it was quickly shown that the merits of having an MVP-caliber player on the roster outweighed the looming shadow of incoming free agency. But regardless of the benefits, it was clear that the Raptors window to make a playoff run was limited and the 2018-2019 season had to be the year.
Even more controversial and shocking at the time was the firing of Dwayne Casey during the off-season. After winning a franchise record of 59 regular season games, winning coach of the year, and guiding the Raptors to five-straight playoff appearances, he was out. While Casey had an excellent record of outperforming regular season expectations his postseason coaching was called into question with good reason. His replacement, Nick Nurse the former assistant coach under Casey, had been credited with the changes in the Raptors play between the 2016-2017 season and the 2017-2018 season. The Raptors had put an emphasis on ball movement and 3 point shooting heading into the season and this change was seen in the numbers as the Raptors had risen from 30th in the league with 18.6 Assists Per Game to 6th with 24.. In addition, they had risen from 22nd in the league with 24.2 3-pointers attempted per game to 4th with 32.3 3-pointers attempted per game. Nurse continued to make impactful changes this season with stressing transition play. The Raptors went from being an average transition team last year to being the most effective transition team in the league. The Raptors were 1st in transition points per possession in the NBA averaging 1.16 points per transition opportunity and 2nd in effective field goal percentage in transition with 64.2% trailing only the Warriors.
While it is easy to overlook these changes as the Raptors lost one more game than last year, it must be stressed that the regular season this year was much different than the last. The Raptors battled injuries throughout the season with Kawhi Leonard missing 22 games and Kyle Lowry missing 17 games. Yet, the Raptors performance was always consistent in the season not once dropping more than 3 consecutive games, an accomplishment only managed by the Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. Another key development in the Raptors season was the emergence of Pascal Siakam as a near All-Star caliber player. The aforementioned changes to more transition plays immensely favoured the transition beast who is Pascal Siakam who stepped up massively when one of Kyle or Kawhi were out. All of Pascal’s numbers spiked this year including his points per game, which jumped from 7.3 last year to 16.9 this year, as well as his rebounding and assist numbers all while playing top-notch defence. His jump made it inarguable that he should be a front-runner for the most improved player of the year.
At the trade deadline, there were plenty of rumors swirling around the Raptors team including talks of moving on from the team’s heart and soul Kyle Lowry in search of perfecting the roster for a championship run. When all the dust settled the Raptors picked up Marc Gasol from Memphis in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. This trade sent a clear message to Raptors fans and fans of the NBA that the Raptors were trying to win now. By sacrificing the depth that had long given us stellar regular seasons for a tight top-heavy playoff rotation it was clear that the Raptors were going all-in. Marc Gasol has a game-changing impact on the Raptors style of play. The offence was run through him often and ball-movement was improved which led to a massive increase in 3-point shooting after his acquisition. The Raptors rose from 23rd in the NBA in 3-pt percentage before the trade to 1st after.
The Raptors’ route to the championship was a difficult one being tested at each stage. They competed against 3 top-5 teams, some with superior talent or more experience, but it was the Raptors perseverance and grit that brought the trophy home to Toronto. Several times in their championship run it looked like Toronto was about to be given the knockout punch – game 4 in Philly down 2-1 or down 2-0 against the Bucks heading into game 3. But each time the Raptors responded, whether it was a Kawhi pull-up or a Fred VanVleet late 3 this team never gave up and always had an answer. While it was unfortunate that the Raptors win was partly overshadowed by the injury to Kevin Durant, and some may for this reason discredit the Raptors win, it must be put into context that even without Durant this was a formidable Warriors team, arguably the best team in NBA history. Yet the Raptors bested them through excellent coaching from Nick Nurse (save the last 5 minutes of game 5) and contributions throughout the series from the whole team. Siakam was fantastic in game 1, Lowry games 3 and 6, Ibaka and Fred VanVleet had their moments throughout the series, and Lenoard was always steady and took over the offence when nobody could not generate any. The Raptors, the franchise that had been ridiculed and whose city was named LeBronto is now NBA champions and, while it was in an unconventional way, Toronto fans finally have something to celebrate. Congratulations to the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors, NBA champions.