TORONTO -- The gamble of all gambles.
After the Toronto Raptors rattled off five straight seasons of 48-plus wins, including a 59-23 record in 2017-18, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri went for broke last summer.
Despite posting a 320-238 record over seven seasons in The Six, Ujiri let coach Dwane Casey go. Despite four All-Star appearances, Ujiri sent leading scorer DeMar DeRozan packing.
It was a roll of the dice, and so far, Ujiri looks like a genius.
The Raptors couldn’t get over the hump. After a series of disappointing setbacks in the conference semifinals, Ujiri had to mix things up. Casey and DeRozan weren’t part of the problem, but they also couldn’t come up with the answer that Toronto was looking for.
“Give Dwane Casey credit, he prepared us for this, too,” Ujiri said Wednesday. “This is not something that started in one year. I don't know that a team can just start in one year. So I think, I want to say that Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are a part of this, they are part of our journey and how far this has come.”
Beginning with Game 1 on Thursday night, the Raptors will host the NBA Finals, and the city of Toronto is in love. They are in love with Kawhi Leonard, who was obtained in the DeRozan trade from the San Antonio Spurs. They are in love with the team that is tasked with bringing the first NBA championship to Canada.
From the guy working the coffee counter at the hotel to the signs outside every Tim Horton's, it’s easy to see that this is the moment Raptors fans have yearned for since the franchise entered the league in 1995.
“It's surreal, but I think when you put the team together and we all dream of a championship, we all think about that, and I think the change was hard at the time, but we knew the kind of player we were getting [in Leonard], and if we overcame and we dealt with all the issues that we felt that could come together," Ujiri said. "I think we were all positive about this kind of moment and all dreamt about it."
The Raptors doubled down at the NBA trade deadline, bringing in veterans Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin to solidify the rotation. Under new coach Nick Nurse, Toronto finished the season 58-24, good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference.
After beating the Orlando Magic 4-1 in the first round of the NBA playoffs and surviving a seven-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second, Toronto dropped two straight to the Milwaukee Bucks to begin the Eastern Conference finals. Riding the incredible play of Leonard, the Raptors then reeled off four straight wins to advance to The Finals.
“Kawhi's quiet, but he's relentless,” Ujiri said. “I tell you, his work ethic is almost crazy how his regimen, taking care of his body and doing all the work.”
It’s the ultimate risk. Leonard is a superstar, but he was coming off an injury-riddled 2017-18 season, and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Despite the incredible run, Leonard hasn’t committed to Toronto after this season.
“I said it from Day 1, we are going to be us,” Ujiri said. “I think Kawhi Leonard is a superstar, and we're going to treat him like a superstar, but we're also going to do all the natural things that I think will help us get to that level, to convince Kawhi that this is the place for him.”
As for conversations between the sides? The focus is on winning a ring for the city of Toronto and to deal with the rest of it at the appropriate time.
“The future conversations I've had with Kawhi are about the Golden State Warriors, and that's his mindset," Ujiri said. "His mindset is what is at hand right now, what's the job right now. And the job right now is to beat the Golden State Warriors. I think when he came here, he made it clear he wanted to be healthy. He wants to play on a good team that would compete.”
Ujiri and the rest of Toronto have done everything in their power to convince the star forward to stick around, but he holds all the cards. Maybe a championship banner and the lure of more would give the Raptors an advantage.
Then again, this might be the ultimate one-and-done situation. Only Leonard knows where he’ll play next season, and he might not even be 100 percent at this moment.
Win or lose, Ujiri, the Raptors and the city of Toronto have made their case. All they can do now is hope that they’ve done enough.