Moments of the Year in Sports: Kawhi Leonard Leads Raptors to First NBA Championship

Looking back on the best moments of 2019, Kawhi Leonard asserted his place as one of the NBA's absolute best players and delivered the city of Toronto its first NBA championship.
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Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Last June, Masai Ujiri pumped his fists on a crowded dais in Oakland, his dark suit standing out in a sea of white championship tee shirts. Just 11 months earlier, the Raptors’ president executed one of the boldest trades in recent memory, flipping All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Pöltl and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, an injured, All-NBA forward with a year left on his contract. It was a risk. The reward—the first title in Toronto’s 24-year franchise history—proved worth it.

The easiest thing Ujuri could have done? Nothing. He was under no pressure to go all-in on a championship in 2019. Toronto was coming off a 59-win season and a fifth straight playoff appearance. After a disappointing second-round exit a year earlier Ujiri had fired coach Dwane Casey, replacing him with assistant Nick Nurse, but his own job was never in jeopardy. Besides, the departure to Los Angeles of LeBron James—whose Cavaliers had knocked Toronto out of the playoffs three straight seasons—almost automatically moved the Raptors up the Eastern Conference food chain.

For weeks, Toronto debated acquiring Leonard, whose balky right leg limited him to nine games in 2017–18. In mid-July, Ujiri pulled the trigger. “I have a mandate . . . to win a championship,” he told SI in January. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. We gave a chance to [that] team. We tried to build it as much as we can.”

The challenge of integrating Leonard was two-fold. On-court chemistry needed to be developed—quickly. That meant getting Kyle Lowry on board. The point guard was upset by the decision to jettison DeRozan, a teammate for six seasons and a close friend. He felt blindsided by Ujiri. A day after the trade, Leonard texted Lowry, I know you’re mad. But let’s do something special. Lowry accepted the olive branch. Leonard slipped seamlessly into DeRozan’s slot, serving as the backbone of a top-five defense with shooting guard Danny Green—who came in the sane trade—and forward Pascal Siakam.

Managing Leonard’s leg was another issue. In the early 2000s, Alex McKechnie earned league-wide respect for his work keeping Shaquille O’Neal healthy for the Lakers three championship runs. In 2011, McKechnie joined the Raptors as director of sports science. In ’18, he oversaw Leonard’s recovery. Load management was part of the NBA’s lexicon before last season, but McKechnie and the Raptors took it to a new level, sitting Leonard for 22 games in an effort to keep him healthy for the playoffs. The results: Leonard averaged a career-high 30.5 points in the postseason. He rattled home an off-balance winner from the corner in Game 7 of the conference semifinals against Philadelphia. His numbers in the Finals victory over the Warriors: 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks. “I wanted to make history here,” said Leonard the Finals MVP. “That’s what I did.”

Leonard left Toronto last summer, signing a three-year, $103 million deal with the Clippers. But the Leonard experience left the Raptors with more than just a title. For Lowry, Leonard’s business-like approach will forever resonate. “Never get up, never get down,” says Lowry. “That’s one thing I’m going to continue with for the rest of my career.” Siakam, a highly skilled 6’ 9”, 230-pound forward, has emerged as an MVP candidate this season. A year spent learning from Leonard, Siakam says, was invaluable. “His poise and how he doesn’t really get rattled, I’ve tried to add that to my game,” Siakam said. “When I miss a couple of shots...just staying confident. I think that’s something he had and always had.”

The Raptors have some retooling to do before they rejoin the ranks of title contenders. But they have Nurse. They have Siakam. And they have Fred VanVleet, a 25-year old guard whose five three-pointers in Game 6 powered Toronto’s series-clinching win. They were 17–5 without Leonard last season, a record that foreshadowed their strong start to this one. And they have sent a message across the NBA: Being good is fine, but don’t fear daring to be great.