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Three-Pat: How Patrick McCaw Made History In the 2019 NBA Finals

The guard took an … unusual route to his third title of his three-year professional career

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Whenever a team wins a major sports championship, it’s always fun to celebrate the benchwarmers who barely contributed to the title but will forever get to say they won a title. I will always ride for Super Bowl XLII Champion Jared Lorenzen and 2012 NBA champion Eddy Curry. After the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals on Thursday night, Twitter quickly exploded in celebration of onetime Knicks folk hero Jeremy Lin, who didn’t join the Raptors until February and played only 51 seconds during the Finals, but got to hoist the trophy.

For the most part, this discourse is a bit. I’m sure Lorenzen and Curry and Lin, and the many players like them, were great teammates and were valuable in practice and deserve recognition for the years they put into becoming professional-level players, but we all know they had little to do with their teams’ victories.

However, I will make no such joke about Patrick McCaw, who averaged 0.8 points, 0.5 assists, and zero rebounds in the Finals. See, this isn’t McCaw’s first NBA championship: It’s his third. And he’s been in the league for only three years. McCaw won his first two championships with the Warriors, in 2017 and 2018, before a contentious contract dispute sent him looking for a new team. He picked Toronto, and the seemingly unbeatable Warriors were felled by McCaw’s Raptors, while he sat on the bench. “It isn’t supposed to be like this every year,” McCaw said, “but this is all I really know.”

McCaw is the NBA’s King Midas, but without the whole dying-of-starvation-due-to-all-his-food-turning-to-gold thing. McCaw’s accomplishment, winning three titles in his first three years in the league, should earn him a spot in the pantheon of NBA greats. This might sound ridiculous, but the facts don’t lie: Nobody in league history has ever done what McCaw just did.

For one, he’s the first player to win three championships in a row since Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers did from 2000 to 2002. (Sorry, Steph!) But there have been plenty of dynasties in league history. By jumping from the Warriors to the Raptors and continuing to win, McCaw joins some even more exclusive clubs.

The list of players to win titles with multiple teams is already shorter than you’d probably think. Basketball-Reference had it at 32 in 2011; with the additions of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, LeBron James, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, James Jones, and, of course, McCaw, it’s now at 39. Of those 39 players, only three have won a championship, switched teams, and immediately won another championship the next season: McCaw, Steve Kerr (who won with the Bulls in 1998 and the Spurs in 1999, and, as you may have heard, is now the coach of the Warriors) and a player from the 1950s named Pep Saul, who did it with the Rochester Royals and Minneapolis Lakers. McCaw is the seventh player to win a championship during each of his first three years in the league. The first six? Scott Williams on the early-’90s Bulls, Devean George on the three-peat Lakers, and five dudes who got drafted by the Celtics in the ’60s. But McCaw is the only player in NBA history to win three championships in his first three years in the league despite switching teams.

So how did he do it? What makes McCaw so special that every team he touches wins a championship? (Well, almost every team he touches, but we’ll get to that.) Here are three things McCaw did this year to retain his status as a perennial champion—one for each of his rings.

A Perfect Shooting Touch

On the big stage, McCaw has been literally perfect from behind the arc. Here’s a cut of every 3 he took in the 2018 and 2019 NBA Finals, all makes:

OK, so it’s just the one shot. McCaw went 1-for-2 from the field in these Finals and didn’t attempt any shots in the 2018 Finals. (He played a much bigger role for Golden State in 2017, averaging 4.1 points per game during his first championship run.) But he drilled that one shot, helping Toronto win Game 1 of this year’s Finals. In real life, McCaw isn’t much of a shooter, a 6-foot-7 wing who shoots just 29.9 percent from 3 on his career. But he’s perfect in the Finals, baby!

Inside Intel

To get to the bottom of McCaw’s Finals performance, we probably need to discuss how he became a Raptor in the first place. In 2016, the Warriors bought the 38th pick in the draft from the Bucks for $2.4 million and used it on McCaw, a stringy athlete with big upside. It looked like a win: He played great in summer league and in the preseason, and carved out a role during the regular season as a rookie, stepping into Kevin Durant’s spot in the starting lineup when the superstar sprained his knee and missed the last quarter of the season. McCaw kept that starting role into the playoffs. There was even a game where he led the team in minutes. In 2018, though, it didn’t look like McCaw belonged. He shot a dismal 23.8 percent from 3 during the 2017-18 season and had the worst defensive rating of any player on the Warriors.

In the offseason, McCaw was a restricted free agent, meaning the Warriors had the right to match any offer he signed with any other team. Golden State gave him a qualifying offer of $1.7 million. Nobody else offered him anything. Most players in his position—unwanted by most of the league, but given a guaranteed contract by the team that just won two NBA championships—would sign the $1.7 million deal. McCaw felt he deserved more. The Warriors didn’t care.

Ultimately, the Warriors moved on, slotting Alfonzo McKinnie into McCaw’s old role. McCaw, still obligated by the CBA to sign with the Warriors or nobody, entered the season on the sideline. Then, in January, the Cavaliers signed McCaw to a contract worth $3 million. The Warriors refused to match the pay raise, making McCaw a Cav. And then, after three games, Cleveland cut him, before his contract became guaranteed.

What happened with Cleveland was clear: The Warriors and Cavs had played in the last four NBA Finals, often signing each others’ players to bench roles to pick their brains (the Warriors signed longtime Cav Anderson Varejão, and the Cavs signed onetime and current Warrior Andrew Bogut). After the departure of LeBron, the Cavs’ title hopes were done, but they could still screw with the Warriors, so they signed McCaw knowing one of two things would happen: Either the Warriors would give McCaw the raise they didn’t want to pay, or they’d lose the rights to McCaw. The NBA said the Cavs’ move was kosher, although I think we all know it probably wasn’t.

After being cut by Cleveland, McCaw signed with the Raptors. McCaw had finally busted out of the perennial dynasty where he started his career. Why did McCaw want to bust out of Golden State? It’s not quite clear. But in the Finals, he proved a valuable resource against his former squad. McCaw played in just seven of the Raptors’ first 18 playoff games, including none in the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks, but suddenly reentered Toronto’s rotation in Game 1 of the Finals, appearing in four of six games in the championship series.

Why did McCaw suddenly become a part of Toronto’s plans in the Finals? I think it’s clear that it’s because of his history with Golden State. He knew their tricks, and a fire burned within his heart from the contentious contract dispute.

I’m gonna go ahead and credit McCaw with the decision to run a box-and-one on Steph Curry.

Keeping His Teammates Motivated

From looking at McCaw’s Finals performance this year, one thing is clear: Patrick McCaw sucks. Of the 12 players who appeared in the Finals for the Raptors this year, McCaw was the only one with a negative plus-minus. Toronto was outscored by 14 points in his 12 minutes on the court, even though the Raptors won three of the four games in which he played and lost the fourth by a single point. McCaw also had a negative plus-minus in the 2018 Finals, despite his team’s sweeping the series.

But McCaw performed a valuable service for his team. If the Raptors had won by too much, they could have run the risk of losing their competitive edge. Luckily, McCaw was there to sandbag them, turning a Game 3 that could have been a 19-point win into a 14-point win and ensuring Game 1 was just a single-digit win instead of a 12-pointer. By holding Toronto back, he pushed it forward, and that’s what makes him a true champion.

I dunno, that’s my best guess. Maybe he’s just lucky.