In the offseason leading up to the 2018-19 campaign, the Toronto Raptors were good, but not considered a top contender. As far as everyone knew, this league still belonged to the Golden State Warriors, and the title was expected to end up in Oakland again. That was until the Raptors went to work by making some of the biggest and most influential roster moves in the history of the league. Today, we cover the clutch front office moves that put this Toronto team in a position to take their first-ever NBA Championship.
Masai Ujiri is “the real MVP”
While Kawhi Leonard is getting all of the love on the court, its Raptors president of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri, who deserves the attention off the court. Ujiri undertook the responsibility of taking a solid Raptors team in 2017-18 to the next level. Take a look at some of his most influential decisions made heading into the 2018-19 season.
June 14, 2018 : Nick Nurse appointment
In the season before Kawhi arrived, Toronto was trending up. They had just won a franchise-high 59 regular season games, and their head coach Dwane Casey had won the Coach of the Year award. Despite the positive signs, Ujiri was unsatisfied, leading to the decision of firing Casey.
This move was highly controversial considering the consistent playoff appearances and competitive series that the Raptors were known for. Nonetheless, Casey was out, and his position was in need of a replacement. Ujiri and the Raptors front office took the risky move of hiring within, as they chose to promote G-League coach Nick Nurse to take over in Toronto. This move was soon vindicated by the massive success of Nurse, who led the Raptors to a 58 win regular season in his first year, capturing the franchise’s first title at the end of the season.
July 18, 2018 : Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard
After Nurse was appointed as the new head coach in Toronto, it was time to give him some new talent to work with. In July, the Raptors sent shockwaves around the league when it was announced that they had completed a trade for former Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. The details of the trade are listed below.
- Spurs get : DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 1st round draft pick
- Raptors get : Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and cash ($5-$8.5 Million)
While this trade is hard to deny with hindsight, there was much controversy when it initially took place. A majority of Raptors fans were unhappy with the move when it first took place, whether they will admit it or not.
Trading for a top talent is never cheap, and the Raptors gave up a hefty amount to make it happen. When the trade was made, Kawhi Leonard was not considered to be a top three player in this league. Leonard had played just nine games in 2017-18, and he only had one mandatory year left on his contract. In all reality, this trade was filled with risks, but Ujiri pulled the trigger anyways.
The Raptors had to trade away fan-favorite forward DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan was beloved in Toronto, and his departure was met by dismay by many Raptors supporters, including guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry was one of DeRozan’s best friends, created uneasy feelings after the trade, causing Lowry and Masai Ujiri to not speak to each other for a majority of the 2018-19 season. Lowry was not alone, as many of the Toronto faithful were questioning such a momentous trade.
Feb 7, 2019 : Raptors trade for Marc Gasol
Jump forward seven months after the Leonard trade, and the Raptors are sitting near the top of the Eastern Conference. Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office were looking for ways to significantly strengthen their roster, and a sinking Grizzlies team gave them that opportunity.
Grizzlies get : C.J. Miles, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and a 2024 2nd round draft pick
Raptors get : Marc Gasol
This trade went under the radar for many fans, but it’s importance can’t be overstated. Gasol brought size, experience, and an extra dimension to this Raptors squad, making them one of the most dynamic teams in the NBA. Gasol would go on to average 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in the postseason en route to the title.
Raptors get it done
In the end, it is clear to see the huge impact that these trades had on the Raptors season and their successful trip to the Finals. As the saying goes, no pain – no gain. In Masai Ujiri’s case, there had to be plenty of pain when deciding it was time to trade away DeMar DeRozan; But the gain was sweet for Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard would go on to have one of the best seasons of any Raptors player ever. Leonard put up 26.6 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game, and 1.8 steals per game in the regular season, and was able to cap it off with a Finals MVP award.
It’s safe to say that the roster moves made by Masai Ujiri was well worth it, making him one of the most valuable pieces of this Toronto franchise.