For over a decade, the biggest swing in Toronto’s sports history came from Blue Jays slugger Joe Carter to win the 1993 World Series.
But not even that iconic home run can compete with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s swing for Kawhi Leonard, the first NBA Finals MVP in franchise history.
On July 18, Ujiri traded franchise-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green.
The result was an image that Raptors fans couldn’t have ever dreamed of this time last year: Leonard, in Toronto red, standing on the Larry O’Brien presentation platform with his hands raised in the air. After a controversial load-management strategy during the regular season, Leonard capped off one of the greatest postseason runs ever, culminating in one of the biggest Finals upsets ever.
Going against the two-time defending champs, the Raptors were the underdogs of underdogs. On the Sunday before the Finals, with Kevin Durant’s health status still in the air, Golden State opened as a minus-275 favorite at the Westgate SuperBook and even reached as high as minus-300 before settling in at minus-270, according to sports-betting trackers. Since 1969, NBA Finals series favorites of at least minus-200 are 26-3 and a 25-2 since 1976. Favorites of at least minus-300, where the Warriors peaked before Game 1, are 13-1 all-time.
The only upset more stunning by Vegas standards was the 2004 Finals, when the Detroit Pistons took down the minus-700 Los Angeles Lakers, a juggernaut that also came up short of its fourth championship in five years.
The Warriors were battered and worn down. But Leonard outlasted them all, winning a Finals MVP in his first season with the Raptors. But the Leonard trade didn’t just precipitate a championship. The real lasting power is that it may forever alter how NBA power-brokers think about deal-making.
By rewriting the Raptors’ crestfallen history in just one season, the Leonard acquisition may redefine the league as a whole.
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A LeBron James autograph, written on a crumbly piece of paper, stills hangs above Stephen Pike’s bed in his childhood home in St. John’s, the capital city of the remote Newfoundland-Labrador province in Canada. It’s laminated now and has been taped to his bedroom wall for the last 15 years, a reminder of when Pike and so many Canadians got hooked on the NBA.
This is what was on Pike’s mind when he trekked from his hometown in North Canada -- geographically closer to Greenland than Toronto, in fact -- to watch his beloved Raptors try to clinch the 2019 NBA Finals in Game 5 at ScotiaBank Arena. For the better of the last two decades, the ill-fated day that Pike got James’ autograph has stood as a symbol for the at times thrilling, yet mostly tortured existence of being a Raptors fan.
Fresh off being selected No. 1 overall in the NBA by the Cleveland Cavaliers, an 18-year-old James visited St. John’s -- a community of barely 100,000, or one-seventh the population of Winnipeg -- to play the Raptors on Oct. 23, 2003 in a preseason game. It was there, outside a small hotel in a far-off corner of Canada, that a 12-year-old Pike waited in line for a chance to see the biggest high school phenom the game had ever seen.
This was the Beatles playing a concert in Anchorage, Alaska, if Anchorage was half as populated. As James passed through a sea of screaming Canadian fans, Pike snuck James a piece of white paper, and The Chosen One scribbled down his signature as he hurried along. Pike kept the memento in his pocket when he showed up with his twin brother and father for the highly anticipated Raptors-Cavaliers game scheduled for later that night.
“We absolutely fell in love with the game after seeing the NBA players -- Vince Carter and LeBron James,” said Pike, now 28 years old, of what would be a memorable night for multiple reasons. “It’s been a love affair ever since.”
Prior to the 2003 NBA lottery that gave the Cavs the No. 1 overall pick and the Raptors the No. 4 overall pick, MLSE, the Raptors’ ownership group, struck a momentous deal to host a preseason game at Mile One Stadium (now Mile High Centre), the home of MSLE’s minor league hockey team. The arena, which had a 5,000-person capacity at the time, gets its namesake because St. John’s marks the starting point of the TransCanada highway that snakes across the vast country for 5,000 miles.
“The town was very excited," Pike said.
Only one problem.
“They never dealt with a basketball game before,” Pike said.
Actually, two problems: Oct. 23, 2003 was an unusually humid day in St. John’s, a dreaded weather outlook for a hockey arena. A thick fog ominously blanketed the entire town.
The Pike family showed up early to the sold-out arena, but condensation from the humidity and the rink below began to pool atop the court. An hour before the game, stadium officials asked attendees to help dry the playing court. So Pike and his brother grabbed towels handed out by the officials, got down on their hands and knees and began wiping down the hardwood in hopes that they could let James and Carter play.
Minutes later, the Raptors’ GM at the time, Glen Grunwald, walked out to the center of the damp court and announced the game was cancelled due to unsafe playing conditions.
"I will make you one promise," Grunwald told the fans in attendance. "The Toronto Raptors will return to this arena and play a game within two years."
“It was pretty sad,” Pike said. “But just to be close to the players was neat.”
Over the next year or so, Carter was traded from the Raptors and Grunwald was fired. The hockey team left St. John’s in 2005. To this day, Newfoundland-Labrador hasn’t hosted an NBA game.
“It was a one-time thing and hasn’t come back since,” Pike said. “I don’t know how it happened. I don’t see it happening any time soon ever again.”
Before Game 5 at ScotiaBank Arena, Grunwald told NBCSports.com that the canceled game was “a tragedy” and “the strangest night of my NBA career.”
But attending that canceled game still sparked a passion that will last a lifetime. After seeing James and Carter, Pike began practicing basketball regularly, and he ended up playing at the national level for his province Newfoundland-Labrador against some Ontario prospects named Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. In 2011, Thompson became the highest Canadian born draftee as the No. 4 overall pick, and Joseph was selected 29th by the San Antonio Spurs. Both grew up watching the Raptors and later became NBA champions.
“The Vince Carter effect,” Pike said.
Fifteen years after getting James’ signature, Pike traveled eight hours on two flights from his hometown in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of 8,000 people on the banks of Labrador Sea in Northern Canada, to be at ScotiaBank Arena to watch the Raptors win the NBA championship. All in all, Pike estimates he spent 3,000 Canadian dollars to attend Game 5, including an $860 seat in the upper deck and a $1,600 flight that took off in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and connected through Halifax’s airport.
“I’m pretty much in the janitor’s closet, but that’s OK,” Pike said. “As long as I had two feet in the building, I was happy with that.”
For a science teacher and varsity basketball coach at the local high school, the trip to Game 5 chewed up nearly all his savings. And that doesn’t count the cost of the Kyle Lowry jersey that he wore to the game, the “We The North” undershirt, the “We The North” flag he wrapped around his waist, the Raptors hat or the blue-yellow-red Newfoundland-Labrador provincial flag he brought to Jurassic Park so he could wave it proudly with thousands of Canadian fans.
Pike, like thousands of others who gathered in downtown Toronto on Tuesday night, will never forget that moment, which he began planning for immediately after the Eastern Conference finals.
“I knew as soon as they beat Milwaukee,” Pike said, “I was going to spend the money and make this once-in-a-lifetime trip.”
Sitting from his seat in Section 313 with his Labrador flag draped around his shoulders, Pike watched with his twin brother beside him as the Raptors came within 30 seconds of Canada’s first NBA title. They envisioned the hoisting of the Larry O’Brien trophy and a joyous celebration back home in Newfoundland-Labrador. The dream was becoming a reality.
Instead, the Raptors let it slip away, and the Pike brothers went home empty-handed again.
* * *
Masai Ujiri had seen enough. For the third straight year, the Raptors’ Finals chase ended prematurely at the hands of James and the Cavaliers. The defeats were so devastating that the city of Toronto had been dubbed “LeBronto” by ESPN and the NBA community at large.
As the team’s general manager since 2013 and team president since 2016, Ujiri has never shied away from reinventing the Raptors’ place in the NBA.
One of his first transactions with the team was trading away the team’s former No.1 overall pick, Andrea Bargnani, to the New York Knicks for three draft picks. Before his first postseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, Ujiri visited Toronto’s pre-game pep rally in Maple Leaf Square and blared into the microphone: “I got one thing I want to say before we go into the game … F*** Brooklyn! Let’s go!”
Four years later, after the winningest season in Raptors history, which capped the winningest stretch in Raptors history, Ujiri fired head coach Dwane Casey and promoted his top assistant coach, Nick Nurse, to take over. It was Nurse’s first head-coaching job in the NBA.
Fortune favors the bold. At the time, the decision to promote Nurse to the head coaching position seemed like Ujiri’s boldest gamble yet. But it was a pull at the penny slots compared to what he did a month later, trading for San Antonio’s injured small forward.
In a span of two months, Ujiri had gotten rid of two of the franchise’s most beloved members in order to deploy a player who played just nine games in the prior season.
The Leonard deal may go down as the biggest trade in NBA history. Only one other time has a team traded for a player that won a Finals MVP in his first season with the team. That came in 1982-83, after the Houston Rockets traded Moses Malone to the Philadelphia 76ers for Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round pick (which ended up being No. 3 pick Rodney McCray).
But that one comes with the caveat that it was functionally a sign-and-trade when Malone made his intentions clear that he wanted to sign in Philadelphia, and the two sides later agreed to facilitate a deal. Malone went on to win a regular season MVP and Finals MVP in his Philly debut season, uttering the iconic “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’” phrase along the way.
The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Ujiri made the deal even though Leonard reportedly didn’t even want to play in Toronto initially.
In June of 1992, Philadelphia traded Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. Barkley won the league MVP over Michael Jordan the following season, but His Airness got the last laugh by beating Sir Charles in the NBA Finals.
The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Leonard delivered a title.
For trades with a longer tail, you can look at the time the Los Angeles Lakers snagged a teenaged phenom named Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets by trading for his draft rights at pick No. 13 in exchange for Vlade Divac, who only played two seasons for the Hornets. Bryant won five titles with the Lakers.
The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Bryant didn’t win a Finals MVP or regular season MVP until a decade after the initial trade, and the Lakers, the antithesis of the Raptors, had already established themselves as one of the most successful franchises in sports.
Leonard occupies the rare space of a cult hero turned global superstar. He last posted on social media in 2015, wrapping it up after his fourth tweet on his verified Twitter account. He wears New Balances and hasn’t changed his cornrow hairstyle in over a decade. His most culturally-relevant moment came when he laughed at a press conference.
And yet, an MSLE official told NBCSports.com that Leonard jerseys have become the No. 1 selling jersey in franchise history over one season, outpacing Carter, DeRozan and Lowry’s best in one-season sales.
“Kawhi Leonard jerseys sales,” the MLSE official said, “have exceeded all expectations.”
* * *
All NBA champions need a little luck to go their way. For the Raptors, it must be noted, not as a slight, but as a matter of fact, that the Warriors literally began to fall apart this postseason, the fifth Finals run for the franchise.
In fact, five of the Warriors’ top seven players missed at least one game due to injury this postseason. Kevin Durant missed 10 games with a calf injury and torn Achilles; DeMarcus Cousins missed 14 games with a torn quad; Andre Iguodala labored through a calf strain that knocked him out for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals; Kevon Looney suffered a chest injury, sidelining him for Game 3 of the NBA Finals; Klay Thompson pulled his hamstring in Game 2 and then hobbled off the court in Game 6 in heartbreaking fashion with a torn ACL.
All in all, the 2019 Warriors encountered the same fate as the 2015 Cavaliers that played much of the postseason without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, except this Warriors team suffered more injuries from a total-missed-games standpoint. The 2018-19 Warriors saw 27 games missed due to injury by their top seven players in minutes per game. The 2014-15 Cavs suffered 25 games lost due to injury (Love missed 16, Irving seven and J.R. Smith two).
The legacy of this Warriors team has to be its resilience. It fought to the final seconds in Game 6 despite being battered to the bone. In the fourth quarter, as the Raptors recovered offensive rebound after offensive rebound over a laboring Cousins, who could barely jump off the ground, Looney could only look on from the bench with a heating pad strapped to his right shoulder. No Thompson, no Durant. That image will be forever stained in the minds of Warriors fans.
But to say the Raptors were lucky is an insult to their training staff, led by director of sports science Alex McKechnie. The Raptors were one of the healthiest, strongest teams we’ve seen in this sport. The Raptors’ top seven in minutes per game in the regular season -- Leonard, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka -- missed a grand total of zero games due to injury this postseason. VanVleet lost a tooth and needed seven stitches to repair his face at one point, but he played well enough to earn a Finals MVP vote.
After losing the first game of the postseason to Orlando, the Raptors just bulldozed their way to the title. They swept the Magic after that first loss, took down the mighty Philadelphia 76ers, who sported the best net-rating of any starting lineup in the East. They mowed down the expected MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks after going down 0-2.
To top it all off, they swept the Warriors on their home floor in the NBA Finals, winning all three games in the sendoff to Oracle Arena. The Raptors don’t care about your sentimentality, MVPs or Process. They mean business.
Yes, an NBA champion needs a little luck. But the Raptors damn well created their own as well.
* * *
By swinging the Leonard trade and then acquiring Gasol at the trade deadline, Ujiri made himself into one of the most coveted executives in the NBA.
But his Midas touch wasn’t limited to this season. Keep in mind that Poeltl, the second player that Ujiri sent to San Antonio for Leonard, was selected with the No. 9 pick in the 2016 draft. How did the Raptors pick in that slot? Because Ujiri nabbed a first-rounder from the New York Knicks in exchange for Bargnani, who was out of the league three years later.
The Washington Wizards are expected to offer Ujiri an annual $10 million deal, according to ESPN, and for good reason. But it likely doesn’t get into the eight-figure annual zone unless he makes that trade for Leonard.
The NBA is a copycat league, and executives around the league expect more teams to try to emulate the Leonard blueprint, encouraging more teams to be more aggressive this summer when chasing stars like Anthony Davis. See what Leonard did in Toronto? Go all in for Davis.
That’s what happens when a traded player wins Finals MVP in his debut season. That’s what happens when you win a franchise’s first ever championship and make fans from the remote corners of the world make a pilgrimage to ScotiaBank Arena. That’s what happens when you make the biggest trade in NBA history to land the best player in the world.
“I wanted to make history here,” Leonard said after winning the 2019 Finals, “and that’s all I did.”