How Did They Get Here?

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Top 5 Masai Ujiri Moves That Paved the Way to the Raptors 1st NBA Title

When the NBA trophy is awarded, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of winning it all.

It’s the most important part of sports – winning the championship.

But what makes every championship win so much more monumental is the journey that it took to reach that special point. That journey is different for every title-winning team.

There is no story that follows the same script.

The Golden State Warriors initially built an analytically-driven team led by homegrown talent en route to its first championship in over four decades. The Cleveland Cavaliers then signed LeBron James and brought in Kevin Love via trade. The 73-9 Warriors retaliated by inking Kevin Durant to a contract. Go down the line throughout NBA history, no title team was ever constructed in the same exact blueprint or the same exact mold.

The Toronto Raptors are a perfectly example of how different a journey to a championship can be.

For over half a decade, the Raptors were led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, along with a team surrounded by various role players. The lone year Toronto made the Conference Finals, their starting lineup included an over-the-hill veteran in Luis Scola and an offensively limited Bismack Biyombo.

Then, last summer, Masai Ujiri and newly-named general manager Brian Webster decided to roll the dice. Firing the Head Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey, the Raptors made an in-house hire, promoting assistant coach Nick Nurse to the helm. The Raptors then made the gutsiest move in the franchise’s history.

Realizing that the team has more than likely peaked with DeRozan as the cornerstone superstar, Ujiri took advantage of a souring situation in San Antonio to snatch a top-five player in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard, along with the sharp-shooting veteran Danny Green. Initial reports suggested Leonard had no interest in even suiting up with the Raptors, yet Ujiri and Webster knew this was their moment.

This was a make it or break it move and the risk of a lifetime – a move that will cement Ujiri’s legacy in Toronto forever.

But a move such as the Leonard-DeRozan blockbuster does not happen overnight and while the Raptors did receive a superstar in Leonard, Ujiri has a long resume of trades that helped the Raptors reach this point. It was a title which was years in the making and to make it all possible, there were five incredible moves in particular that will stand out when looking back at the construction of the 2019 NBA champions.

5. Nabbing Serge Ibaka

Ujiri realized that the Terrence Ross experiment was not working.

For years, the Raptors were unable to find a reliable power forward and at the 2017 trade deadline, Ujiri finally found his man in the form of Serge Ibaka. After a disappointing end to the campaign, Masai opted to re-sign both Ibaka and Lowry to three-year contracts, signalling that the Raptors had a three year window to capitalize with the current core in place.

After struggling to perform alongside Valanciunas all of last season, Ibaka looked like a completely different player this past regular season and the playoffs. Playing a key role off the bench, Ibaka was a rebounding and blocking machine, ultimately giving the Raptors a clear size advantage over the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

Oh, and the Lowry-Ibaka pick-n-roll, deadly!

4. Rebuild? 

We’re taking this way back.

The Raptors were ready to hit the re-set button.

Canadian Andrew Wiggins was said to be the most dynamic prospect since LeBron James and the Raptors were heading no where with Rudy Gay as the team’s “star”. A trade was made as Ujiri moved Gay to the Sacramento Kings for Patrick Patterson, Grievis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes.

Suddenly, the Raptors began winning, reeling off 14 wins in their next 20 games en route to the first playoff berth in the Kyle Lowry-Ujiri era.

The rest is history.

3. Going off the Board

In the 2016 NBA Draft, the Ujiri and the Raptors decided to go off the board, shocking the league by selecting the long and lanky, yet relatively raw Pascal Siakam out of New Mexico State.

Built in a similar mold to Bruno Caboclo – we all know that story – in terms of length and rawness, the Raptors were ready to take yet another gamble, passing up on much more touted names on Draft night such as Skal Labissiere, Tyler Ulis, and Deyonota Davis in favour of the Cameroonian forward.

Siakam would develop and improve each season and now is unquestionably the NBA’s Most Improved Player, on the verge of stardom. No one is doubting Ujiri’s drafting acumen as Siakam looks poised to become an All-Star next season after following up a stellar season with a remarkable playoff run, concluding with a 26-point Game 6 performance.

2. Rollin’ the Dice on Gasol

Jonas Valanciunas was a homegrown talent, a centre who encapsulated everything it meant to be a Raptor.

Willing to sacrifice for the betterment of his team, consistently battling in the paint, but no matter how dominant JV looked at times during the regular season, his defensive liabilities and offensive limitations came to the forefront in the playoffs. Along with fellow homegrown talent in Delon Wright and CJ Miles, Ujiri made a key trade deadline move in acquiring savvy veteran Marc Gasol.

Wright was set to enter restricted free agency and the Raptors seemed to have no plans of re-signing the backup guard. Meanwhile Miles inability to remain consistent from long range left the Raptors no choice but to throw him in the doghouse for the majority of the season.

Enter Marc Gasol, a big money contract for an aging center with an expensive player option for next season.

Following the deadline, the Raptors became the NBA’s best three-point shooting team. Gasol’s high basketball IQ was evident on both ends of the court. Not only was he able to hit key perimeter shots, but the Raptors were able to utilize his passing abilities to, at times, run the offense through him. Defensively, he shut down Nikola Vucevic, Joel Embiid, and DeMarcus Cousins, while playing a key role in slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo.

You cannot teach experience.

1. Acquiring The Klaw

Is there really anything else to add?

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