Steph Curry is Warriors' breaking point

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NBC Sports

Steph Curry is Warriors' breaking point

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have made it clear. They’re moving on from last week’s profanity-laced incident and as a team, the Warriors hope to do the same.

But there’s a reason this cut so deep, and why Green’s scathing words might linger. Strip away the expletives and you’ll see there’s some truth to what Draymond shouted at KD. 

“We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave,” Green brandished at Durant, according to Yahoo! Sports.

There’s more than a kernel of truth in those first two sentences. But the Warriors might not know how true they really are -- especially for this iteration of the team -- without a closer look at the team’s track record.

Green, and the rest of the Warriors, already know they won the 2015 championship without Durant. Green was also the fiery fulcrum of the record-breaking 73-9 team that beat Durant and Russell Westbrook in the 2016 Western Conference Finals en route to the 2016 Finals.

But what Dub Nation might not know is just how declarative the numbers are on this subject. There’s a mountain of evidence that Stephen Curry, not Durant, is what makes this team special. And with each passing day, that mountain is only getting bigger.

* * *

One way to see Curry’s greatness is to see what the Warriors do without him. This season, it hasn't been pretty. Secondly, you must understand how dominant the Warriors are no matter who is next to Curry.

It’s no coincidence that Green and Durant’s argument bubbled to the surface when Curry was sidelined. They're struggling without him. The Warriors, with three All-NBA players suiting up, probably shouldn't have needed a last-second bucket to top the Los Angeles Clippers in the first place (they lost by five). Nor should they have gotten blasted 107-86 on national TV by the Houston Rockets, who entered with a 6-7 record. 

So far this season, the Warriors are 2-4 without Curry, but that follows a larger trend that’s becoming harder to ignore. Since 2014-15, Golden State is just 23-22 without Curry in uniform, outscored by a troubling 53 points in the middle of a dynasty.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you go deeper into the numbers with regard to Curry's presence, that’s when things go from interesting to downright fascinating. 

You can pluck All-Star after All-Star off the court like flower petals, and the Steph-led Warriors will still dominate like a champion. He's that transcendent of a player.

Since KD arrived at the start of the 2016-17 season, Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green have played 1,921 minutes as a group on the floor, according to the powerful pbpstats.com database. During that span, the Warriors are plus-16.9 per 100 possessions with that foursome on the court. When people complain that the Warriors are unfair, this is what they’re talking about -- a plus-16.9 point differential is the stuff of legend. (For reference, only three teams in the past decade have crossed the double-digit zone for a full season: the 2015-16 Warriors (who won 73 games), the '15-16 Spurs (who won 67 games) and the '14-15 Warriors that won (67 games).)

Now, let’s call back to Green’s outburst and examine the Warriors when we take Durant off the floor. What happens? Probably a big drop-off, right? I mean, the guy's an MVP, two-time Finals MVP and fifth all-time in career scoring average. 

Actually, without KD, the Warriors are still super dominant. Golden State is plus-14.8 in 672 minutes with Curry, Thompson and Green playing without Durant. 

We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.

But Durant is not the only pending free agent in the Bay. Klay Thompson is headed to the open market in July, as well. What happens when you also remove Thompson and sit him on the bench next to Durant? 

Same result: The Warriors are still juggernauts, registering a plus-13.9 in 526 minutes with Curry and Green on the floor without the help of Durant or Thompson. 

Now comes the mind-blowing part -- let's take Draymond out of the equation and leave Curry by himself a cast of role players. No Durant. No Thompson. No Green.

With Curry rolling solo, the Warriors are still plus-14.3 in 216 minutes of action. That’s without the help of an MVP, a former Defensive Player of the Year and perhaps the second-greatest shooter ever not named Stephen Wardell Curry. The offense scores 116.6 points per 100 possessions in these lineups, which would be the league-leading offensive rating this season. 

To recap, the Warriors go from plus-16.9 to plus-14.8 to plus-13.9 to plus-14.3 as you keep removing an All-Star from Curry. But as these numbers show, Curry is impervious. He's teammate-agnostic. For those that think Curry would struggle in another organization or in another system, it’s clear: He is the system.

* * *

Now, let's take Steph off the floor. What happens when Durant, Thompson and Green go without him? Uh, oh ... plus-4.9 in 591 minutes without Steph. So, you take Durant off the floor and the Warriors are still juggernauts (plus-14.8). But you take Curry away from the equation? They go from dominant to merely solid.

What if we looked at what happens with a solo Durant? If he truly is a better all-around player than Curry, it would stand to reason that he’d be able to fill in more gaps without stars around him. Remember, solo Curry still obliterated opponents without the help of other stars.

The scoreboard with solo Durant: Minus-0.5 in 417 minutes. Yes, a negative point differential. And that makes sense given the loss of starpower, but Curry has shown he doesn’t need others to win.

It gets even more stark when we isolate the Warriors’ four superstars. To fully capture the power of Curry, here’s the scoreboard with each Warriors solo act:

Lineup Net Rating Minutes
Solo Steph Plus-14.3 216
Solo Klay Plus-4.3 402
Solo KD Minus-0.5 417
Solo Draymond Minus-2.0 209

Each one is playing around .500 ball in their minutes -- except Curry. For those that believe Curry wouldn’t be Curry if it weren’t for the stars and system built around him, it’s hard to make a case considering opponents can’t stop him no matter who is flanking him.

Don’t believe these in-game lineup numbers? With Curry active and no Durant over the last three seasons, the Warriors are 24-3, outscoring opponents by 353 points for an average win margin of 13.1.

Remember when the Steph-led Warriors uncorked a 13-game win streak when Durant hurt his MCL in 2016? Believe it or not, that win streak is still rolling. In fact, the Steph-led, sans-Durant Warriors have won 21 straight games, with 16 of those victories registering by double-digit margins.

We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.

* * *

The Warriors, of course, should want Durant to stay. This is Kevin freakin’ Durant. He won two Finals MVPs and has been a very public part of the organization’s run-up to the Chase Center’s grand opening next season. Some might argue that the Warriors don’t win the last two Finals without him. Green might argue otherwise. (It’s worth noting that Green’s public statement did not include an apology for what he said.)

But there’s a pile of evidence that, for the Warriors, Durant is a luxury, not a necessity. These last few games are a reminder that Durant-centric teams aren’t nearly as dominant as the Curry-led formations. If Durant leaves as a free agent, the organization can rally around the fact that they’re running it back, like the good ol’ days. That might be refreshing reset for a Warriors fan base that has used #StephBetter as a rallying cry over the last few seasons. (And yes, the postseason numbers show the same on/off ultra-dependence on Curry).

There was truth in Green’s words. The Warriors have won without Durant. They don’t need him. What’s been clear this year, and every year of this dynasty, they need Steph.

With Anthony Davis, Lakers should be heavy NBA title favorites

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USA Today Sports

With Anthony Davis, Lakers should be heavy NBA title favorites

The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t just pry open LeBron James’ championship window. They just blasted the window straight off the frame.

The NBA happens fast, doesn’t it? Five days ago, Kevin Durant was returning to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the two-time defending champs looked for a three-peat. In one of the most disastrous NBA weeks in recent history, Durant ruptured his Achilles and three days later, Klay Thompson tore his ACL. The Lakers didn’t even let the Raptors’ championship parade begin before they took back the frontpage.

After reportedly trading for Davis in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round picks (including this year’s No. 4 pick) and two unprotected pick swaps, the Lakers didn’t just catapult from a lottery team to championship contenders. They should be heavy favorites.

Davis is that good. As I detailed in the BIG Number in February, Davis becomes the best teammate James has ever had. The trade deadline soap opera and the Pelicans’ firesale obscure the fact that Davis had a monster season, posting a 30.3 player efficiency rating, which would be the highest for any James teammate, including Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Chris Bosh. Pick any metric from the pile and they all agree that Davis is one of the best players in today’s game -- and that was a down year.

We can debate all day whether Wade’s peak was or will be better than the Brow at his best, but James joined up when Wade was 28, entering the downside of his prime. Davis, who just turned 26 in March, is just entering his prime. We likely haven’t seen peak Brow. And now he gets to catch feeds from James and capitalize on the King’s gravitational pull. 

A core of James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma is already NBA Finals caliber, but the terrifying thing is that the Lakers will likely have a spot open for a third max-level player. Kuzma, who turns 24 next month, is too old to be a foundational prospect that a team like the Pelicans would covet in their rebuild. Ball and Ingram, on the other hand, are each 21 years old and will fit in nicely with Zion Williamson and whomever the Pelicans select at the No. 4 slot.

But for a team ready to win right now? Kuzma will be a really solid fourth option on the wing. Though he shot a disappointing 30.3 percent from 3-point land last season, he was far more efficient when he played next to James and still scored 19.5 points per 36 minutes in that alignment. With Davis in the paint, Kuzma should get some wide open looks next season, especially in the corner, where he’s a career 36.2 percent marksman.

So which free agent will the Lakers sign? If I’m Lakers president Rob Pelinka, I’m seeking a star that can shoot and defend at a high level. There’s no better candidate than, yup, the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers desperately need some perimeter defense now that Ball was sent to the Big Easy. Leonard is a two-way monster who could shoot the lights out and lock down opposing stars like he did to Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.

But it’s not clear that Leonard wants to even play alongside James. After winning a championship while being the unquestioned No. 1 option in a drama-free environment with the Toronto Raptors, joining the Lakers would be a night-and-day experience. Leonard was born in Los Angeles and was California’s Mr. Basketball in high school, but he may prefer playing for the Clippers rather than joining the more Hollywood Lakers.

If not Leonard, LeBron should immediately hit up Kyrie Irving, who becomes the best shooter among the stars in this free agency class now that Thompson will be rehabbing most, if not all, of next season with a torn ACL. Irving’s shot disappeared in the playoffs, but he shot 40.1 percent from deep in the regular season, which was third-highest among 20-point scorers behind Stephen Curry (43.7 percent), Buddy Hield (42.7 percent) and Thompson (40.2). 

We saw what an Irving-led team looks like in Boston. We have also seen what Irving as a second or third option looks like in Cleveland. It looks a lot like a "Larry OB," as Leonard would say.

Should the Lakers fail to bring in Leonard or Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker could be fine Plan B’s. Jimmy Buckets is intriguing as a Leonard Light -- a top-shelf defender and crunchtime assassin. But I’d worry about spacing next to James as he made less than a 3-pointer per game last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. In that same vein, Kemba Walker could be an appealing Irving consolation prize, but he’s two years older and more of a liability on defense with his diminutive size approaching his 30s.

Don’t count out the Lakers opting for splitting that max-level money to multiple players. For instance, what if they went out and snagged Malcolm Brogdon and JJ Redick to round out their supporting cast? Not only would they be bringing two of the game’s elite shooters into the fray; it would badly hurt two of their top championship threats in Milwaukee and Philadelphia. 

Prying away Brogdon will be tougher considering that he’s a restricted free agent, giving the Bucks the ability to match any offer. By matching offers for Brogdon and retaining free agents Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic, the Bucks could be a small-market team paying a luxury tax bill even before Antetokounmpo’s Designated Player Exception, or “supermax,” would kick in during the 2021-22 season. 

That is, if Antetokounmpo signs the extension. Don’t think for a second that Antetokounmpo isn’t closely watching how ownership handles this offseason. If they get stingy and let Brogdon or Middleton walk, that might send the wrong signal to Antetokounmpo, who could be a free agent in 2021. Remember what we just saw Davis go through last season? That might be Antetokounmpo in 2019-20, if the Bucks don’t handle this correctly.

The safe bet is that the ownership group in Milwaukee pays up to keep the core, but man, would Brogdon be a perfect fit next to James. He was a card-carrying member of the 50-40-90 club, shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the line. As a sharp ball-handler and elite defender, he would be a star version of what Matthew Dellavedova was in Cleveland.

Redick would be an obvious candidate to play the Ray Allen and Kyle Korver role next to James. Redick turns 35 later this month, but he just averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game and takes care of his body as well as any veteran in the league. Though I wouldn’t expect him to leave a great situation in Philadelphia, don’t count out a return to L.A. for Redick, who has remarkably made the playoffs every season of his career but still doesn’t have a championship.

Frank Vogel, in his first season with the Lakers, will have a tough job ahead of him if the Lakers can’t find elite shooters. If they can’t reel in Brogdon or Redick, look for the Lakers to target sharpshooters like Seth Curry, Wayne Ellington or Rudy Gay. Let’s not do the whole load-up-on-bad-shooters thing again, OK Lakers?

By the way, a round of applause for Davis’ agent, Rich Paul. He has certainly taken his lumps in the press for the way he handled the trade demand last season, but he got his wish, or I should say, his client’s wish, by forcing his way to LakerLand. Paul has done well for his star clientele. Davis is now in Los Angeles. John Wall got his supermax. Eric Bledsoe signed a $70 million extension two months before averaging 10.2 points in the Eastern Conference Finals. No agent has a perfect track record, but Paul has pulled out a big win here for his two top clients in James and Davis.

The Pelicans will be fascinating. I’ve always seen Lonzo Ball as a younger Jrue Holiday with the way he plays menacing defense. Ball has better vision and nifty handle, but he’ll need to improve his jump shot and strength if he wants to vault into Holiday’s All-Star status. I also like Hart’s skillset in that rebuild.

Ingram’s blood clots are concerning on some level, but medically, this isn’t a Chris Bosh situation; Ingram’s condition was a structural issue, not a genetic one. Obviously, the Pelicans did their homework and felt it checked out. I’m not as high on him as a prospect as others, but he could thrive next to Williamson. With Holiday, Ball, Hart, Ingram and Williamson as a defensive core, this could be the best defense for years to come. The shooting will be ugly next season, but it will sort itself out with the right pieces. David Griffin, the Pelicans’ head of basketball operations, was brilliant in Cleveland filling out the roster.

It’s a bit of a surprise that Griffin wasn’t able to snag a better player in the deal, but Griffin is basically making a bet that the Lakers will screw this up somehow. 

The pick structure is reminiscent of the heist that the Boston Celtics netted from the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. According to ESPN, the Pelicans will receive the No. 4 pick in 2019 draft, a top-eight protected pick in 2021 (which becomes unprotected in 2022), a 2023 unprotected pick swap, a 2024 unprotected first-round pick and a 2025 unprotected pick swap. 

What this boils down to is that the Pelicans have control of the Lakers’ first-rounders through LeBron’s 40th birthday. 

Griffin, who sources say wasn’t contacted to possibly replace Magic Johnson as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, likely sees the future draft picks as the gem of this deal. The Lakers could be great next season, but James turns 35 in December and Davis will be a free agent next summer. Davis seems like a lock to re-sign long term in L.A., but a lot can change in a year. In related news, the Raptors just won the championship with Kawhi Leonard.

As for the outside teams looking in, this is a crushing blow to the Boston Celtics, who might lose Irving now that Davis is heading West. The Celtics have long believed that trading for Davis would be the best chance in keeping Irving long term, sources say. But now they’re looking at a revamped 2018 playoff redux with Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way with Gordon Hayward back in the driver’s seat.

Next time someone tells you the NBA is rigged or too predictable, just end that conversation right then and there. Put the group chat on mute. Turn around and walk away. Hang up the phone. This time last year, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics were destined to be battling it out for league supremacy for the foreseeable future. A year later, neither Boston nor Golden State look like bonafide contenders, for a variety of reasons.

With the Lakers, there’s surely more drama to be on the way. They may be title favorites now, but there are no guarantees in the NBA. I mean, the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs last season. And neither did Davis. But this league runs on superstars. A James-Davis partnership alone is powerful enough to give them the inside edge to the NBA Finals. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

After Raptors' championship, Kawhi Leonard trade could redefine NBA

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USA Today

After Raptors' championship, Kawhi Leonard trade could redefine NBA

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.

* * *

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.”

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