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.
Mike Conley and Bradley Beal Win Noble and Respected Awards
Mike Conley and Bradley Beal are two of the most admired players in the league not just for what they do on the court, but for what they do off the court as well.
Mike Conley received the Sportsmanship and Teammate of the Year Award at the 2019 NBA Awards Show taking home the Sportsmanship Award for the third time in his career (2014, 2016, 2019) and the Teammate of the Year award for the first time.
In Conley’s twelve-year stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, he never once was issued a technical foul and has been known as an all-around great teammate in the locker room and both on and off the court to go along with his tremendous scoring, exceptional passing and lock down defense.
Conley received these awards because he is loved by his teammates and respected by his opponents and those traits will continue to progress as Conley joins the Utah Jazz for the 2019-2020 season.
Bradley Beal received the NBA Cares Community Assist Award at the NBA Awards for his generosity and charitable work in his community.
Beal is the second Wizards player in the last four years to win the honor with John Wall, who presented him the award, taking home the trophy in 2015-2016.
While also having one of his best seasons of his young career averaging 25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and being selected to his second All-Star game, Beal made time to give back to his community.
Working with Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast Washington, Beal visited the school in December and gave out two pairs of shoes to each player and coach on the basketball teams.
Over the holiday season, Beal donated game tickets to different community groups and gave toys to the Salvation army.
Beal took part in many other various types of charitable work over the year and continues to be a role model for kids in the community and around the world.
Jon Horst Wins Executive of the Year Award
The Milwaukee Bucks General Manager, Jon Horst, was named NBA Executive of the Year at the NBA Awards. In doing so, Horst became just the second Bucks general manager win the award, joining John Hammond who won in 2010.
The Bucks named Horst the general manager in 2017 making him one of the youngest executives in the NBA.
A year later Horst assembled a team that had best record in the NBA and won prestigious awards for their accomplishments such as MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Coach of the Year (Mike Budenholzer).
Horst began the season by hiring veteran coach Mike Budenholzer and deciding to not overpay the former number two overall pick, Jabari Parker.
Instead, Horst made moves during the season to acquire key role players such as Brook Lopez, George Hill and Nikola Mirotic, which ultimately improved the team.
The Bucks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001 and in Horst’s two seasons as general manager, the Bucks are 104-60 overall and have made the playoffs in both seasons.
With Horst’s third season as general manager coming up, it will be interesting to see what other moves are made to try and avenge the Bucks loss in the Eastern Conference Finals and reach the NBA Finals for their third time in franchise history.
Mike Budenholzer Wins NBA Coach of the Year Award
For the second time in his career, coach Mike Budenholzer was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year.
He first won the award in 2015, for his tremendous job of leading the Atlanta Hawks to a 60-22 record and a number one seed over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This year, Budenholzer the Milwaukee Bucks, to a 60-22 record and the best record in the NBA for the first time since the 1973-74 season.
Budenholzer received 77 of 100 first place votes while Head Coach of the Denver Nuggets, Michael Malone received 13 of 100 and Head Coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers received 6 of 100
The Milwaukee Bucks were a top five team on offense and defense this season which is a huge change from being ranked 15th on offense and 17th on defense last season.
Even though the Bucks lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, the Bucks are still considered a favorite to make another title run next season, lead by Budenholzer and the MVP this year, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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