OK, just hear me out.
Everyone knows the Toronto Raptors wouldn’t have won their first NBA championship without Kawhi Leonard. This is not news. Leonard is a clutch playoff performer, a tactician who takes his game to a higher level in the post-season, just like all of the truly great players in NBA history.
I get that. We all get that.
Here’s the Korean call of Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot. People, I have chills. (call from SpoTV) pic.twitter.com/lwKvqB24go
— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) May 13, 2019
Leonard is touched by the basketball gods, and an asset to any team he plays for, one of only a handful of players who can carry a team on his back, like Magic, Bird, Jordan, Lebron, or Kobe Bryant. Since the 80s, NBA fans have been conditioned to believe every championship team requires a superstar who can take over a game. But over the years the singular superstar set-up morphed into franchises with the willingness to buy multiple superstars as teams began stacking their squads and creating foregone conclusions as to who would make the finals each year.
The Boston Celtics set the league on fire in 2007-2008 by acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside superstar Paul Pierce. That Boston team was the starting point in the new era of stacked teams, where off-season acquisitions and trade deadline deals create literal super teams comprised of all-stars, playoff veterans, and one time champions.
So in 2010-2011, The Miami Heat signed Lebron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade. You probably remember the spectacle of James’ The Decision, a televised event that basically sanctioned the concept that the players had more clout than general managers, colluding with each other and each other’s agents, essentially plotting the doom of normal, un-stacked franchises.
In 2017, when Kevin Durant abandoned Oklahoma City for the team who crushed him in the playoffs, it turned the Golden State Warriors into one of the best teams ever assembled. Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson went to three consecutive NBA finals, winning two while losing the last to Leonard and the Raptors.
This season the Raptors do not have a top 5 player. Still, they are the defending champions. An important piece to winning a championship is having a team littered with players who have won before. Knowing what it feels like to grind in a game 7 is the best way to prepare before playing in a game 7.
Moreover, Coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors front office have an acute instinct for finding, developing, and turning even undrafted players into burgeoning talent. They also have a good mix of luck and clutch performances. They were the fortunate sons of Leonard’s load management system which provided an opportunity to improve. Last year Pascal Siakum and Fred Vanvleet were the main benefactors of Leonard’s missed games. The Raptors had a higher winning percentage (.778) playing without Leonard than they did with him in the line-up (.683).
What it do babyyyy pic.twitter.com/faW8YOC5eo
— Fuck It Tho Bro, Its Your Life (@Projectsprodigy) January 24, 2020
This season the Raptors are winning with a different clutch performer almost every game. If you’ve watched every game this season, you have seen players like Norm Powell blossom into a fantastic, all-around player, especially offensively. True, they don’t have an automatic first option, but they have 4 or 5 guys you can trust throwing up the last shot. Lowry, Vanvleet, Powell, Ibaka, even Gasol; they all seem like reasonable options with the game on the line. Young players like Patrick McCaw, Chris Boucher, and OG Anunoby have all upped their game, whether it was Lowry, or Ibaka, or Marc Gasol, or Powell, or Vanvleet in street clothes.
They play as a unit, one without the advantage of a superstar, and still sit in third place overall. Meanwhile, the Lakers are the present-day ridiculously stacked team, the Milwaukee Bucks have their main marquis player, but the Raptors are the defending champions with several players blossoming simultaneously. Add to that some mid-90s toughness, plus the highest producing bench in the league, and you are left with a legit contender who doesn’t rely on a savior or two.
On paper, we are not the best team, but we are easily the most intriguing. A uniquely dangerous squad of unselfish talent, and team chemistry that indicates it was never just Kawhi. He was the centerpiece, but he had a lot of help.
The Raptors have won 13 straight & are now 38-14 after first 52 games which is the best start in franchise history despite:
♦️Siakam & Lowry missing 11 games
♦️Gasol missing 16 games
♦️Ibaka missing 10 games
♦️Powell missing 13 games
♦️Vanvleet missing 9 games pic.twitter.com/9kmM5uKgW5
— Ball Realm (@TheBallRealm) February 8, 2020
At the time of this writing, the Raptors have won 13 in a row, a franchise record. Powell, Gasol, and, as of last night, Kyle Lowry, is injured. But Ibaka is playing the best basketball of his career. Davis is showing glimpses of a future all-star. The overall contribution is balanced, anchored by feisty defensive play, a different hero every game, and a coach who seems to see inside the game, despite an almost-constant expression of utter guffaw after every other whistle. He’s just hungry. They all are.
So have faith, Raptor fans, because if any team can defy the conventional wisdom of stacking your roster, or being blessed with a god-like player, it’s this one.