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Masai Ujiri Was the Raptors Real MVP

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The Toronto Raptors have defeated the two-time defending champs, the Golden State Warriors, to deliver Canada it’s first NBA title.

Kawai Leonard was the Finals MVP, Kyle Lowry might have been the MVP of Game 6 and Nick Nurse is one hell of a coach, but the man that deserves the most credit is the one that put all those pieces together.

Masai Ujiri’s 2019 Toronto Raptors weren’t just built in a year. This is the result of a long-term rebuild that dates back to 2013 when Ujiri took over as the Raptors general manager.

When Ujiri took over, the Raptors were coming off their fifth-straight losing season and needed to build a winning culture.

Toronto had a solid back court to build around in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, while also featuring a great developmental coach in Dwane Casey.

In Ujiri’s first year as the GM, the Raptors improved by 14 games and made the playoffs. From then on, the Raptors continued to build a winning culture with competitive teams that were consistently at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Still, the Raptors could never get over the hump in an Eastern Conference that LeBron James owned for eight-straight seasons. LeBron eliminated the Raptors in each of the last three years from 2016 through 2018. But this past offseason, James took his talents out West, opening the door for Ujiri.

Ujiri first made the bold move to fire Casey, after he won Coach of the Year, so that he could promote Nick Nurse to the position of head coach.

Nurse took a different path then most to get to the NBA. He first coached in Europe’s British Basketball League, where he won two championships.

Nurse then became one of the staples in the NBA’s Development League, coaching six seasons in the D-League. Nurse won two NBA D-League Championships and 23 of his players would get called up to play in the NBA.

While Casey was a great coach too, Nurse provided a new voice that helped guide the Raptors to places that they have never been as a franchise.

Ujiri was not done making changes though. He watched year after year, as his backcourt failed to play at their best in the playoffs and knew he needed a better player to build around.

Knowing it was time to capitalize on their championship window, Ujiri gambled the future by trading the Raptors all-time leading scorer (DeRozan), in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

DeRozan was signed for three more years and Leonard was just a one-year rental, but Ujiri knew that his team needed the experience of a former Finals MVP.

Leonard provided the Raptors with a calming presence, a defensive stalwart and most importantly a clutch closer that delivered in all the biggest moments.

While Kawhi led the charge, he did not win the championship alone.

Toronto’s longest-tenured player, Kyle Lowry, was still around to provide the Raptors with a seasoned point guard, who knew when to pick his spots throughout the playoffs.

In a day and age where seven-footers are often taking the ball up the floor, Ujiri made sure his team had two traditional point guards in Lowry and backup Fred VanVleet, so Leonard didn’t have to carry the playmaking burden on his own.

VanVleet went undrafted out of college, but signed on to the Raptors Summer League Team and ultimately made their roster. He spent his first season playing mostly in the G-League, where he helped the Raptors 905 to a championship.

Then in his second season, VanVleet took a huge jump and ended up being nominated for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

In the NBA Finals, VanVleet played tireless defense on Stephen Curry and hit 16 three-pointers, including five in the clinching Game 6.

VanVleet wasn’t the only player that Ujiri found and then helped develop into a champion. He also drafted an extremely raw player in Pascal Siakam at the end of the first round in 2016.

Ujiri first saw Siakam at a Basketball Without Borders camp in Africa and noted his incredible effort. Siakam took years of development as he could barely find playing time on the court until this season.

Siakam came out of nowhere to take a monstrous leap this year, as the front-runner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. Siakam averaged 19 points and 7.1 rebounds in the playoffs, while being another defensive linchpin alongside Leonard.

Along with the great players the Raptors developed, they also made a series of trades to bring in accomplished veterans to complete a championship roster.

The first was when they acquired Serge Ibaka in a trade in 2017 and then signed him to a three-year contract. Ibaka played great off the Raptors bench, including scoring a combined 50 points over the last three games of the Finals and a six-block performance in Game 3.

With the core that was in place, Ujiri made the biggest trade of all when he acquired Leonard, especially because he also got Danny Green in the deal.

Green was a champion in his own right, playing for the San Antonio Spurs alongside Leonard for all those years. Green had a pivotal performance in Game 3, when he knocked down six threes in the Raptors first road win.

Ujiri made one last finishing touch when he traded for three-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol.

Gasol was not the same player that was once leading the Grizzlies to the top of the Western Conference, but he still had enough left in the tank to be an impactful final piece for the Raptors.

While some will point to the Warriors injuries as to why the Raptors won this championship, consider all of the different factors that went into their historic season.

The Raptors still had to navigate through a seven-game series against a Philadelphia 76ers team that featured three All-Stars.

Then in the Eastern Conference Finals, they fell behind 0-2 to the presumptive league MVP in Giannis Antetkounmpo, before rolling through them in four-straight games.

And while the Warriors were not at full strength, they still went into one of the toughest arenas to play and took all three road games to close out the Oracle Arena.

There are plenty of people to point to for the Raptors success in this year’s NBA Finals. But if it wasn’t for one man making the decisions at the top of the organization, none of this would have been possible.

Basketball

Three-Time NBA Champion Shaun Livingston Announces His Retirement

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Over the past five seasons, the Golden State Warriors have put together one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history, winning three championships and making five-straight appearances in the NBA Finals.

Now they are turning the page to a new era of Warriors basketball, still surrounded around their homegrown ‘Big Three’ of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green’.

But the role players from those great Warriors teams have moved on and for some, are calling it quits altogether. As Shaun Livingston just announced his retirement from the NBA.

In his farewell message, Livingston cites “the injury”, referring to a devastating knee injury that he suffered back in 2007.

The injury was so bad for Livingston, that it almost resulted in his leg being amputated it was so bad.

Livingston made a remarkable recovery from the injury and turned in a fantastic career. The last stages of his career came with the Golden State Warriors, were he proved to be an excellent backup point guard to Curry.

Without Livingston’s ability to make plays and play stout defense at 6-foot-7, the Warriors would not have been three-time champions.

Congrats to Livingston on a great career, which we never could have expected him to have back in 2007.

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Basketball

Joe Johnson Signs with the Detroit Pistons, Michael Beasley Released

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After it appeared that Joe Johnson’s career may be coming to a close, Iso Joe found new life in the Big 3, working his way back into the NBA.

Johnson, 38, has been signed to the Detroit Pistons on a one-year contract.

Johnson did not garner any initial interest when it came to his free agency this offseason, but then came his stint in the Big 3, which saw him absolutely demolish the competition.

Johnson led his team, the Triplets, to a Big 3 championship and was named the league’s MVP. Now he goes back into the NBA, after he was out of the league for all of last season.

We last saw Johnson play for the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets in the 2017-18 NBA season, when he averaged 11.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for the two teams.

What Johnson proved in the Big 3, is if you give him the minutes and the ball, he can still get buckets with the best of them.

To make room for him on the Pistons roster, they ended up releasing Michael Beasley, who was suspended to start the season anyway.

Johnson joins forces with Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, to a form a team that we would have been salivating over seven years ago.

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Basketball

Team USA Eliminated From FIBA World Cup After Losing to France in Quarterfinals

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Team USA has officially been eliminated from the FIBA World Cup, suffering their most embarrassing international loss in some time.

France outscored Team USA by 13 points in the fourth quarter to seal a 10-point victory and advance to the semifinals.

Donovan Mitchell carried the Americans through the first three quarters of the game, finishing with a team-high 29 points.

On the other hand, Kemba Walker had a terrible last game, in what was otherwise an amazing tournament for the NBA All-Star. He was held to just 10 points and did not notch a single assist.

Walker was actually outplayed all game by French guard, Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has had a disappointing start to his NBA career with the New York Knicks, but showed he can still play in this game.

Ntilikina, 21, is most known for being the last first-round pick by Phil Jackson, before he was removed from his role as the President of the Knicks.

It is a pick that has been mocked since, as better players like Mitchell where selected after Ntilikina was taken eighth overall.

In this game however, Ntilikina made all of the difference, as his work locking up Walker on the defense, proved to be the deciding factor in France’s win.

Ntilikina also hit two big shots at the end of the game for France, as they ended a 58-game winning streak by Team USA in international play.

Along with Ntilikina, France received big performances from their two biggest NBA stars, Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier.

Team USA was not the only team to get upset in the quarterfinals, as Serbia also suffered a shocking defeat by losing to Argentina.

Argentina’s only real well-known NBA player is Luis Scola, who has been out of the league for a few years. Yet they beat Nikola Jokic and a favored Serbian team.

Now Team USA will play Serbia in the loser’s bracket, meanwhile France will take on Argentina in the semifinals.

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