OAKLAND — Five years ago, I asked Masai Ujiri to describe his preferred method for building a championship contender. Did you need a superstar, or could you construct a title team that was deep and talented instead of top-heavy?“I don’t know what the model is,” Ujiri said then, refusing to concede that there was a binary choice between the two. It was a bit of a dodge, but it was also a dodge of a question. What I was really asking, back when Ujiri had come close to tearing apart the Toronto Raptors team that he had taken over but instead watched it make a surprising return to the post-season, was whether he thought the Raptors’ core was good enough to build around. The team president said then that his objective was always going to be to win. It would be a process, but winning would be the goal.It’s a process that ended on Thursday night, when his team, eventually constructed around a true superstar, won its first NBA title. But while Ujiri has received, deservedly, plaudits for the amazingly bold strokes of last summer that led directly to the championship — the trade of DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, the coaching change — it is also true that this Raptors team is the product of a slow and steady build, just the kind of process he talked about those years ago, long before LeBron James had even once embarrassed his team in the playoffs.The Toronto Raptors are not just a case study in the merits of going for it, they are a shining example of what can happen when a professional sports team just tries to win games.It’s a process that ended on Thursday night, when his team, eventually constructed around a true superstar, won its first NBA title
It is an attitude that, these days, can be in distressingly short supply. Thanks in large part to the forced parity of North America’s pro leagues, with their amateur drafts and their salary caps, teams have discovered, particularly in the age of analytics, that there is little value in being mediocre. If a roster isn’t good enough to seriously contend, but is decent enough to still eat up salary money and win some games, then the team won’t have the cap space to pursue prized free agents or the high draft picks that might bring franchise players. Enough teams have been successful going the other route — jettisoning useful pieces in an effort to be bad while stocking up on young, cheap talent — that it has become gospel that savvy executives know better than to simply aim for competence.But the Toronto Raptors have just turned that argument on its ear. There’s some irony here in that Ujiri did almost trade Kyle Lowry in 2014 as the first step of a total teardown, but in simply trying to be a good team and an improving team year after year, the Raptors have etched out a blueprint for a different way of doing things. It isn’t even particularly complicated. When DeMar DeRozan became a free agent after the 2016 season, the existential question that loomed over the Raptors was whether a team with him as a foundational piece could be good enough to contend. The Raptors’ front office almost certainly knew that the answer to that question was not a positive one, but the team had made big strides with DeRozan as its leading scorer, and it wasn’t like there was a lineup of big-name free agents waiting to come to Toronto.
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri celebrates with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy after defeating the Golden State Warriors for the NBA Championship in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports ORG
Confronted by the option to turn the Raptors bad so that they would have a higher probability of one day becoming great, Ujiri put more value instead on being good. He resigned DeRozan, as he would Lowry the following summer, while perpetually making moves intended to make his team a tougher out in the post-season. Over all this period, that existential question still loomed: could a Raptors team led by DeRozan and Lowry get over the hump? That was looking less and less likely as they kept getting swatted aside by LeBron James year after year, but there was no denying that the Raptors had grown into a franchise that could be counted on to win 50-something games every year and maybe advance through a playoff round or two. On one hand, there was a sense of spinning wheels, especially with the annual exit at the hands of the Cavaliers, but on the other hand they played a lot of winning basketball and sent their fans home happy far more often than not and gave themselves at least the chance to finally make it to unseen heights. The decision not to tank, the decision to keep trying to improve, to build a deep, talented roster, all of that contributed to the state of the Raptors a year ago, where Ujiri and his staff unexpectedly found themselves in the mix for a possible trade for Leonard. That worked out OK, you may have heard.The Raptors kept trying to be good, and then circumstances, many of them beyond the team’s control, conspired to make them pretty great, and then all of a sudden they were playing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, winning games and watching a master-class in how not to deal with serious leg injuries. The new NBA champions show what can happen when a team doesn’t opt to bottom out, but focuses on year over year improvement. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, and yet it today’s pro-sports landscape, it kind of is.The Raptors happen to have corporate cousins who went a different route. The Maple Leafs did the teardown and rebuild, and it worked exceedingly well in a short period of time, except for the niggling part where they have yet to win a playoff round. The Blue Jays, more like second-cousins to the Raptors, are meanwhile engaged in a scorched-earth rebuild that could take years to prove dividends. That path may work, too. It will just have a lot more losing in the build up to the good years.Here is hoping that more teams follow the route of the Raptors. Try to be good, and maybe things will work out. Which brings us back to something else Ujiri said in that interview back in the fall of 2014. “We want to win,” he said. “I don’t care what sport it is, if you aren’t trying to win, you should figure out something else to do.”The Raptors tried to win. And then they did.Postmedia News