NBA Champion Toronto Raptors Have Everything Kawhi Leonard Needs to Keep Winning

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2019

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 13:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates with the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after his team defeated the Golden State Warriors to win Game Six of the 2019 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2019 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Toronto Raptors' first NBA title, let's make one thing clear: This championship warrants no asterisk.

Their banner year, clinched with a 114-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Thursday night's Game 6, is not the byproduct of luck—at least no more than usual. It is not a fluke or a triumph born from convenience. Their path to this title was unconventional, perhaps even a little random, but the championship itself is a reminder in the form of consummate validation.

The Raptors belong here. They've belonged all year. They deserve this moment. They earned it. And in doing so, they've echoed what became clear a long time ago: Kawhi Leonard is not going to find a better basketball home.

Some holdouts will invariably refuse to go that far. Again: There will be a push to place an asterisk upon this title run. 

Golden State was banged up throughout the Finals—more so than ever in Game 6. Kevin Durant was lost for the series, and perhaps all of 2019-20, after he suffered an Achilles injury in his Game 5 return from a calf strain. Kevon Looney was playing with a fracture of the first costal cartilage on the right side of his rib cage. And Klay Thompson, already laboring through a hamstring issue, left for good in the third quarter Thursday with a left leg injury that, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, has since been diagnosed as a torn ACL.

Everybody is battling something if they're lucky enough to be playing this late into the season. Kyle Lowry may need to have surgery on his thumb over the offseason. Kawhi Leonard, 2019 Finals MVP, coped with knee problems for the entire playoffs after remaining on a maintenance program all year.

What Golden State endured was something worse. By the end, the Raptors were facing a remnant of the Warriors dynasty. How could they not win?

Still, injuries did not determine the Finals. Toronto did. 

It began with president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri's controversial—but not actually risky—acquisition of Leonard, which involved parting with franchise mainstay DeMar DeRozan. So many things could have gone wrong. Plenty did.

Leonard didn't play back-to-backs during the regular season. OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet all missed at least 15 games. A left thumb injury put Jonas Valanciunas on the shelf for a significant time before he was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. Marc Gasol's arrival at February's deadline marked the second substantive alteration to Toronto's roster in six months.

Close calls, meanwhile, were peppered throughout the Raptors' championship push. They lost Game 1 of their first-round matchup with the Orlando Magic. Leonard essentially needed to hit two game-winners to take down the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals, including a series-ending buzzer-beater in Game 7.

Toronto looked wobbly to start the Eastern Conference Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks opened the series with two straight wins, the second of which was a 125-103 drubbing. It then took the Raptors two overtimes to edge past them in Game 3. The beginning of their four-game winning streak could just as easily have been a 3-0 death sentence.

With Durant out for all but 12 minutes of the Finals, the Warriors arguably posed an easier test for the Raptors. Except, well, they didn't. Dynasties don't dissipate without a fight. Toronto's 3-1 series lead, built in part thanks to Thompson's absence in Game 3, never really felt safe. 

The Raptors navigated this minefield anyway. It could have been worse. It also could have been better.

Toronto's supporting cast spent much of the playoffs drowning in inconsistency. Fred VanVleet is a hero now, but he was a borderline no-show until he turned things around against Milwaukee in an about-face that just so happened to coincide with the birth of his son.

Danny Green went cold toward the tail end of the Sixers series and through the Bucks matchup. He perked up to start the Finals but went 3-of-15 from the field (1-of-11 from three) over the final three tilts and didn't attempt a single shot in Game 6. That is hardly an afterthought if the Raptors are preparing for a Game 7.

Ditto for Marc Gasol's up-and-down performance. His pendulum swung between passive and present all postseason. The former won out in Game 6. He missed all five of his shots, had more fouls (four) than points (three) and looked relatively unplayable.

All the setbacks, potential pitfalls and, above all, general newness makes the Raptors' title that much more impressive. This was Year 1.

It only gets better if Leonard stays.

Pascal Siakam is among the league's brightest young stars. His shooting fluctuated for most of the playoffs, but he came up big when it mattered most. His 26-point, 10-rebound, three-assist detonation in Game 6, replete with tough defense against Draymond Green inside the arc, is a guideline for his trajectory.

Barely 25, Siakam is the favorite to win Most Improved Player honors. He earned almost as many second-team All-Defense votes (24) as Leonard (29). Leonard, Danilo Gallinari and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only other players this season to clear 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one made three-pointer per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage north of 60.

Anunoby missed the entirety of the playoffs after an emergency appendectomy, but he remains a legitimate three-and-D prospect and doesn't turn 22 until July. VanVleet is 25. Powell is still, somehow, just 26. 

This Raptors core has staying power. Indeed, other members are older. Ibaka turns 30 in September, Lowry is 33 and Gasol is 34. That would matter more if they were each on long-term deals. They're not.

Ibaka and Lowry come off the books next summer. Gasol will join them if he picks up his $25.6 million player option. Green's free agency is a concern, but going on 32, he shouldn't break the bank.

Toronto's core isn't done yet...provided Kawhi stays.
Toronto's core isn't done yet...provided Kawhi stays.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Play their cards right, and the Raptors could have gobs of cap space in 2020. Only four guaranteed salaries will be on their books if they re-sign Leonard, use their first-round pick in 2020 and hold off on an extension for Siakam.

Depending on what else they do this summer, the Raptors can carry Siakam's free-agency hold in 2020 and have more than enough to add another max player. Pinch their purse strings until then, and they'll have a line to at least $50 million in spending power.

Leonard isn't getting that kind of open-ended flexibility anywhere else. The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks have paths to dual maxes this year and can keep their books clean into next summer, but they're not reigning champs.

The Raptors are.

They allow Leonard to rejoin a championship core that potentially hasn't reached its peak and has the maneuverability to continue retooling around him in the years to come. That means something.

Leonard can still leave. He's earned the right to choose. He owes the Raptors nothing after helping them get everything. 

But if he heads elsewhere after what they just did, knowing what they're still built to do, then they never had a chance of keeping him in the first place.

     

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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