“Kawhi is faking his injury. Lowry is bad in the playoffs. Fred VanVleet isn’t cut out for the NBA. Siakam has no talent. Masai has no plan. This team has no cohesion. The Raptors can’t win.” These were the narratives surrounding our team for the past year. These were the narratives surrounding our 2019 NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors.
To say that we weren’t supposed to be here is an understatement. We’re not the knight in shining armour champion. We’ve got scars, and we’re proud of them. They’re what make us who we are. The Masai and Lowry era has been nothing less than monumental, and it is not going anywhere, anytime soon. As we stand atop the mountain as NBA Champions, let’s take a look back to where it all started.
This era began with the dooming departure of Chris Bosh in 2010. He left us with nothing but scraps, and dirt. But there was a seed in the soil: Demar Derozan. From a time that kids nowadays won’t even remember, until July 18th, 2018, Demar was the embodiment of Toronto Raptors basketball.
Demar grew as a player with José Calderon and Andrea Bargnani by his side for a couple of years, before Brian Colangelo, the Raptors General Manager at the time, made a trade that he could never have imagined turned out as it has. He shipped Gary Forbes and the 12th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft for a 26-year-old Kyle Lowry. As someone who had never cracked an All-Star team his first 6 seasons in the league, no one expected Lowry to have 5 selections 7 years later. Back then, he was someone who was known for budding heads with coaches, and having an uncontrollable temper on the court. Now, he’s likely to be a Hall Of Famer.
Fast forward one more painful season, and one more long summer. In 2013, Masai Ujiri was introduced as the Raptors’ General Manager, and all that fans would hear from him as soon as he got here was that he wanted to win a championship. In that moment, all that we wanted was to make the playoffs. All that we wanted was a taste of competition. For Masai to set his goals that high was unfathomable, and a pipe dream to us fans who never knew anything but disappointment. Surely enough, he got to work quick.
He traded Rudy Gay, then Andrea Bargnani. He kept Kyle and DeMar, and turned our team into the feel-good story of the NBA in 2014. With a drastic turnaround midway through the season, putting the focus of our roster on its depth, we willed our way to a 48-34 record as the 3rd seed in Eastern Conference. Masai, DeMar, and Kyle took us from seeking competition, to being competition.
Our First Round opponent was the Brooklyn Nets. Their team was built with only the near future in consideration, which had them pegged as a favourite to compete with LeBron James and The Miami Heat. That very team was travelling to Toronto for Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs. All I could think about at the time was, “Does the basketball world know who we are now?” in sheer joy and excitement of the recognition we were on the verge of receiving.
To a fan of a successful team it sounds stupid, but we were ecstatic to have made it that far; just to the First Round of he NBA Playoffs. Little did we know that the series would come down to the final possession of Game 7, with an opportunity to move on to the next round and take our shot at the dynastic Miami Heat.
104-103. 6.2 seconds on the clock. Greivis Vasquez is inbounding the ball. Kyle Lowry catches it at the 45. He takes 5 dribbles before losing possession as he tries to split between three defenders. He scoops it up in front of a lurking Paul Pierce, throws up a floater that might look good, and The Truth emphatically swats it away. “And the Nets win the series!” echoed through televisions of Raptors fans all throughout Canada.
DeMar Derozan got on one knee next to Kyle Lowry as he lay down in the paint where his shot was blocked, and told him, “I’m living and dying with you taking that shot.” Despite the tough loss, I can even recall “We The North” chants in the streets, as our storybook season was over.
This very Raptors brotherhood, and Raptors pride has been here from the start, and is still burning strong as each of the 29 other teams in the NBA scratches and claws to be where we are right now – NBA Champions.
That same summer of 2014, Kyle Lowry was headed into unrestricted free agency. As a Raptors fan, free agency for one of your star players meant starting over again: back to scratch. After coming so close to what was our definition of success back then, we weren’t ready for another few years of scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Neither was Masai. And Kyle knew that what we had here in Toronto was special. He opted to re-sign long term in Toronto just 2 days after becoming a free-agent, on a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal; a contract that seems measly now. It wasn’t the contract that was huge though – it was the precedent.
Never before had a good player for the Toronto Raptors hit free agency, and not left to go join a superstar elsewhere, dashed to their hometown, or hit the beaches. Kyle Lowry, the 28 year old from North Philly, stayed in our concrete jungle that we call home. Had he left, who knows where we would be right now? Not only would Kyle Lowry not have been a part of our roster, but would DeMar Derozan have re-signed? Would Jonas Valanciunas have extended his contract? Would Masai Ujiri have stayed? Would Serge Ibaka have re-signed? Would Fred VanVleet have re-signed? Kyle Lowry’s decision to stay in 2014 was just the start of his legacy as the greatest Raptor ever.
The following season, our expectations rose. We were no longer content being a playoff team. We had two All-NBA talents, a strong supporting cast, a coach who had proven that he could get the job done, and some talented young pieces in Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. All throughout the regular season, we looked like one of the strongest teams in the league. We were rolling through everybody, including the 60-win Atlanta Hawks, three times.
That lasted until the playoffs. We ran into Paul Pierce once again, this time with the Washington Wizards. Despite having homecourt advantage, we dropped Game 1, which would become a Raptors ritual. Whenever you lose a Game 1 at home, the headlines going into Game 2 are all about how you cannot afford to drop both games on your homecourt. That’s exactly what happened, and the rest was downhill from there, as the Wizards closed us out in 4 games, declaring our previous 82 worthless. This was the beginning of Toronto Raptors slander.
We had made it so far through our journey to finally reach the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but we wanted more from ourselves, and the rest of the league expected more from us. We were unable to deliver, and we were harassed with tags like “the regular season team”, or “the team that chokes in the playoffs”.
As Kyle Lowry said then, and as Kyle Lowry says now, you’ve just got to block out the noise.
In 2016, we made some roster changes. We added DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, and Bismack Biyombo, all of whom would serve as key rotation players during our 56-26 season. We ran it back with the same core, and finally exploded out of the First Round, beating Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. The city was on fire. We finally made it somewhere. We took a step up the mountain, and had confidence that we could go further.
That we did. We would move on to face the LeBron James-less Miami Heat led by an aging Dwyane Wade, and we once again closed out that series in 7 games. The Raptors’ bandwagon was born, as hockey fans donned the red and black of our dinos. The NBA was on notice, and rest assured, everyone knew who we were. The Toronto Raptors were one of four teams remaining, as we moved on to our first ever Eastern Conference Finals, against the superteam Cleveland Cavaliers, stacked with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron.
Lose 2, win 2, lose 2, is how the series went. Despite actually thinking we might have some hope against The King, in hindsight, this series was never in question. You simply cannot advance to the NBA Finals, and do not deserve to do so, when you are starting DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola, and Bismack Biyombo.
That summer we had the same long offseason. We ran it back in 2017, with a similar roster, and a great regular season. We beat a young Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1, all to lose in 4 games to LeBron and the Cavs again.
This was the beginning of a new form of mockery for us: LeBronto. For a team that came up from nothing, ran into the unanimous best player in the league multiple times, and came miles further than 26 other teams in the league, we did not deserve the defamation we were receiving. DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry did not deserve the hatred. It was as if people expected them to be able to beat the eventual champions with minimal help from their teammates. They were simply All-Stars, who were unfairly being held to a superstar standard.
It might’ve been the narratives surrounding this team, or the constant disappointment, or simply the lack of confidence that people within the organization had, but that was it for Masai Ujiri. He wanted something to change, and that was when he infamously hit the “culture reset” button. He forced Dwane Casey to introduce Nick Nurse’s modern offence after Nurse had been pushing for it for years, and brought some swagger to the locker room.
His choice led to the best, most fluid offense from the Raptors that we had seen in their 5 year run. In spite of the fact that our roster was essentially the same, the spacing was better, the ball was humming, and we were finally playing some beautiful basketball. It looked like we couldn’t be stopped. You can stop individuals, but you can’t stop great team basketball, right? Wrong. One more time, LeBron James stood in front of us. The disparagement that Raptors fans experienced last year was unspeakable, after being swept by LeBron, even when he didn’t have the help of Kyrie Irving. Toronto was the joke of the basketball world. Raptors fans couldn’t wear their jerseys in the streets of their own city without being made fun of. Something had to change.
The Raptors had some bad contracts on the roster, with minimal cap flexibility, no draft picks, and only a couple of young assets, none of whom were worth enough to rival executives to fetch a player who would make a significant difference.
Masai was in for one hell of an offseason. He had no wiggle room, and yet he managed to leap out of the water.
He fired the reigning Coach Of The Year. He took sh** for it. It was the right decision.
He hired a former assistant coach to guide our team for the next three seasons. He took sh** for it. It was the right decision.
He traded our franchise player who made the Raptors who they are. He took sh** for it. It was the right decision.
He traded Jonas Valanciunas, the longest tenured Raptor at the time. He took sh** for it. It was the right decision.
Once again, the NBA Playoffs rolled around. This year had more pressure than ever. It was a one-year-window. One chance to win it all. The make or break of Masai Ujiri. The climax of basketball for Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. An opportunity to cement your legacy as one of the greats for Kawhi Leonard.
“Forget about everything that happened before. Forget everyone that left us. Forget everyone that beat us. Write your own story. We did not come this far to come this far. We came this far to go further.” This was the mentality surrounding this team when April came. That was the mentality until the very end. We were underdogs against the Bucks. We won, and they called it luck. We were underdogs against the Warriors. We won, and they called us champions.
The past couple months have been an absolutely unreal ride, and will provide us die-hards with memories to last a lifetime. For all of us who thought we might not live to see this moment, here it is. There were numerous times that we almost lost everything that we had worked for, but we were able to hold on. Everything that happened before we reached this point – good or bad – was righteous, and if we had to re-do the past 24 years again to reach this point, we would.
I’m going numb as I finish off this piece.
It finally feels as though we have graduated. We reached a satisfactory ending. The years of suffering were worth it. Our tears of pain have become tears of happiness. Our wasted money has become money well spent. From not being able to go out in Raptors gear, to seeing others line up all around the city to buy some of their own, is an incredible feeling. No matter what happens from here, we have something to hold onto. We will be remembered forever. It came home. Toronto, we did it. We are the 2019 NBA Champions. The Toronto Raptors are the 2019 NBA Champions.