Trade deadline winners and losers: Fultz is free; East contenders shine; Tough look for Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Trade deadline winners and losers: Fultz is free; East contenders shine; Tough look for Lakers

Anthony Davis is still a Pelican.

But just about everything else in the NBA changed this past week. 

Let’s dole out the winners and losers of a crazy trade deadline.

Winners

Philadelphia 76ers
This team is stacked. The Sixers had two needs going into the deadline: A backup center and, more importantly, adding shooting around their three stars. They filled both voids -- and may have picked up a fourth star in the process. Tobias Harris, as I wrote on Wednesday, is a lesser version of Kevin Durant -- a big wing with superb shooting touch. He’s an ideal No. 4, a rare player who can excel on and off the ball. 

They gave up a bunch of promising assets to get the deal done and owner Josh Harris will pay a stiff luxury tax bill soon, but it’s not like Tobias Harris is on the wrong side of 30. He’s just entering his prime. Finally, they needed to move on from the Markelle Fultz experiment. Netting two picks to replenish their draft assets was icing on the cake. This might be the team to beat out East.

Twitter
My thumb hurts. 

Milwaukee Bucks
Executives were all over the map on this one. Most agree that getting a player like Nikola Mirotic, a super-snug fit for the Mike Budenholzer spread offense, is a win. Getting him without giving up a first-round pick is even sweeter.

But the idea of Mirotic may be better than the reality. The impending free agent hasn’t played in two weeks because of a nagging calf strain, an injury likely related to a bad ankle in the same leg. Maybe the Pelicans put him on ice to preserve his trade value, but he has missed about half the season. 

He’ll have to be healthy to defend at a high level in the playoffs. The Celtics badly exploited him two postseasons ago, scoring 116.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The Pelicans thrived with him there against Portland last postseason. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Bottom line, Mirotic has to get his wheels right. Do that, and a Finals trip may be in the cards.

Los Angeles Clippers
I loved the Harris trade for both sides. The Clippers did a superb job exchanging a four-month rental in Harris into valuable picks and loads of cap space. In Indiana, cap space is overrated. That’s not so in Los Angeles, especially with Steve Ballmer as your owner. The worst place to be in the NBA is stuck in the middle. After shedding salary and loading up on picks, the Clippers have drawn up a compelling blueprint to dodge the hamster wheel of mediocrity.

Toronto Raptors
There are real concerns here that 34-year-old Marc Gasol won’t be able to keep up in the loaded East. But he is so, so good when healthy and able. Stick Kawhi Leonard on the opposing star with Gasol as your backline, and you’re in good shape. That is, if Gasol still has gas left in the tank.

Gasol is a heady defender who may have been coasting the last couple months (or at least Toronto fans hope so). If Gasol isn’t mobile enough to hang with the East’s powers, they can always fall back on Serge Ibaka. The upside -- an elite passing big man who can stretch the floor and annoy the heck out of opponents -- is too good to pass up. Kyle Lowry’s bad back worries me, but they can play through Gasol when Lowry can’t zip around like he used to.

New Orleans Pelicans
Dell Demps could have panicked and thrown a last-ditch Hail Mary to try to save his job (it’s not even clear if it’s on the line). But all along, it made sense to hold onto Davis and play the long game. The Pelicans can slide for their own 2019 pick. Soon, they’ll have clarity on the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. And the Boston Celtics, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, can enter the fray July 1. Remember, the Lakers’ trade package won’t magically disappear at the deadline. Demps knew that and played his hand well. 

Boston Celtics
You know the saying, “one step forward, two steps back?” The Celtics took one step back and two steps forward at the trade deadline. The East royalty got better, but the larger outlook is far rosier than it looked a few days ago. Take a deep breath, Boston fans: Davis is still a Pelican. 

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens still have to walk a fine line going forward. Kyrie Irving needs to be happy. Tatum and Brown need to fully commit to winning despite the looming threat of being Pelicans bait this summer. This won’t be a cake walk, but they have the inside track to landing Davis and positioning themselves as the next superpower if Durant leaves Golden State. Big picture, that’s all that matters.

Golden State Warriors
Maybe Houston got a smidge better with Iman Shumpert. Perhaps Rodney Hood moves Portland’s needle a tad. But Denver, OKC, Portland, San Antonio and Utah basically sat on their hands. The end.

Washington Wizards
Look, there’s a real chance that the Wizards hand Bobby Portis another Otto Porter contract and we’re right back where we started. But until then, I’m going to applaud Ernie Grunfeld and the front office for being pragmatic about the situation. They moved off their hard stance on Porter and actually got under the tax. This feels like a step in the right direction. Check back in four months. A Portis overpay to justify the Porter deal may be on the horizon.

Dallas Mavericks
I recognize that I’m higher on the Kristaps Porzingis trade than most. To me, it’s simple: You need superstars to win championships and they have two players with a real chance to be All-NBA anchors. Doncic is still 19 years old and Porzingis is five months younger than his new teammate Justin Jackson, who was drafted in 2017. 

We don’t have many data points on 7-foot-3 All-Stars recovering from a torn ACL, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves that he was, when healthy, a 7-foot-3 All-Star. And the Mavs will be in no rush to bring him back with Doncic still a teenager. The cap space they created in the Harrison Barnes deal, which could be about $30 million this summer, is the cherry on top. The Mavericks could have a front line of Doncic, Porzingis and DeMarcus Cousins next season. Good thing there’s no salary cap on medical staffs.

Markelle Fultz
He gets a fresh start in Orlando, which may be the most under-the-radar team in the NBA. (They should be under the radar, because they’re not very good). Fultz can just get back to basketball and not deal with the microscope that is the Philadelphia sports scene.

The top two East seeds
Charlotte, Miami, Detroit, Orlando and Washington made lateral moves or no moves at all. Those are five teams fighting for the last two playoffs spots. None of them are .500 or even a win away from that line. For the teams that get the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds at the top of the East, this is as close to a first-round bye as it gets.

Losers

Los Angeles Lakers
We’re about two months away from the Sacramento Kings taking LeBron James’ spot in the playoffs. That is a sentence I never dreamed I would type. Maybe if I was talking about his son, LeBron James Jr., in five years, but here we are. It’s a very real possibility.

I still wouldn’t bet against James going on a rampage and single-handedly earning the West’s final playoff spot. But James, after missing 17 games, is looking human. Kuzma is shooting 30.2 percent on 3s. Brandon Ingram won’t shoot 3s. Lonzo Ball is allergic to 1s. JaVale McGee is the only player on the Lakers’ roster not named LeBron James with an above-average player efficiency rating (which is 15.0). That is not a typo. Maybe Carmelo Anthony, who hasn’t played a pro basketball game in three months, is the answer. I’m not banking on it.

Fifthteenth guys on playoff teams
The buyout market appears to be more robust than ever. Contenders can choose from a lot that could include all of the following players: Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Robin Lopez, Zach Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Dewayne Dedmon, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, Milos Teodosic, Michael Beasley, Shelvin Mack and Greg Monroe. Of that group, Lopez figures to have the biggest impact for contending teams.

Mike Conley
After fighting back from Achilles surgery, it would have been cool to see Conley find his way to a playoff team in Indiana or Utah. Heck, it’d be cool to see him in Detroit with Blake Griffin fighting for a playoff spot. Conley could go down as the best player never to make an All-Star team. By not going to an Eastern Conference team this week, those chances dwindled even further. I’d be stunned if Conley isn’t moved this summer as a free-agency backup plan.

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.

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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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