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This year saw the Toronto Raptors ascend to a position that they have never reached before; champions of the NBA. The ascendancy came to its conclusion with a 4-2 win over the Golden State Warriors (they had beaten the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76’ers and Milwaukee Bucks in respective order to get there). Golden State team are considered clear favourites by most who partake in the viewing of the NBA with the talent and track record they have displayed in recent years. Often referred to many analysts as a ‘super team’, the Golden State Warriors have been the dominating team over the last 5 years; with three championships and five consecutive finals. What defines this Golden State era is that they have a starting five that, at any given time, can have arguably 4 or 5 of All-Star calibre players. Toronto Raptors were still a talented team. Led by Finals MVP winner Kawhi Leonard, they have been deservedly praised for their performance. From the perspective of a neutral fan, the injuries for Golden State most likely cost them the title, but still, there were some great performances from the ambitious Raptors, a long-awaited and much-celebrated result for the franchise.
What the Raptors did this summer was an impressive feat but also an important event for the future of the league. For a lot of fans, variety and diversity is what makes the NBA one of the most enticing sports leagues in the world, its unpredictability, and the fact that at any time everything can change – entices you. The Raptors built a team this season with enough talent so that, if players’ talents could shine, it would challenge more established teams. A significant trade happened early in the season to sign superstar Kawhi Leonard along with Danny Green and a financial sum from the San Antonio Spurs back in July of 2018. Kawhi was a former NBA championship winner – winning it with the Spurs in 2014 where he was also given a finals MVP. Although a bright spark since he entered the league, Kawhi had become injury prone and was a large risk for the Raptors to pursue(a risk that would eventually pay dividends). Another key edition was the signing of Marc Gasol (brother of double championship winning Pau Gasol). Marc Gasol was signed mid-season in February of 2019. Towards the end of the season the team grew stronger with Kawhi in full swing and great performances across the team. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam were also big names this season providing great performances when needed. Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green also offered support from the bench meaning the Raptors had created a team in which there could always be a belief in a possible win. Great coaching and squad rotation secured the Toronto Raptors their first championship.
21st century basketball has seen more and more players becoming their own franchise, and with this has come pros and cons. Obviously more development and money is coming into the league, thus, from an earlier age, athletes are getting support and guidance – which is different to previous generations of NBA players. However, with this, comes a boosted level of ego and self-interest. Ego has always fed the sport of basketball; with a 1-on-1 mentality at its core. A healthy level of ego is what makes the league so competitive and makes players want to be the greatest. This, of course, is exactly what the fans want to see. However, with the money going into the league, and with agents and sponsors driving the personal brands of players, it seems intuitive that players egos grow. We see loyalty to teams coming second to a person’s own personal brand, and coaches are now worrying about players becoming disconnected from the team (with media and branding influencing their actions more and more). We can see this in examples of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, moving away from their teams in pursuit of their own goals. Kyrie moved to be the ‘main man’ at the Boston Celtics despite being on his drafted winning team at Cleveland (wanting to be the leader instead of being second to Lebron James). Durant, in a controversial move, went to the Golden State Warriors from Oklahoma City Thunder after losing to them in the 15/16 playoffs. This was a move equivalent to Michael Jordan moving to the Pistons in the 90’s rather than staying at the Bulls to defeat them. Many believe Durant took the easy way out, and fans of OKC (and NBA fans in general), thought that he showed little integrity and loyalty.
By achieving a championship the way they did, the Raptors set an important precedent. Although they had superstar quality in Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors championship win is a testament to the power of a group effort. Led by head coach Nick Nurse, the team rotated players well to challenge teams such as Golden State (who had more established talent in the squad). NBA fans still want to see great personalities and egotistical performances, but it must not negate pride in themselves as players and their respect for the fans and the game. Most NBA fans will respect the player that gets one championship for their home team more than a player that gets three on a ‘super team’. Fans will always respect Lebron James’ championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers (his home team) more than his two for the Miami Heat. Fans are excited by players and teams that grind and earn a win through passion, commitment and hard work. So why is Toronto’s win important? Because it sends a message that the game is its own reward; work hard and you will achieve greatness – which the Toronto Raptors did this summer; making history as the first non-US team to win.