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Here’s how Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors helped each other exceed expectations

With Kawhi Leonard set to visit Toronto for the first time since winning the NBA championship with the Raptors, we look back at how both player and team helped each other.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night, as Kawhi Leonard receives his championship ring from his former team, the cynics will still be revising history with claims that he — of his own superhuman powers — carried to an NBA championship a bunch of misfits who had a knack for getting lucky. As if to say the Raptors didn’t deserve to win, commentators will continue to claim that Kawhi “delivered Toronto a championship” and that he is the “reigning defending champion” and that his new team is “a championship team.”

Excuse me? Let’s first get a couple of things straight. One cannot reign when he has abdicated his throne. And the L.A. Clippers have never been the champs. As for the notion of Kawhi “delivering” a championship, it distorts the record of how much went into the Raptors ultimately winning. To believe that his teammates were mere stage props in his championship-winning performance is to delude oneself into believing he could have just as easily won with the Knicks or the Suns or the Hornets if he had been traded to one of those teams.

In other words, while Kawhi was a crucial missing piece the Raptors needed, he was one part of a greater championship story. Moreover, he himself benefitted from being able to once again showcase his prodigious talent on a winning stage. With his contributions in mind, let’s examine the main reasons the Raptors, and no other team, won the 2019 NBA Finals.

5. Coaching Change

Although former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is credited for helping usher in a golden age of Raptors basketball, he will mostly be remembered for taking the team as far as he could at a time when the organization aspired to much more. His inability to make certain in-game adjustments became a crippling deficiency in the postseason. And after being swept out of the playoffs two years in a row by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was fired, and his assistant Nick Nurse was selected as his replacement.

Nurse’s advanced, creative strategizing was a refreshing change and seemed to maximize every player’s potential. Less than three months into the season, the Raptors were playing at such a high level they were already embarrassing the defending champions in their own arena on the second night of a back-to-back, even without Kawhi playing. It was the first real glimpse of what was possible. And suddenly the words “Raptors” and “Finals” were credibly being uttered in the same sentence.

Indeed, Dwane Casey was a good coach in Toronto. But he lacked the kind of coaching vision necessary to win it all. Unfortunately for him, his dismissal was an important factor in the Raptors having a realistic chance at contending for a title.

4. Masai’s Gambles

If I were a betting man, I’d bet Raptor’s president Masai Ujiri’s investment portfolio is full of high-risk assets that will someday either make him a billionaire or leave him homeless. Maybe that’s hyperbole. But whatever the case, it’s clear he has a lot of whatever the Nigerian word for cojones is. While firing Casey was a no-brainer, trading away beloved Raptor-for-life DeMar DeRozan for a one-year rental of an eccentric superstar with a fun side and a bum leg was the kind of career gamble that would’ve led to Ujiri waiting tables at Moxie’s for a living if things had gone sideways. Add to that his willingness to compromise the team’s depth to acquire Marc Gasol, an aging Spanish big man years removed from his best basketball, and we have the profile of a gambling addict who would’ve stopped at nothing for the chance to someday hoist the Larry O’B trophy high above the 49th parallel.

Along with having a better coach, the additions of Leonard, Danny Green, and Gasol turned a good Raptors team into one that could compete with anyone. Each provided just enough knowledge, leadership, and skill to help get the Raptors over the hump. Of course, an untimely injury to one or two of them would have ruined the experiment and caused some heads to roll. But that is the nature of risk. Fortunately for Masai and the Raptors it worked out.

3. LeBron Takes his Talents to L.A.

LeBron James’ departure to Southern California shifted the balance of power in the Eastern Conference and removed a long-standing barrier to the Raptors championship hopes. Over the past four years, the Raptors have gone undefeated in the postseason series against any team that didn’t take the floor with LeBron. 8-0. That’s not a misprint. During this stretch (both with and without Kawhi), no NBA team has defeated Toronto in a playoffs series other than LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers, meaning that his fortuitous absence from the East left the door open for the one team that would’ve already won the conference title if he, the second-best player in history, hadn’t been blocking the way like some medieval troll with nothing better to do.

Sure, winning by default is not as glorious as winning by force. But, hell, if Kevin Durant can fake the funk after joining a 73-win championship team, then the Raptors need not apologize for taking advantage of Lebron’s absence from the postseason.

2. Development of the Young Players

Just as crucial as the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard was the meteoric rise of young players such as Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet. Prior to anyone in the basketball world being able to properly pronounce their names, they were part of the 2017-18 Bench Mob, which boasted the highest plus-minus of any second unit in the league. Much of it was due to their speed and defensive versatility and their ability to take the floor and completely turn the score upside down in the Raptor’s favour. At the time, DeRozan even admitted that the bench unit would regularly beat the starters in practices.

A year later, Powell had become one of the team’s most outstanding playoff performers, Siakam was chosen as the league’s Most Improved Player, and VanVleet received a Finals MVP vote for his defense on Steph Curry and his brilliant shot making at critical moments in the series. The story of VanVleet’s Game 6 performance and Siakam’s side-step floater to effectively ice the championship will be told to grandchildren. Plain and simple, the Toronto Raptors would not have won the title without the timely growth and development of these young players.

1. Raptors Were Better Than the Defending Champs

A common refrain is that the Raptors only beat the Golden State Warriors in the Finals because of the injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. But the problem with this simplistic narrative is that it doesn’t acknowledge that the Raptors had been the better team all season long.

For example, when it came to the all-important question of defense (which wins championships), the Raptors had become one of the very best in the league with a starting lineup full of All-Defensive Team caliber players, not to mention two former Defensive Players of the Year—one of whom had won the award twice. The Warriors, on the other hand, had been using three-point onslaughts and a league-best offensive rating to cover up the fact that they were posting some of their worst defensive numbers since the dawn of the dynasty. This works until a real team with a real defense shows up.

To make matters more convincing, the Raptors were equipped to neutralize Golden State’s shooting prowess by being just as good at it. Toronto had an entire roster of proficient shooters and had actually been the top three-point shooting team since that season’s All-Star break. Like the Warriors, they also had a top-tier offensive rating and a comparable effective field goal percentage. Combine that with homecourt advantage, masterful coaching, and the artistry of an unflappable superstar, and the Raptors were good enough to beat any version of the Warriors in the Finals. The injuries merely took the drama out of it.

By the way, you will notice that I didn’t mention that the Raptors played the Warriors eight times all of last season and won six of those meetings. I also didn’t mention that the Warriors lost two games in the opening round of the playoffs to the 8th-seeded Clippers, which belies the notion they were somehow invincible in the postseason with their full squad.

That aside, Kawhi’s ring ceremony will be a brief reminder of how good the Raptors were—how good they had to be as a collective organization to win the title. It was about more than one man. It was about one goal, one team, and one great opportunity to make history.