What a season, what a story. The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions for the first time in their history. Since their introduction to the league in 1995 (and following the relocation of their fellow expansion team, the Vancouver Grizzlies), the Raptors have come to be representative of not only Toronto and Canada, but of a whole geographic region – The North. Now, The North has a champion and no doubt we’ll get a whole lot more Drake as a result. One of those things is great.
The path to a title has been a long one, littered with franchise stars who couldn’t deliver regular playoff success, let alone a title. Vince Carter will always be the first star synonymous with Toronto, but you can add other All-NBA players Chris Bosh, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to that list. However, two moves the past offseason helped shape their destiny and brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Canada.
The first had nothing to do with the Raptors at all, but was the removal of the East’s biggest obstacle. LeBron James signing with the Los Angeles Lakers opened up the path to the Eastern Conference title, which he’d claimed eight years in a row as part of the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. What’s more, LeBron had knocked the Raptors out of the playoffs each of the past three seasons. While most fancied the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers or Milwaukee Bucks as Eastern champions as a result of LeBron’s departure, yours truly tipped the Raptors back in his Eastern Conference preseason preview.
Secondly, the Raptors made a bold move by dealing away the face of their franchise in DeMar DeRozan. In his place was Kawhi Leonard, who’d sat out most of last season due to a mysterious quadricep injury and the related disagreement between him, his management team and the San Antonio Spurs about his rehabilitation. DeRozan was sent to Texas alongside Jakob Poeltl, while Leonard came to Canada with Danny Green. It was a gamble from the Raptors, who dealt away a well liked All-Star critical to their franchise culture. They gambled on an awkward introvert, who is a free agent off season and is no guarantee to stay, but who had shown MVP calibre play in his time in San Antonio and was Finals MVP in 2014. That gamble has been repaid with a title.
Leonard’s play was obviously instrumental to the title and his second Finals MVP award indicates that. There were a number of other key contributors though throughout their season and playoff run. Pascal Siakam made massive strides and is a lock for the NBA Most Improved Player award. Kyle Lowry thrived alongside Leonard, while Green, Serge Ibaka and midseason acquisition Marc Gasol brought playoff experience and helped turn Toronto into a strong defensive unit.
The Finals result now sets up an intriguing offseason. The Warriors need to decide whether they can keep their core together, with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both free agents, and both battling long terms injuries. Those injuries in the finals were a cruel blow to the defending champions, exposing their vulnerability as a team with cap pressures and shallow depth. It will also be interesting to see whether the Raptors can lure Leonard back. There has been much chatter about him heading home to California, with the Lakers and Clippers potential candidates. It would be rare however for a player to leave a franchise after winning a title, which could give the Raptors the inside running to re-sign him despite all the noise around him leaving.
The offseason decisions and moves are going to go a long way to shaping next season, with the path to the title potentially as open as it’s ever been.
REVIEWING MY PRESEASON PREDICTIONS:
WEST: Tipped Warriors over Jazz, with Rockets, Lakers, Nuggets, Thunder, Spurs, Pelicans as the other playoffs teams. The Lakers never clicked with LeBron and were the big disappointment, while the Blazers were the team I basically shunted out to make room for them. WHOOPS! I was right that the Spurs would keep rolling even without Kawhi, but the Pelicans were a mess with all the Anthony Davis drama. I had no handle on the Clippers preseason and they became one of the feel good stories of the year, making the playoffs despite having a team with no real stars.
EAST: Tipped Raptors over Celtics, while I had the Pacers, Sixers, Bucks, Heat, Wizards and Pistons as the other playoff teams. The Nets were much better than I anticipated, largely because I felt the lottery was a bigger incentive than the playoffs, while I think the Magic shocked everyone. My feel with the Wizards was way off, as it turned out John Wall’s health wasn’t that important after all. They were a better team after he once again got hurt, but fell short of making the postseason.
So 6/8 playoff teams in each conference, while tipping both finalists. I’ll take it.
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