Parade’s and celebrations are all done, now we get down to business.
Crowd to Kawhi: ONE MORE YEAR
Kyle Lowry to crowd: FIVE MORE YEARS pic.twitter.com/rYImiYzVTv
— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) June 17, 2019
One more year?
MAKE IT FIVEpic.twitter.com/AfXzcQL7QA
— SI Extra Mustard (@SI_ExtraMustard) June 17, 2019
— NBA Canada (@NBACanada) June 17, 2019
"We said we'll win in Toronto, we've won in Toronto, and we'll continue to win in Toronto."
– Masai Ujiri, Raptors President
Interpret this as you please. pic.twitter.com/WgSic3rdW2
— Quinton Mayo (@TOQM_) June 17, 2019
Through an uneven regular season, load management, a roster in perpetual flux, the obsessive tinkering and experimentation of a rookie head coach, and a trade deadline that saw three familiar faces — a fan favourite and two important depth pieces — jettisoned in the name of upgrading at a single position, did you really expect this outcome?
When the Raptors lost Game 1 against the Orlando Magic, went into double-overtime without Lowry down two games to one to the Philadelphia 76ers, dropped the first two games against the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks in not-particularly-inspiring fashion — did you believe you were watching a championship team?
Well, you were. The Toronto Raptors are NBA Champions. They beat the Golden State Warriors, one of the best teams the league’s ever seen, and made it look easier than a six-game series suggests. The Raptors defence held the Warriors to 105.8 points per game, a dozen less than Golden State averaged during the regular season. Toronto won or tied 19 of 24 quarters. They were better offensively, better in their own end, better period. And because of it, a championship banner will hang in Toronto this fall.
It almost went too quickly. At the end of an eight-week playoff run, the Finals felt like a sprint to the marathon’s finish line. But it was anything but a blur for those who lived it — for the players and staff in the dressing rooms and arena tunnels, and on the practice courts. Their moments of triumph and failure, exhaustion and recovery, were all-consuming and intense, despite the workmanlike calm these professionals emit. Nothing about the process was easy. But everything about the result was earned.
The final checkpoint in getting there long proved elusive. Over the Raptors’ run of postseason appearances fueled by star forward DeMar DeRozan and head coach Dwane Casey, the franchise gained a reputation for shrinking in the biggest moments. Toronto was eliminated by LeBron James’s Cavaliers in each of the previous three seasons; a conference final in 2016, and two conference semifinals that both ended in sweeps. The city morphed into a meme: LeBronto. By last season, confidence in the team was strikingly low; the Raptors finished 2017-18 with the best record in the East, but the refrain remained the same: Don’t worry about them. Toronto’s Toronto.
That’s all changed with this exceptionally dramatic playoff run. Toronto trailed in every series through the first three rounds before storming back to win. In the conference finals, the Raptors fell into an 0-2 hole before rattling off four straight. In the clinching Game 6, Leonard dunked over likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in what seemed like the release valve for all of the uncertainty that had built up in Raptors fans over the years.
But one moment from this run will be replayed in bars across the city, province, and country more than any other: In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Sixers, with the clock ticking toward zero, Leonard attempted a mirror image of the shot that Carter had missed 18 years prior. It touched the rim four times, refusing to drop for nearly two seconds, long enough for the crowd in Scotiabank Arena to go silent. Then it fell through, giving the Raptors the game, the series, and a memory to cling to for posterity. “The one thing with the Raptors you’ve always got to remember,” Arthur says. “This is the first time they’ve rewarded their fans with the moments that are ‘I remember where I was.’”
Leonard’s shot didn’t just spawn blog posts about the moment, it spawned blog posts about photos of the moment. The Shot was of such dramatic and competitive magnitude that it reversed years of conditioning that had made Torontonians afraid to care about or believe in the Raptors. “I think Kawhi’s shot was the turning point for the bandwagon this year. People like my mom, who is very sports-averse, started texting me about the Raptors and caring after that shot,” Goh says.
The Shot had a ripple effect that lapped over the edges of the basketball pond; part of becoming a basketball city is becoming a fixture of the cultural world that surrounds the sport. So it makes sense that as the Raptors have broken through, other stories about Toronto have too.
When the Toronto Raptors traded an all-star and a prospect for Kawhi Leonard, they knew full well that it was likely to be a short-term rental — just one season — unless the franchise could somehow rally and, who knows, maybe win a championship? The Raptors did win a championship with Kawhi, and it seems like he still might leave in free agency.
These aren’t totally unique situations. Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris could walk away from the Sixers after Philadelphia traded for both of them this season. Kevin Durant could walk away from the Warriors even as everything went sideways when he ruptured his Achilles trying to help salvage Golden State’s three-peat attempt. Superstars have walked away from good, even great situations in the past.
What Kawhi and Kyrie and the others are reinforcing is that in this era, contracts are just contracts. There’s little interest among the NBA’s best players to remain in one spot for a long period of time. Personal interest and desire reign over any prospect of continuity, permanence, and what forlorn skeptics might call loyalty. When you trade for a star on a contract these days, you are trading for that contract only. There’s no telling what the star will do when it ends, no matter what you do to stay in that star’s good graces.
Loyalty from players has always been a weird concept in a league where trades are rampant. Call Kawhi a mercenary all you want, but just also acknowledge the mercenary fashion in which the Raptors dealt with and then dealt DeMar DeRozan. Every party in this high-stakes league puts themselves first.
Leonard speaking in the past tense is not the most hopeful of signs, but making predictions based on tense or pronouns is kind of foolish. Whatever his decision winds up being, the experience of this season quite obviously surpassed his expectations.
“He’s really happy, he’s really happy,” said Ibaka, who spent the last few days with Leonard in the Bay Area, Las Vegas and then Los Angeles. “I’ve been talking with him a lot during the season and in the playoffs, but after we won, I can see the man is happy. That’s the most important, because we play this sport because we want to enjoy and have fun and be happy and be somewhere people love you. I’m sure he feels that people here love him, and after this moment, that’s the most important.”
Crucially, fans understand that he’s a “fun guy.” After he signed off to the crowd, urging them to enjoy the moment, he mocked his own media day laugh — or more accurately, mocked the reaction to the laugh — giving each “ha” lots of space. The fans, and Leonard’s teammates, ate it up.
That was the general message coming from the stage, a message nobody in Toronto needs to be reminded of: This opportunity does not come around often.
“You kill us when we lose,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “You kill us when we got swept two years in a row. So now y’all better celebrate this shit all summer.”
Hopefully, that celebrating can happen in a better organized, more comfortable setting.
Even with the championship, it’s not a guarantee that Leonard will re-sign in Toronto. Only a few weeks ago, it seemed like he was destined to sign with the L.A. Clippers. Now, Leonard has the NBA in his hands as the league’s best player. Both L.A. teams have the cap space to sign him to a maximum contract. New York and Brooklyn can too. Heck, he could sign with Indiana if he wanted to. It doesn’t matter. Wherever he wants to go, he can go there.
Durant’s injury also opens the window for Leonard to build the next super team. Had Durant been healthy, he could have lured Kyrie Irving and maybe finagled an Anthony Davis trade to New York or Brooklyn. Durant’s injury doesn’t preclude that from happening, but it does delay that super team’s rise for at least a year. Meanwhile, Golden State will likely be transitioning, and LeBron James and the Lakers have considerably less momentum than Leonard.
“Just being able to win this championship this year is something special for me because you know how the last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself, and I had a great support system,” Leonard said. “And once I got here to Toronto, they understood everything and kept moving from there.”
For Leonard now, it is all about championships. He’s smack dab in the middle of his prime. He can stay with Toronto and seek a repeat. He can build a super team in the city of his choosing. With James dormant, Durant sidelined, and having already bested Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard could lead the NBA’s next dynasty.
Leonard inspired comparisons to Michael Jordan during his playoff run, and now he has two rings at the same age Jordan did. A chase for Jordan’s six is in the cards. The only question is, where does he want to do it?
It is my hope — and assumption — that people all of this great country experienced similar moments to that and I hope the unlikely 2019 Toronto Raptors can be an inspiration to millions of people like me, who have trouble believing they can have good things.
On June 17th, millions packed the streets of Toronto to exhale relief and joy and for me, I saw so many people like me who have expected worse, and got better.
They did it, we did it and I can do it. I — and everyone — can do anything and the only thing that holds us back is if I choose to look at things negatively.
Good things do happen, It’s okay to have hope and belief is rewarded.
Thank you Kawhi, Kyle, Pascal, Marc, Serge Danny, Norm, Fred, Norm, Masai, Nick and everyone else who helped me and millions of Raptors fans believe in the good.
We The North!
With free agency less than two weeks away, the Toronto Raptors’ focus is going to be quickly switching from celebration to wondering what could come of Kawhi Leonard’s looming free agency.
If Leonard cares about being worshipped by fans—and he’s never shown that he does in the slightest—he’s basically a national hero now in a way that he could never be on a U.S.-based team. He brought Toronto and Canada its first NBA title, and at Monday’s parade he’s going to be cheered louder than anyone, and there’s still a plant with his name on it, and he’ll never have to buy his own sack of apples in this town again.
Leonard’s plans are as crucial to the Raptors’ summer as his play was to their season. Marc Gasol, who can opt out of his contract, acknowledged that whether Leonard stays or leaves is going to play some role in his decision. “I’m sure it’ll have something to do with it,” Gasol said. Danny Green, a free agent himself, said that Kawhi’s free agency, “weighs on, I think, a lot of guys’ free agency decisions.” And, of course—though they don’t want to think about this just yet—if Leonard leaves the Raptors will have the cap space to offer someone else a max deal. For as attractive as they hope they’ve made themselves to Leonard, the Raptors would be just as appealing to another top free agent.
VanVleet addressed the realities of the situation with the confidence level of, well, Fred VanVleet in the Finals.
“We would all love for him to be back and if he’s not then we will move on from there. It’s not the biggest deal in the world. He came here and did what he was supposed to do. So he brought this city a championship and I think he has earned his freedom and his career to do what he wants to do and we’ll all respect him and admire him.
“And if he’s on another team, we’ll have to kick his ass next year. But hopefully he’ll be back.”
Siakam is just 25 years old and going into the final year of his rookie deal with Toronto. He’ll be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2020, and will almost certainly sign an extension with the Raps. That means his prime will run concurrent with Leonard’s contract, giving Leonard an elite, two-way wing to play with for the duration of his stay in Canada. Despite missing the 2019 playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy, OG Anunoby is expected to play a big role for the Raptors next season, and is just 21 years old with a bundle of talent. No matter what happens with Lowry, or how quickly his athletic decline hits, Leonard has a handful of talented, young players in place for years to come.
Leonard’s proclivity for privacy meshes well with a fan base and media group that is relatively tame in terms of scrutiny. The East remains as open as ever, with the Milwaukee Bucks having to make some tough free agency decisions on key players like Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon and the 76ers unsure of whether they’ll have Jimmy Butler back as a part of their lineup at the start of next season. The path to multiple NBA Finals is a red carpet being laid out at Leonard’s feet.
The Raptors have decisions to make, too, as both Danny Green and Marc Gasol, key members of the Raptors championship run, are set to hit free agency. But with Siakim, Lowry and Anunoby in tow, as well as at least another year of Fred VanVleet, the talent surrounding Leonard rivals what the Clippers can offer with the added bonus of already knowing it works. After adding Anthony Davis, the Lakers are obviously an intriguing choice, but the optics of playing in the spotlight and playing beneath the media storm that follows LeBron James doesn’t seem to fit Leonard’s style. And the Knicks? Well. They Knicks remain the Knicks.
There was a little bit of everything on Parade Day as north of two million people flooded the streets of Toronto to get a look at the new NBA champs. See how it all went down right here.
Trudeau wasn’t the only politician who joined in the festivities. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer were also seen greeting fans in the square and joining the cheers. Premier Doug Ford wasn’t received as warmly by the crowd, drawing boos when he appeared onstage.
When the buzzer sounded in Oakland on Thursday and Toronto had won the NBA Title, Serge Ibaka was overwhelmed.
“Man, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know if I wanted to jump up, jump down. . . it was crazy,” Ibaka said at his final media availability of the season on Monday afternoon.
While teammate Kyle Lowry collected the ball and Kawhi Leonard put his hands in the air in celebration, Ibaka leapt up and hung from the rim.
Why? “Because I didn’t know what to do, I was so excited man,” he said.
It was all still just sinking in a few days later, after Ibaka and the Raptors took part in a raucous victory parade.
“Oh man, I was living my dream (at the parade),” Ibaka said. “When I was young I used to watch this on TV, and I was like ‘Man, I would love to be there one day.’ And look here I am now here. I’m just so thankful and I’m living my dream man … It was my first time so I didn’t know we’d be going that slow (on the parade route) because it was a lot of people. It was amazing. To be outside with all them.” Ibaka was glad he was able to share the experience with his father and daughter.
“I wanted her to remember this,” he said. “She was excited, my dad was crying, it was very emotional for my dad,” Ibaka said.
The veteran centre proudly waved the flag of the Congo, his native country, while up on stage and during the parade. And, in a nod to his popular cooking show which helped the team bond throughout the season, Ibaka shouted out to the thousands on hand at City Hall: “How Hungry are you?” The long-time Oklahoma City Thunder player had made the Finals early in his career, without winning, and said he got congratulatory messages from Thunder star Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins.
Ibaka even threw in a joke about his conversation about Durant, who famously left to join the Golden State Warriors.
The Raptors front office has to be prepared for any scenario. They would love nothing more than to bring back Leonard and begin to build a perennial contender around him. Contingency plans will be in place if Leonard decides not to play along, though.
The easiest thing for the Raptors to do would be nothing at all. Most of the team is under contract for next season, with the exception of Leonard and Danny Green. Green is an essential 3-and-D player, but there will be prospects late in the draft who may be able to pick up that role quickly. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam could step into the role of superstar leader.
After a championship season, however, standing pat in today’s climate would be akin to accepting the title as a one-year blip.
Therefore, the most likely course of action is to try to draw in some mid-level free agents who are willing to accept less than the max, but can still fit a competitive roster. Toronto isn’t going to be a big player for the likes of Kemba Walker, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, barring something unforeseen.
More likely targets for Toronto would be in the class of Nikola Vucevic, Nikola Mirotic or Malcolm Brogdon.
There’s another option: the nuclear one. If the trade for Leonard proved anything, it’s that teams are willing to go all-in to chase one ring. By all indications, that’s what the Lakers are doing, although they have designs on competing for at least a couple more years if everything falls into place.
If Leonard leaves, the best move (unfortunately) may be to blow it up, rather than try to compete in a landscape where a title is not impossible, but not extremely likely either.
The value of a player is never higher than when they help deliver a championship. It would be radically unpopular, but the trade values of Fred VanVleet and Siakam — all right, he’s not going anywhere — are skyrocketing.
The decision would be an almost impossible one to make, but that’s the job. Just ask DeMar DeRozan about how feelings intersect with business in the NBA.
Ultimately, Raptors fans hope first and foremost that Leonard decides to return for a contract of at least a few years. That will unquestionably keep the title window open for some time.
If he chooses not to do so, the most likely outcome for the Raptors is a middle-ground approach, where they sign mid-level free agents and role players who best fit Nick Nurse’s scheme and the team’s ideology, prying open the window of contention for as long as possible.
Many tried to encourage Leonard to announce a return — Toronto mayor John Tory, the fans chanting “stay,” Raptors co-owner Larry Tanenbaum and so on, but teammate Serge Ibaka wanted to give him some space.
“We’re enjoying this moment, that time is going to come, but I cannot really answer this, I cannot answer this question right now,” Ibaka said. “I don’t think right now he’s thinking about whether he re-signs or not, he’s just so happy and excited. I’ve been talking with him a lot during the season and in the playoffs, but after we won, I can see the man is happy. That’s the most important thing, because we play this sport because we want to enjoy and have fun and be happy and be somewhere people love you. I’m sure he feels that people here love him, and after this moment, that’s the most important.”
Leonard will become a free agent on June 30, which isn’t that far away.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to take the right time. You don’t need too many days to figure it out. And we’ll see, we’ll see what happens,” Leonard said. “I haven’t been thinking about it. I’m here to have fun. Once that time comes, then we’ll lay the pros and cons out.”
Interestingly, when team president Masai Ujiri was introduced, Leonard’s uncle and advisor Dennis Robertson stood and cheered, pointed and gave Ujiri a big thumbs up.
Leonard did say that his Toronto experience surpassed his expectations coming in.
“I expected to win a championship, but I do every year. It’s just great to reach our expectations as a team. We had everybody on the same page and wanting the same goal. And we made it happen,” he said, before referring to the off-the-court journey. “It was a good experience, experiencing mother nature, all four seasons. Man, it was a great experience. Everybody off the court was great. The fans. Just meeting people in Canada. It’s been fun.”
That sounded a bit like a sign-off, but where Leonard is concerned nothing can be read in to. He’s inscrutable.
This is exactly what police count on. When people see racial profiling as a benign accident at best, and bad actors tainting an otherwise good system at worst, its intended purpose is so obscured that we must discuss every offense, every case, every murder, every denial of our humanity as a one-off incident that forms no recognizable pattern of behaviour. Much less a structural tool of a system predicated on keeping Black people in a state of forced obsequiousness, no matter how high we rise within that system, or how powerful we may appear to be. What should have been the proudest moment of Ujiri’s life, and should have been a moment of unadulterated joy for Raptors fans, became yet another footnote in the body of evidence on racial profiling.
And our news media, for all of the promises to be mindful of its own blind spots, gave the police every ounce of undeserved credibility they asked for.
I’m afraid I have no lofty conclusion for my thoughts here, because there is nothing to conclude. The profiling of Masai Ujiri is just the latest entry in that never-ending conversation. Once it fades, we’ll be forced to recapitulate the entire argument, for whatever ridiculous reason, and I don’t look forward to it.
“I was standing in front of the very far right seat, right before the stairs, where me and my son were standing and waiting to leave. The policeman was standing on my left facing the court, on my left, and Mr. Ujiri came into my viewpoint from the right,” Wiener said, explaining that he had been on his way out of the arena to avoid the Raptors’ post-game celebration.
“I didn’t want to watch the Raptors celebrate on our court, the same as with the Cavaliers in 2016,” Wiener said.
Wiener did not detail the exact nature of the physical exchange between Ujiri and the deputy, but did say that after the deputy tried to “restrain” Ujiri, “that’s when he yelled out.”
“There was a bunch of people in the area, and it was super-crowded and starting to pile up with people waiting to exit through the tunnel area. There was chaos,” Wiener said.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department has said that they are seeking criminal charges against Ujiri.
Wiener said he spoke to the sheriff’s department Monday and said he may give a fuller statement to police later this week.
“I want to be as accurate and truthful as possible,” he said. “I don’t think I expressed myself correctly. It was only a minute before the whole thing transpired. I had to be a little more accurate and thoughtful, as people are saying some ridiculous things.”