A month ago, nearly three million people packed the core of downtown Toronto, their Raptors jerseys flooding the streets in an ocean of red. The team’s bus rolled its way to Nathan Phillips Square with the newly crowned champions singing, dancing, chugging wine from the bottle, and that was pretty much it. Before the pre-ordered Raptors championship apparel had even arrived on doorsteps, however, the conversation had long since changed. Will Kawhi stay? Will the Lakers build another dynasty-worthy team? Can the Knicks even field a team at all?
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of disrespect to a defending championship team in professional basketball before.
By now, we know that Kawhi ain’t staying. The superstar power forward, possibly the best two-way player in the game right now, signed a contract with the LA Clippers, historically one of the most hapless franchises in the league until fairly recently. With that settled, and the frenzy of high-profile free agent signings benefiting the Raptors not at all, now seems like a convenient time to quietly sneak off the bandwagon that everyone boarded just prior to the NBA finals.
Except, well, it really isn’t. Thanks to the business savvy and social connections of Raptors president Masai Ujiri, as well as the most welcoming fan base in the league, this is probably the best time in franchise history for new fans.
Ujiri’s own back-story, as an executive and an ambassador for the NBA abroad is, more or less, the multicultural, hard-working narrative of the Raptors franchise. After a stint as an unpaid scout for the Orlando Magic, Ujiri worked his way up the front-office ladder with the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets, famously engineering a trade that saw Nuggets centrepiece Carmelo Anthony and veteran Chauncey Billups off to the Knicks, and helped re-establish the Nuggets as playoff contenders in the Western Conference.
During his first two seasons as Raptors GM, Ujiri unloaded long-time albatross Andrea Bargnani and superstar small forward Rudy Gay (the latter a seemingly unthinkable move), and managed to finally assemble a playoff-worthy squad. Aside from the occasional playoff sweep (once by the Washington Wizards, and then by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, which became a veritable brick wall in the Raptors’ road to the finals), it’s been upwards ever since.
With a background in youth basketball coaching in Nigeria, as well as his experience as a former director for the Basketball without Borders program (a joint venture between the NBA and FIBA), Ujiri has advocated not only for future players cutting their teeth in international leagues, but has gone to bat for current talent as well. Former Raptors Bruno Caboclo and Greivis Vasquez first encountered Ujiri through the program, and Pascal Siakam (voted Most Improved Player of the 2018-19 season) impressed Ujiri through sheer effort, even though his shooting skills had not yet developed.
In other words, rather than participate in the superstar arms race that periodically swells and then poisons the atmosphere of teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and LA Lakers, Ujiri and the Raptors have pursued a long-term strategy of developing talent over multiple seasons. Siakam didn’t start playing until his late teens, and his rookie NBA season was punctuated by assignments to G League affiliate Raptors 905, along with teammate Fred VanVleet, who famously went undrafted in 2016. VanVleet went on to not only establish himself as a standout substitute for Kyle Lowry in the point guard position, but also became the breakout three-point phenom in the 2019 finals.
Even without Kawhi Leonard during the 2018-19 regular season, whether due to injury or load management, the Raptors’ record was an impressive 17-5. Thanks to Ujiri’s vision, Siakam and VanVleet could comprise the core of the Raptors’ next generation, along with small forward OG Anunoby (who was sidelined from the playoffs due to appendicitis) and veteran Marc Gasol. The contracts of Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry terminate after the 2019-20 season, and it’s an open question as to whether the two fan favourites will return.
Then there’s the Giannis question.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (whose surname is pronounced ah-deh-toe-KOON-bo) is arguably the next-best two way player in the league behind Kawhi Leonard, and he comes by his “Greek Freak” moniker honestly. He’s nearly unguardable in the paint, and pulls down rebounds on either side of the court like they’re his birthright. He creates plays with the efficiency of a point guard, and lately has been improving his three-point shot to a level that’s rare among players of his nearly seven-foot frame. Antetokounmpo’s contract with Milwaukee ends after the upcoming season, and if the Raptors manage to snag him in free agency, another championship for this team is not out of the question.
But it’s not only his abilities as a player that make him a great fit for the red jersey and for Toronto, it’s his personal story. Recently, a profile of Antetokounmpo was published in the New York Times, detailing his rise from a stateless youth of Nigerian background to an international phenom. Having grown up in Greece, which does not confer birthright citizenship, basketball changed his life’s trajectory from migrant youth to an exemplar of the global Nigerian diaspora. And before Antetokounmpo could travel to Brooklyn for the 2013 NBA draft, he first had to secure Greek citizenship in order to even get a passport. And apparently he had some help completing that process, lent from none other than Masai Ujiri.
Regardless whether Antetokounmpo signs here or not, there are plenty of reasons for optimism with this team. The Raptors championship run, an impossible rollercoaster of emotions throughout the post-season, could be a once-in-a-generation story. But if Ujiri continues to scout and build this team with the formula he’s used so far, the Larry O’Brien trophy might yet be a frequent visitor.
So, to all of the bandwagon-jumpers who enjoyed this season: pull up a seat and make yourselves comfortable. We’ve got some good seasons ahead.