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The journey to legitimacy

On the morning of July 18, 2018, when I awoke to the news that DeMar DeRozan was traded and Kawhi Leonard was on his way to Toronto, like any other NBA fan, I was stunned. I knew it was going to be a huge turning point in the franchise’s history, but so much was unknown. In a summer after yet another collapse at the hands of LeBron’s Cavaliers, the Raptors were desperate to see some significant change, and acquiring what was a top-5 player, when healthy (even if his health was questionable at the time) was just something that had to be done. All that was understandable, but the season was a giant gamble nonetheless – and one that we’d have to see through to fully assess.

Generally speaking, Raptors fandom in the past reminds you of a few things – disappointment, heartbreak, and a constant struggle for legitimacy. Whether it was Vince’s missed shot in 2001, Calderon’s intercepted pass in 2007, the Wizards sweep in 2015, or so many years of mediocrity in between, cheering for this franchise has been nothing short of an emotional roller coaster that every year seems to provide you with a glimmer of hope, only to leave you with an existential crisis by April or May. But in the past 6 years or so, during the Masai Ujiri era, it’s been more than just about the playoff trips themselves. The team had been there before. Looking back now, it’s been about successive growth, learning from failure, and having the courage to make tough decisions; and sometimes, it takes a huge failure to take a huge leap of faith.

Masai Ujiri was lauded for a lot of things in his early time in Toronto, but perhaps his most signature trait was his calculative nature, and penchant for patience and stability. Sure, there were moves around the margins, trade deadline tweaks, and some salary-saving moves along the way, but for the most part, the franchise stuck with the core of Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry until the dire end. And, after having been swept by the Cavaliers for the second straight season, and in the worst way possible, it was painfully obvious that last year was the end. A gigantic leap of faith of necessary.

In acquiring Leonard, the Raptors got what they always seemed to be missing – finally, an elite two-way wing that can take over a game on both ends of the floor; a guy that could be trusted in the biggest of moments, and gave the franchise a renewed sense of legitimacy. Despite a few all-stars along the way in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Chris Bosh, the Raptors hadn’t really boasted this level of individual talent, probably since prime Vince Carter. Suddenly, the Raptors were a cover story, on all the US daytime debate shows, and garnering more US national TV exposure than ever before. But despite all of the hype of the trade and of the team during the regular season, the true measure of the trade was always going to be playoff success. Most fans would agree that even if Leonard were to depart after this season, the trade would be a success if it enabled the team to reach new heights and get to the NBA Finals, serving as a platform for future growth.

Getting to this point for the Raptors hasn’t been easy and definitely hasn’t been free of criticism. Leonard rested for 22 games during the regular season for load management , which drew the ire of some fans across the league. In the games that he did play, the Raptors looked awesome for the most part, but there were questions about the team’s crunch time offense, as the Raptors seemed to defer to Leonard almost exclusively, and even throughout the game, Kawhi seemed to operate in his own bubble within the Raptors offense. It took a while for the team to really gel with Leonard as the leader, and we’re still seeing some of that gelling happening during these playoffs, especially with mid-season acquisition Marc Gasol gradually taking on a bigger role. It was a successful regular season, but because of all of the above, it never felt like the Raptors were going all-out to win every game.

But what all of that made me realize was that teams of Raptors past were wired differently. They took the regular season more seriously, and just weren’t good enough in the playoffs. It’s why if you put past Raptors teams in the same circumstances that this year’s team has faced in the playoffs, they probably would have folded along the way. Take the second-round Sixers series for example, when the Raptors had their backs against the walls in a must-win Game 4 after being embarrassed in Game 3; in Game 7, when the Sixers made a late push and seemed to be taking control in the final seconds; and in 3 straight games against the Bucks, when the Raptors took Milwaukee’s punches in each and counter-punched in a big way. In all of these scenarios, Kawhi came up massive and was the clear difference that made the Raptors better than teams past, and in some cases, luckier. For all of those reasons and more, it’s what’s made the trade, all of the load management, and the mid-season acquisitions worth it.

Game 6 tonight represents an unprecedented opportunity. Getting to the NBA Finals would be a landmark achievement for this franchise and would uplift the way the team is viewed league-wide, its ability to attract and retain free-agents, and its overall winning culture. It would show that the Raptors have finally broken through as a franchise, and beyond the inferiority complexes of the past. And, whether Kawhi decides to leave this off-season or not, it would validate Masai Ujiri’s giant leap of faith last summer, and could leave Raptors fans with a sense of satisfaction and closure.

Not to mention, a win tonight and Kawhi is probably more likely to stay – although nobody should really pretend to know the answer to that question.

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