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The Raptors May Be the Unlikeliest Champions in NBA History

In an era dominated by superteams, a team built around a single star on an expiring contract overthrew the league’s most dominant force (albeit a hobbled version) in a truly chaotic NBA Finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The thing to remember, I think, is that the Toronto Raptors were broken. They’d been drummed out of three straight postseasons by an indomitable supervillain who seemed to take a perverse pleasure in annihilating them in ever more absurd ways. They’d turned in the best season in franchise history only to watch it end in shambles, a flaming pile of wreckage, in the second round. Their belief was shattered. There was no future for the team Masai Ujiri had built in the Great White North—not one of any consequence, anyway.

And now, some 13 months after one of the lowest points in the emotional life of a franchise striving to matter like glamour organizations do, the Raptors have reached the summit. They’ve grabbed the brass ring. Toronto has defeated the Golden State Warriors, or what remained of them by the end of a devastating 2019 NBA Finals, and now the Raptors are NBA champions—and among the most unlikely champions in NBA history. (In the past 15 years, the only teams with worse preseason title odds than the Raptors to also wind up winning it all were the 2011 Mavericks and the 2015 Warriors—two other teams hardly anybody saw coming.)

Maybe that’s recency bias speaking. (I practiced it a little bit earlier on Thursday, but it still feels kind of weird to type out the phrase “The Raptors are NBA champions.”) Maybe it’s just the sheer newness of it all—the fact that, for the first time in its 24-year existence, Canada’s team not only made the NBA Finals, but ended it hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. (Hereafter known solely as “The Larry O’B,” the name Kawhi Leonard gave it in his postgame interview with Doris Burke.)

Maybe it’s the shock of it all. That a 2018-19 season that seemed to be little more than an eight-month confirmation that the Warriors were still an irresistible force ended with one of the odder title rounds we’ve ever seen—one marked by injuries and star performances and more injuries and unexpected heroics, sometimes all coming in the same jagged jumble.

Or maybe it’s just that championship teams of recent vintage haven’t tended to look like these Raptors.

Go back through the record books, and trace the tradition: Title winners, and especially recent champs, have mostly boasted multiple all-time talents—the Hamptons Five Warriors, the LeBron-Kyrie-Love Cavs, the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili-Kawhi Spurs, the Big Three Heat and Celtics, the Kobe-Shaq and Kobe-Pau Lakers. Toronto has only one, Leonard, flanked by an excellent but somewhat lower-wattage collection of complementary pieces. They’re a team built on one elite offensive talent, crisp and smart ball movement, hellacious defense, and having a half-dozen or more guys who could all pose a threat with the ball in their hands. There’s a reason that teams like the 2011 Mavericks and 2004 Pistons are regarded as such beautiful outliers, and that’s the lineage to which these Raptors—a chaos-agent entrant featuring zero lottery picks on their entire roster—belong.

Toronto is also, to a greater degree than most titlists, a team built by bartering. The Ringer’s Zach Kram wrote last month that, on average, more than half of your average champion’s top five players (as measured by win shares accumulated) have been homegrown stars or stud supporting cast members. Heading into Game 6, only two of Toronto’s top seven were drafted and developed—Pascal Siakam, plucked with the 27th pick in the 2016 draft, and Fred VanVleet, passed on by every NBA team in that same ’16 draft before the Raptors signed him as an undrafted free agent. The rest of the foundation for Toronto’s first championship came in a series of unlikely deals.

Kyle Lowry came first, from Houston, all the way back in 2012 in exchange for Gary Forbes and a future first-round pick that would become Steven Adams. Seven years, five All-Star berths, multiple regime changes, and countless slings and arrows over his postseason performance later, the tenacious point guard has now officially exorcised every last playoff demon. He dominated the first half of the biggest game of his life, set up Siakam on the late runner that proved to be the game-winner, and finished with 26 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, and three steals. He was a team-best plus-16 in his 42 minutes. Of course he was.

Ujiri landed Serge Ibaka after he spent a half-season in Orlando for the price of Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-rounder (shouts to Anzejs Pasecniks). In the two and a half seasons since, the Congolese big man has made an impact as a starting power forward, a starting center, and a backup five, coming through in this postseason with monster games at critical moments—Game 7 against Philly, Game 4 against Milwaukee, and the last four games of the Finals, which saw him wreak havoc as a rim protector, offensive rebounder, and pick-and-roll shot-maker, providing a two-way boost off the bench that the short-handed Warriors just couldn’t match.

Marc Gasol came over from the Grizzlies with just two months left in the regular season. The Spaniard wanted to stay in Memphis, wanted to work with longtime pick-and-roll partner Mike Conley to fix what had gone awry with the only NBA franchise he’d ever known. Instead, he went north, bringing Defensive Player of the Year bona fides and a penchant for seeking out the extra pass to a team with a chance to be special. The Raptors’ ball movement, 3-point rate, and defensive savvy all reached new heights with Gasol in the fold; he finished Ujiri’s puzzle and completed a team with smarts, skills, shooting, and toughness at every position.

Leonard and Danny Green came from San Antonio in the most consequential move in Raptors franchise history. In the process, Ujiri jettisoned fan favorite DeMar DeRozan, along with promising young center Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick, while also replacing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey with well-regarded assistant/international-coaching vagabond Nick Nurse. Taken together, the decisions marked an inflection point for the organization—the choice to shed what was familiar and comfortable in a grasp for the glory that had eluded Toronto. It was always the right decision, and it is impossible to envision it turning out any better than this. Green, never a throw-in, made 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers during the regular season and played a vital defensive role throughout the playoffs. (We elide that he nearly threw Game 6 away with an errant pass intended for Siakam that gave Golden State the ball back with 9.6 seconds left and a chance to win it, because history is written by the winners.)

And Leonard? Well, all he did was load-manage his way back to superstardom, then use that quarter-season of rest to spend his spring turning into a quieter, more bruising approximation of second-three-peat Jordan. He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 steals per game in the postseason, absolutely carrying the Raptors on those Karl Malone–ass shoulders when he had to, until they were ready to rise to his level and meet him when it mattered most. He didn’t stick the landing in games 5 and 6—there’s a reason the sainted Hubie Brown tossed his Finals MVP vote to VanVleet, who went from the doghouse to eternal postseason deity status in about three weeks—but it’s hard to argue with him getting the honors as a postseason achievement award, one that slots him in alongside LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players ever to win Finals MVP for multiple franchises.

The Raptors were down 1-0 to the Magic, 2-1 to the Sixers, and 2-0 to the Bucks, and they won all three series. They needed one of the most miraculous shots in NBA history to survive Round 2, and they got it, and they made it hold up. They handed home-court advantage to the Warriors in Game 2, took an L on one of the most emotionally damaging nights in recent memory in Game 5, and then they won it all.

Yes, they did so by dispatching a Warriors team that had leading scorer Kevin Durant for only 12 minutes in the series and that lost lightning-bolt-throwing legend Klay Thompson to a torn left ACL late in the third quarter of Game 6, but injuries happen, and you can only play who’s in front of you. The Raptors did their job. They earned this. They were broken; the front office recognized what it had didn’t work anymore, found what parts of it still might, and took a chance on building something new on the fly. One home-run swing, the emergence of a 27th pick who started playing basketball when he was 16, and the revival of a down-on-his-luck backup point guard who had a kid and suddenly couldn’t miss at all conspired to change everything. The Raptors somehow walked the almost imperceptibly fine line of staying the course and shooting your shot, and they followed it all the way to the promised land.

You wonder whether the Raptors’ success in carefully walking that path will inspire their competitors to follow suit. In 2017, the Thunder gambled on trading for Paul George even though he had only one season left on his contract and his representatives insisted that he’d head to Los Angeles in free agency; last summer, they made it pay off, getting him to re-sign to a long-term contract. In 2018, the Raptors made their wager of trading for Leonard, despite having only one season left on his contract, myriad reports that he’d head to Los Angeles in free agency, and having missed nearly the entire 2017-18 season with a quad injury; this spring, they made it pay off by winning the whole friggin’ thing, with Leonard leading the way.

Chances to win the championship are rare; chances to trade for players who can actually help you get there might be rarer still. Might a team looking to similarly inject itself into the title picture—say, one perpetually searching for Banner 18—feel emboldened by those successes, throw an agent’s word of caution to the wind, and go all in on Anthony Davis to make that sort of difference, even if it costs that team’s best young assets? (Such a choice would only serve to underscore just how unbelievable Ujiri’s deal was; dude got Kawhi Freaking Leonard and Danny Green without giving up Siakam, VanVleet, or OG Anunoby. No wonder Ted Leonsis is backing up the Brink’s truck as we speak.)

Maybe not. After all, we could still be just a couple of weeks away from Leonard taking the unprecedented step of walking away from a reigning champion in unrestricted free agency, taking his second ring and second Finals MVP trophy and seeking a new employer. (Maybe one a little closer to home.) If that’s how things play out, in a few years this Raptors run will feel like a fever dream, one of the weirder blips in league history. The banner will still hang in the rafters, though. The Raptors bet on themselves, and now they’re NBA champions. The improbable has become indelible; whatever the future holds for Toronto and the league at large, that much, at least, is forever.