In the last 48 or so hours, his palms are very likely beet red and calloused after so many high fives, and his knuckles bruised from all the fist bumps. What’s funny is Masai Ujiri is the last person to take bows, although there’s a conga line in Toronto anxious to give him his due, and it wraps around the Scotiabank Arena twice. So what’s he to do?
The Raptors are in The NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, and the hockey city is ablaze with basketball dreams, and it’s all because the team president took a chance last summer to create a championship team.
Ujiri did not play it safe with a team that in successive years won 56, 51, 59 and 58 games. He did not assume all was good when noted Raptors assassin LeBron James took his talents to the Western Conference last July.
Ujiri traded the second-most popular player in team history for a brooding and mysterious ringer because, while every general manager says winning a championship is all that matters, Ujiri actually meant it, based on his actions.
And so Kawhi Leonard is the toast of Yonge Street right now, and there’s no civic angst detected over DeMar DeRozan being sacrificed in the process. And this represents the gutsiest and most rewarding swap in recent history — or, according to an unofficial polling of Canadians, maybe of all time.
But was it that risky? And were fans really up in arms about it when it happened? And where do the Raptors and Leonard go from here?
The arrival and triumph and future of Kawhi Leonard in Toronto is a basketball drama in three stages:
Why it made sense then
Ujiri wasn’t happy in the immediate aftermath of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cavaliers. He was quite irate, in fact, and this is likely the precise point where the quest for a superstar took root.
LeBron beat the Raptors at the buzzer with a running, fading, floater after running unchecked for nearly the length of the floor to put the Cavs up 3-0 in the series. Ujiri had harsh words for coach Dwane Casey, according to those who stood outside the closed doors, and the topic of conversation likely had to do with strategy on the play. Ultimately, it cost Casey his job when the Raptors were a no-show in Game 4 and the Cleveland sweep complete. The most successful coach in team history was gone.
But something else: Ujiri surely noticed the Raptors lacked anyone good and dependable enough to take over a game, similar to what LeBron and maybe a dozen other players do. It’s nearly impossible to win a title without at least one. And the trick was finding one. Unless you’re bad enough to be in position to draft one (and even then you have to wait until they develop), or can convince one to sign through free agency, the odds dwindle.
There is one other method: Find a distressed one.
This happened three decades ago when a domestic violence incident greased Jason Kidd’s path out of Phoenix and he subsequently led the Nets to a pair of trips to the Finals. Rasheed Wallace, though not a franchise player, was acquired by the Pistons from the Hawks and Detroit poured champagne that same year. You could go back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asking out of Milwaukee and landing in Los Angeles to help launch Showtime.
Kawhi fit that description last summer. After playing just nine games due to a quad injury and the bad vibes between him and the Spurs that developed from it, the 2014 Finals MVP was on the market. And Ujiri pounced at the chance to get his missing piece.
Truthfully, the only gamble was this: With LeBron gone, Toronto’s chances of moving into June were instantly enhanced; LeBron had closed out the Raptors three straight years. Ujiri could’ve stayed put, but he went with his instincts and pulled the trigger, even without assurances that Kawhi would sign a contract extension the following summer, essentially making him a one-year rental.
But Ujiri planned to shake up the team anyway, suspecting the Raptors had gone as far as they could with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Again, other GMs would’ve played it safe. He didn’t. High risk, potentially high reward.
One other thing: The notion that all of Canada was incensed by the trade is faulty. Fans loved DeRozan because, unlike Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh, DeRozan wanted to be in Toronto. Carter leveraged himself out of town, T-Mac wanted his own team, and Bosh bolted to form the Big Three in Miami. But these underrated basketball fans are smart, and they knew Kawhi was an upgrade on both ends of the court.
The only person in Canada whose feelings were hurt was Lowry, who is tight with DeRozan and for weeks refused to speak to Ujiri. But with a $500,000 bonus for reaching the Finals and a chance to win a ring, he’s good.
How it paid off
The Raptors did everything Kawhi asked in terms of protecting and preserving his body from injury, and therefore the Raptors did themselves a favor in the process.
Feeling refreshed and refocused from a season of light wear and regular rest and sensitivity from the organization, Kawhi returned with a renewed spirit. He felt, for the first time since prior to his injury, that his organization was totally behind him, from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff and the locker room. Everyone was on board with the plan and process.
So the least Kawhi could do was deliver, and he has — and then some.
In 2016-17, his last full season in San Antonio, and with Tim Duncan gone and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili diminished by age, Kawhi dropped hints that he could be The Guy. He averaged 25.5 points despite playing the same minutes and emerged as a true two-way star.
This is the Kawhi the Raptors saw this season, with more of a willingness to be a volume shooter and sharper passer from the double-teams, while never neglecting the work on defense. And in the postseason it has been an uptick, with a special emphasis on end-of-the-game presence, as the Sixers and Bucks painfully discovered. In the afterglow of the Eastern Conference finals title, Ujiri called Kawhi “the greatest player in the game.”
He has been the anti-DeRozan in springtime. Too often, DeRozan had a pattern of performances that ranged from respectable to regrettable, rarely raising his game when the games mattered most. It was this pattern from DeRozan (and to be fair, Lowry as well) that convinced Ujiri that DeRozan, while beloved, could never be That Guy the Raptors needed for the next step.
Almost instantly, Kawhi’s teammates yielded to him, most notably Lowry, which is the ultimate respect any newcomer could get.
A trip to the Finals was exactly what Ujiri wanted from the trade, a chance to reward Raptors’ fans for their loyalty and support, and maybe this experience could sway Kawhi this June when he must decide what’s next in free agency.
Anyone in Toronto on game days during the playoffs could see the benefits of trading for Kawhi: Crazed fans standing outside at “Jurassic Park,” bars and restaurants jammed, merchandise selling briskly, every seat taken at Scotiabank. And there was hope.
Suppose this is all short-lived and Kawhi is just passing through? Well, then …
Why trade was right even if Kawhi leaves
What’s the old saying? Better to have loved Kawhi than never to have had the chance to love him?
He came, he “clawed,” he conquered. Mostly, he gave Toronto a season to remember, maybe even forever if he and the Raptors pull off a stunning upset in a few weeks.
If the relationship is indeed brief, then there’s no hard feelings anywhere. Not from Ujiri, not his teammates, certainly not the fans. Kawhi will not get the Spurs treatment if he returns next season in another uniform. No promises were made and therefore, none broken.
But enough of the sentimentality. Should he leave, then in retrospect, how much did that trade cost the Raptors?
Well, again, where were they headed without him? Most likely, they would’ve been a 45-50-win team with an early expiration date each spring, given the uprisings in Milwaukee and Philly. The DeRozan-Lowry Raptors had maxed out. Change was coming anyway.
Without Kawhi, Ujiri has a chance to retool the Raptors around Pascal Siakim, a young potential star should he keep taking leaps. The Raptors would need to bite the money bullet for only next season; the payroll drops considerably in the summer of 2020 once the contracts of Lowry ($33 million next season), Marc Gasol ($25 million) and Serge Ibaka ($23 million) vanish. It’s possible Ujiri could trade one or more of those expiring contracts although not at the expense of taking back bad money just to win a few more games in 2019-20.
Then the question becomes: Would free agents be attracted to Toronto? Well, free agents are attracted to money, first and foremost. And stable management. And world class cities. And frigid temperatures. Well, scratch that last one.
If anything, a favorable salary cap and a few assets would be just the challenge that a top-flight team president would crave. He’d have options.
Masai Ujiri pulled off a trade last summer that took guts and a reasonable risk and it has worked out; the real risk is with anyone who thinks he couldn’t pull off something else.
That’s the scenario if there’s no Kawhi. Ujiri can stay patient for a year and then roll up the sleeves and go to work. Or he can spare himself that chore and go to work this summer and convince Kawhi to stay.
Can you imagine what his palms and knuckles would look like then?
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