The Raptors Were A Transformational Team-- If Only For One Year
You don’t have to ask the impact of the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA title last week. Two million people on the streets of that city speak to the engagement created by the team’s dramatic process through the playoffs. Think of the public’s addiction to the games as Game Of Thrones— except with guys in short pants.
But every year there’s a champion, and every year people get excited about wins and losses. (Plus, a healthy Kevin Durant for Golden State would still have meant a romp for the Warriors.) You can make the case, however, that the Raptors win was transformative for the league, the business of sport and for Canada in general. They will talk about this team for years.
Allow me to explain. The acquisition of Raptors star Kawhi Leonard last summer was equal measures of burglary and insanity. Rated as one of the top five players in the NBA, Leonard was a game changer for a team that had never had a game changer in its 25-year history of mediocrity and disappointment.
Getting him to Toronto in the same year LeBron James took his championship act to the Western Conference was perfect timing. GMs around the East were faced to tell their owners that Toronto would regret bringing in a guy who’d missed much of the previous year to injury. Well, we saw how that worked.
The Raptors coddled Leonard all season in something called load management. We noted the riskiness of this strategy in this column earlier. Come playoff time, he’d played just 58 of the team’s 82 games. But he was fresh as a daisy come April when the serious work load was needed. The gamble paid off.
If you don’t think franchises in all sports were watching this treatment for stars you’re nuts. Look to see all manner of superstars in all leagues rested frequently on back-to-back nights and other tiring stretches of the season. Fans will hate it. Unless your team is one of the precious few who turns it into a title— as the Raptors just did.
The insanity part is that Leonard is going to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, free to abandon Toronto and go elsewhere. Everyone in the NBA sphere knew this, and speculation had him going to Los Angeles Clippers (in his hometown), the New York Knicks and just bout every other rich team.
Even as he celebrated in the parade Monday, Leonard was pokerfaced about his destiny. He occasionally referred to the Raptors as “them” not “us”. There are many financial and emotional reasons to say Leonard stays in Toronto to win another championship. But this guy does things his own way. And American players still don’t accept Toronto and Canada as a place to feel at home.
Give him a few weeks back in L.A. with ESPN and such talking up other teams and Toronto could soon be a speck in his rearview mirror. And don’t expect a quick decision. How should Toronto feel if he leaves? Most people will be crestfallen— but few will give back the title that only Kawhi could produce.
The Raptors were also profound in the way they exhausted the mighty Warriors in their fourth straight finals appearance. While they did not “injure” any one of Kevin Durant, Klay Thomson or Kevon Looney, they pushed them to the brink where injuries are more likely for aging players. With both KD and Thompson out all next year, Golden State will not be winning any titles in 2020.
In fact, those injuries scramble the entire league this summer. Teams hoping to acquire a Leonard or a KD— as the Raps just did— are finding the cupboard bare even if their bank accounts are groaning with cash. Many think KD and Thompson stay with GS now, rehab a year then try for the big money in two years. Good luck with that.
The Lakers’ costly acquisition this weekend of Anthony Davis from New Orleans was a star franchise trying to get the jump on everyone in snagging a star in the diminished market. Leonard will have lots of suitors should he turn his back on Toronto.
Finally, the Raptors win drowned out the national sport in Canada. Canada hasn’t seen a Cup win since 1993, and the absence was particularly noticed as fans across the country became addicted to hoops and the Raptors. Few noticed or cared that St. Louis won its first Stanley Cup.
Few in contentious Canada cared that it was a Toronto team winning the NBA. Or that none of the stars of the team were Canadian. Or that the players were almost all of colour.
The changing demographics this country— and the relative costs— are seeing more young athletes of both sexes choose basketball (or soccer) over hockey. The American hype machine, too, is acting against the NHL’s traditional brand. The NBA knows sport is now driven by stars. The NHL thinks the crest on the chest matters. Someone is going to lose that gamble— and it won’t be the NBA.
For this week it’s time to celebrate the Raptors success. Now, if we could just edit the team’s highlight film to eliminate the Toronto mayor in his gaudy gold coat and the obnoxious rapper, it will be a perfect summer.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.