The Toronto Raptors weren’t anointed. They had to do a lot of pushing and pulling and walking in mud in order to breathe the hallowed NBA Finals air. Before a Finals appearance, there is a hill to be climbed. For Toronto, it was akin to Mt. Everest.
In 2006, the Raptors trusted Brian Colangelo to keep the ship afloat. They had the #1 pick and Colangelo drafted Andrea Bargnani. It was a weak draft with only Kyle Lowry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Roy as All-Stars. None had number one pick talent.
Chris Bosh was the Raptors best player in 2006, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds. The Raptors made the playoffs in 2007 but lost in 6 to the Nets. Next year, more of the same. They lost in 5 to Orlando and Dwight Howard.
Three years later, the Raptors drafted DeMar DeRozan. Bosh and his 24 ppg led the Raptors but they couldn’t make the playoffs. Annoyed, Bosh joined LeBron James.
The team Bosh fled was a skeletal crew with Bargnani as the center of attention. He tried to be Bosh but he wasn’t a rebounder. He dropped 20+ but it didn’t matter. DeRozan was coming into his own, 17ppg, but the Raptors didn’t make the playoffs again. Ditto 2011-12. Nothing changed except DeRozan was getting better and better.
In 2012, the Raptors acquired Kyle Lowry via a trade. Lowry had been a headache in Houston. He was tough to coach and be around. Lowry only knew one way. His way. He was Philly through and through. Hard. Aggressive. Edgy. He turned people off, despite being liked and having talent.
Leaving the country was exactly what Lowry needed. The Raptors franchise was desperate for toughness and a point guard. Jose Calderon wasn’t going to win playoff games. Plus, someone whispered into Lowry’s ear that this was his third NBA team. He had to make this work. He just had to.
Lowry and DeRozan became a combo, had great chemistry (after that first year when they didn’t speak to each other). Lowry’s first year in Toronto, the Raptors still didn’t make the playoffs, winning only 34 games.
In the summer of 2013, Denver’s GM was in contract renegotiations. The Nuggets had a reputation for underpaying front office personnel which made Masai Ujiri a possible get for the Raptors who needed massive help.
Ujiri was a superstar in his own right. With the Nuggets, Ujiri spearheaded the Carmelo Anthony trade, a deal that the Nuggets won. The Knicks got Melo. But the Nuggets rented Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. (None are current members of the Nuggets and Melo is retired, sort of). Ujiri also got involved in the Dwight Howard trade and cashed in on an Andre Iguodala deal. He drafted Kenneth Faried and Evan Fournier. (Fournier received a max deal with Orlando.) When Tim Leiweke stepped in and waved a cool $15 mil/5 year deal in Ujiri’s face, there was no way for him to refuse. The Nuggets were only paying him one million.
Ujiri traded for Norman Powell, a second round pick, on draft night, and drafted Pascal Siakam in the first round. Fred VanVleet was signed undrafted. He traded for Serge Ibaka at the deadline in 2018. He fired the Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and hired his assistant Nick Nurse and then pulled off the mother of all trades, DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It was a gamble. The Raptors possibly (gulp) could have Kawhi as a rental. He may go back to California. But if that happens, they will have gotten a NBA title appearance out of it.
It has been 7 years since the Lowry trade. 6 years since Masai Ujiri took over the Toronto front office. 5 years since the Raptors lost a game 7 at home to the Nets thanks to Paul Pierce’s heroics. 4 years since the Raptors were swept in the first round by the Wizards. 3 years since LeBron James torched them in 6. 2 years since LeBron James ruined them in a sweep. 1 year since another LeBron sweep.
It’s been nearly a year since DeMar DeRozan called Masai Ujiri a liar, a year since Kawhi Leonard came to town, and two days since the Raptors made it to their first ever NBA Finals.
It’s hard to build a contender and I don’t think the Raptors can beat the Warriors. But they have proven this is how you get to the Finals. You build and build and build. You draft mistakes. You take chances. You believe in talent regardless of what happened somewhere else. You let go of a player you love to get great. In the NBA, you need great.
So here they are. The team that Masai Ujiri built. They have had a lot of heartbreak. They are experiencing glory. The NBA Finals and Steph Curry is what is next.
Next is pretty awesome.