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Masai Ujiri’s Kawhi Gamble Paid Off

Now comes the hard part: the Warriors. After going all in on this season, Toronto is about to face Golden State, the team of the decade, in the NBA Finals. Can the Raptors pull off a magical upset? And what will it take to keep Kawhi in Canada?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the NBA Finals, Canada. The Raptors finally broke through to the promised land after five consecutive playoff heartbreaks and nearly two decades of misery and mediocrity. Now comes their toughest challenge of all, against the Golden State Warriors, a franchise looking to three-peat. But Toronto shouldn’t be slept on. This team is different. Just ask Kyle Lowry, who’s been through it all as the longest-tenured player. After the Raptors eliminated the Bucks, Lowry was asked why this group went further than any other team in their history. He glanced at the man sitting to his right.

The Raptors are still alive because Kawhi Leonard is having an all-time-great postseason run. Leonard is averaging 31.2 points on a 62.3 true shooting percentage with 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while playing lockdown defense against the opponent’s best players. Only LeBron James (twice, in 2017 and 2018) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (once, in 1980) have ever finished a Finals run averaging more than 30 points with at least 60 percent true shooting. And only five others—Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal among them—have done it in the playoffs without making the Finals. What we’re witnessing with Leonard is rare. Everything we’ve seen during the past five years suggests this is Golden State’s Finals to lose, but picking the Warriors means picking against Kawhi, and Kawhi is playing like he’s Michael Jordan. It’d feel reckless to pick against the GOAT; this year, it feels equally reckless to doubt Kawhi.

Now step back and recall that Kawhi didn’t even want to play for the Raptors. There was a fair amount of reporting last summer that Leonard wanted to be traded to one of the Los Angeles teams, but San Antonio obviously didn’t grant his wish (there were reports that suggested the Spurs preferred to send Leonard out of the Western Conference). Raptors president Masai Ujiri made a championship-or-bust move in dealing franchise legend DeMar DeRozan (and Lowry’s best friend) along with talented young center Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to the Spurs. The Raptors acquired Leonard, knowing he had just played only nine games following a mysterious quadriceps injury, plus an aging Danny Green. DeRozan felt betrayed. Fans thought the franchise was disloyal. Leonard was perceived as a villain who quit on his team. Lowry was hurt by the trade and didn’t speak to Ujiri until February.

Apparently, winning cures everything. Ujiri couldn’t find a way to pry open his franchise’s championship window with the roster he had, so he threw a brick through it. Now it’s wide open, if only for one season. No doubt, trading for an injury-prone player who still might leave for Los Angeles was a risk. So, too, was firing Dwane Casey, who had just won Coach of the Year, and hiring his assistant, Nick Nurse. So, too, was trading two more fan favorites in guard Delon Wright and center Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis for center Marc Gasol. Even if Toronto’s run ends soon and a rebuild begins with Kawhi’s leaving in free agency this summer, this current team has a real chance to win the Finals and become the greatest one-hit wonder in history.

Ujiri’s gamble has paid off so far, but the Warriors could be his cooler. Leonard has succeeded against the Magic, Sixers, and Bucks, but he’s yet to face a defense with as many elite defenders as the Warriors. Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green can all be tasked with defending Kawhi one-on-one. So can Kevin Durant, if he returns from a calf injury that’s kept him sidelined since May 8. Durant was Golden State’s primary defender against Kawhi during the regular season and in Game 1 of their 2017 Western Conference finals matchup against the Spurs, before Zaza Pachulia stepped under Leonard, knocking him out for the rest of the series. KD is the best man for the Kawhi Stopper role, but in his absence the Warriors have some suitable options for the role.

How Golden State defends pick-and-rolls involving Leonard, and how the Raptors use them, will define the series. The Warriors use every coverage. Sometimes they’ll drop the big man defender to the paint. Other times they’ll show, then recover to their man. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr hasn’t hesitated to be super aggressive this postseason, occasionally trapping Lou Williams in the first round, James Harden in the semis, and Damian Lillard in the conference finals.

Trapping is risky since it forces rotations that can lead to open 3s or drives to the rim, but the goal of the trap is to get the ball out of the best player’s hands and make someone else beat you. It’s the one style of defense that can influence who receives the ball. The Warriors accomplish this with their off-ball positioning by helping off inferior shooters and sticking to the good ones. Against the Blazers, they’d back off Al-Farouq Aminu, but stay close to Seth Curry. They can follow the same formula against the Raptors: sag off Pascal Siakam, but respect guys like Lowry.

During the playoffs, the Raptors have scored a subpar 0.89 points per possession when Leonard was trapped, per Synergy Sports. But Toronto presents challenges that Golden State hasn’t faced this postseason. Most obvious: Leonard. He is a bulky forward with massive hands who can control the ball and get where he wants, even when pressured. Portland and Houston weren’t helped by the fact each had screeners who were non-playmaking threats like Enes Kanter, Clint Capela, and P.J. Tucker. The Raptors do have playmaking threats.

Gasol is one of the game’s best passing centers, and he’s shot 3s at 36.2 percent since 2016-17. If Leonard or Lowry get trapped, Gasol is a release valve who can be relied on to make the proper play. He can pop for 3s, roll and score, or distribute from anywhere on the floor. Serge Ibaka is a knockdown midrange shooter who can also roll to the rim. Smaller players like Lowry, Green, and Fred VanVleet have also been used as on-ball screeners. Pascal Siakam looks spooked shooting 3s, but he remains a threat off the dribble. Even if the Warriors don’t start off the series blitzing or trapping Leonard or Lowry, you can bet they will at some point. When that time comes, Kawhi needs to be ready.

Passing has long been Kawhi’s lone bugaboo. At times this season, it looked like the Raptors ran two different offenses: Kawhi Iso Ball, and Nurse’s movement-based scheme. Lately, those contrasting styles have fused better than they have all season. Leonard racked up a career-high nine assists in Game 5 and then seven more in Game 6. These numbers are pumped up by VanVleet and Norman Powell remembering how to score, but their production could be aided by adjustments happening off the ball. Toronto’s shooters have been relocating like they do in the clip below, which creates easier passing lanes for Leonard, who’s making quicker reads.

If Leonard continues to pass the way he has the past two games, we could have a series. Of course, his teammates need to finish the play.

Does it matter that the Raptors beat the Warriors in both matchups during the regular season? Probably not. Curry and Draymond didn’t play in the November game, a 131-128 overtime win for the Raptors. And Kawhi didn’t play in a December game in Oakland, a 113-93 Raptors win. Toronto’s roster is totally different now and Golden State is giving maximum effort. Don’t read too much into the previous results. While neither team was fully equipped in either matchup, Leonard spent nearly all his possessions against Durant in the first game. And when Leonard was out for the second one, Siakam defended Durant while Lowry was the primary defender against Draymond. Without Durant, the Raptors will have options in how they defend this top-heavy Warriors roster.

Nurse needs to figure out the best use of Kawhi: Should he stick to Klay and try to erase him from the series—like he did against Khris Middleton? Or roam off Draymond and wreak havoc in the passing lanes—like he did against Ben Simmons? Or could Toronto just say screw it and put Kawhi on Steph? The Raptors don’t use Leonard on “point guards” much; this postseason, only 16 percent of his possessions were against opposing floor generals, per Second Spectrum tracking data. But is a traditional position label really the right way to look at it? Leonard spent 69 percent of his possessions defending players who initiate plays, so that includes big dudes like Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo, medium-size guys like Middleton and Jimmy Butler, plus smaller players like Eric Bledsoe and D.J. Augustin.

Leonard could be the best Steph stopper, since Danny Green hasn’t defended Curry that much in the past and Lowry, while a terrific overall defender, isn’t quick enough laterally to contain Curry. In past matchups, it’s been VanVleet who absorbed the responsibility of trying to stop Curry. For as long as Durant is out, Leonard-on-Curry might be the way Nurse will go, especially if Toronto plays standard defensive coverages by dropping or showing the screen defender, rather than an aggressive trapping scheme. Instead, Siakam could be the one who roams off-ball like he often did against the Bucks. As a bonus: If Leonard is on Curry, it could create cross matches on the other end when Toronto is on offense.

Don’t bet on it, though, to start the series. Having Leonard defend Curry and carry the load on offense is a lot to handle for a player who’s managed his load all year. Leonard looked tired, and hurt, against the Bucks. Even Kawhi needs a breather. But whether he’s on Curry or Thompson, both of them constantly move on the floor. And if Leonard is tasked with a non-shooter like Green or Iguodala, he’ll still need to be active in the passing lanes. No matter what they do, the Raptors will need another heroic effort by their superstar.

Leonard is the reason the Raptors are where they are, but the team defense should not be overlooked. Toronto was like a connected, singular unit, and displayed the kind of focus and tenacity that’s fueled Finals upsets in the past—like the Mavericks over the Heat in 2011 and the Pistons over the Lakers in 2004. The Raptors rotated and switched perfectly off the ball against the Bucks. Over the past few games, when Leonard began defending Giannis more frequently, Nurse increased the pressure by doubling on his drives, then closing out to contest shooters like Bledsoe and Brook Lopez. It worked, but the Warriors are a different animal.

The Rockets and Blazers were able to trap Curry to force the ball out of his hands since there’s one additional non-shooter on the floor with Durant out. It wasn’t always effective since Curry can dump the ball to Draymond, who’s one of the game’s greatest playmakers on the roll. It’ll be interesting if Toronto tries to do the same, regardless of who’s initially defending Curry. As long as the defense stays disciplined and sticks to Thompson, the priority is to stop is the lob to Kevon Looney, or a layup by Green. A 3 by Iguodala or a Draymond floater beats Curry pulling up from 3 or isolating against a hopeless defender who can only pray he misses.

Durant’s status will loom large this series. If Toronto is able to split the first two, or even go up 2-0, it’ll set up the story arc that the Warriors need Durant to return to save the day and the dynasty. Or, perhaps, the Warriors will smoke the Raptors even without Durant, and Curry will make the impossible leap from top-20 all-time player to a potential spot on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. Either way, the historic implications for this series are far reaching.

If the Raptors win and Kawhi leaves, it’ll be the first time a team’s best player has won the Finals and then left as a free agent. The closest comparison would be Jordan retiring twice from the Bulls. It’s rare that even Finals losers leave their teams, aside from James’s bouncing from Cleveland for the second time last summer, or Shaq’s demanding a trade from the Lakers in 2004. There’s not much precedent for Leonard’s possible departure.

Maybe that’s one reason Ujiri took the risk in the first place. All season, the Raptors have made the most of their opportunity to prove to Kawhi, Uncle Dennis, and the whole Leonard family why he should stay. They managed his quadriceps issue, monitored his regular-season minutes, and showed a willingness to spend and make trades to bolster the team’s chances to win. They turned the 2018-19 season into one long free-agency pitch.

On their way to the Finals, Leonard and the Raptors have created moments that’ll live forever in Canadian basketball lore. Kawhi’s quadruple-bounce buzzer-beater didn’t just break the hearts of Sixers fans, it created a whole new generation of Raptors fans. This fan base grew up on Vince Carter and the Chris Bosh era, but Kawhi has the opportunity to eclipse them, if he hasn’t already. If Kawhi stays, Toronto’s love for the game will grow and he will lead a winner that can sustain success.

The Raptors will undergo changes no matter what happens in the next few weeks. Ujiri went all in on this season, because the Raptors were heading toward a reset anyway. Lowry, Ibaka, and VanVleet will all be unrestricted free agents in 2020. Gasol will be too. Siakam will be restricted. Ujiri effectively traded two competitive seasons with DeRozan (who can become a free agent in 2020) for at least one year of Finals contention with Kawhi. The Raptors didn’t reveal a new team-building blueprint here. The stars aligned: A disgruntled future Hall of Famer became available, and his old team was willing to accept a C-list All-Star (DeRozan), a solid young player (Poeltl), and a pick. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a “damaged goods” superstar like Leonard become available again and see his current team take back the kind of haul San Antonio received. The situation is too singular to be replicated.

What is replicable is how Toronto built through the draft with steals like Siakam and Powell while supplementing the roster with savvy acquisitions like Ibaka and Gasol. That’s why they were able to make the deal in the first place. Ujiri is in a flexible position moving forward regardless of Kawhi’s decision this summer. If Leonard stays, Ujiri will be able to create max space in 2020 to pursue Draymond Green (and make a phone call to Anthony Davis) or punt it to 2021, which features a loaded class including stars like Giannis, Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Rudy Gobert. If Leonard goes, Toronto will retain most of its future assets with only $14.7 million committed in 2020. The Raptors would have a clean template to build upon, which is all Ujiri has ever really wanted since he was hired in 2013. Ujiri admitted at the 2017 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that the Raptors tried to trade leftover pieces from the last regime, but they couldn’t find a destination for Lowry and they accidentally stumbled into an annual playoff roster, but one that seemed destined to never be great enough.

This league has proved to be unpredictable, though. Somehow, the Raptors are in the Finals with a chance to do something truly special.