Kawhi will be the next great test of Toronto's place in the NBA


All terms being equal, would I want to play here?

How the best basketball players in the world answer this question governs the entire power structure of the NBA.

No two players hold every team in the same regard, and the impressions of these teams fluctuate day to day. But it’s not hard to identify which organizations can be found on the good list, which ones reside on the bad list and which are in between. Who can get an audience with the summer’s marquee free agents? Who struggles to retain their homegrown stars? Which teams do the best players feel offer them the best chance to achieve their professional goals?

In fairness to the people who run these organizations, the playing field isn’t level. They can’t account for market appeal or championships won decades ago. But for those not on the good list, like the Toronto Raptors through much of their existence, making it there is the singular mission of the franchise and its ownership.

The journey toward a place on the good list is, in many respects, the story of the Toronto Raptors. Their presence on the good list has started to become faintly visible, even with a string of disappointing playoff exits. What was not long ago a young franchise outside the United States that had trouble holding on to its young stars and winning consistently is now a team with the league’s best record, top-five talent in Kawhi Leonard and an intensely aggressive front office.

There’s no single departure point for this story, though the trade that offloaded Rudy Gay‘s contract nearly five years ago to the week was pivotal, one of the first significant personnel decisions by Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri. Symbolically, the decision in 2016 by DeMar DeRozan to remain with the Raptors was another, even if Toronto was far and away his most profitable option.

During this time, the Raptors rattled off winning seasons. Kyle Lowry built an All-Star career in Toronto and DeRozan was a scorer who embraced the experience of being a Toronto Raptor great with the intention of playing out his prime with the team. Though it might have met a less-than-ceremonious ending, the union between Ujiri and former coach Dwane Casey was a solid one for five seasons. That qualifies as longevity in the NBA, particularly for an arranged marriage in which neither party ever grew fully comfortable with the other.

The Raptors averaged nearly 53 wins over five seasons, which is no small thing. In the process, they built an organization with quality infrastructure, top-notch player development and an irrepressible fan base, thousands of which have gathered together outside in arctic temperatures in Maple Leaf Square to watch the team on a large screen.

Around this fervor, the Raptors forged a national identity and the NBA took notice of its sixth-largest market. Toronto, once dismissed as a remote outpost by NBA players, is now recognized as a cosmopolitan destination with cultural cachet. At Scotiabank Arena, which has sold out every game since November 2014, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant can have fun trading barbs with Drake as they jog by his seat on the floor near center court.

The Raptors have enjoyed adept leadership at both the head coach and lead basketball executive positions. They draft well and know how to identify undervalued talent and incorporate it into their system, which has grown more creative by the season. The Raptors embraced NBA trends toward spacing and pace and away from isolation. This made life easier for Lowry and enabled the development of the Raptors’ versatile and athletic supporting cast.

Getting and remaining on the NBA’s good list requires bold risk at precarious moments. That’s ultimately how organizations legitimize themselves, particularly those without the advantages held by teams like the Lakers. The Celtics traded away a championship core and consigned themselves to a rebuild with future assets but no guarantee of success. The failure of the Hawks to do so with their 60-win team in 2014-15 has delayed their quest to land on the good list. The 51-win Warriors in 2013-14 fired a head coach held in esteem by their best players in favor of one who’d never coached an NBA game. It was one of many moves that bought Golden State a generation on the good list.

The Raptors made a similarly bold move this past summer by dealing a package highlighted by DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Ujiri broke up a 59-win team that couldn’t overcome LeBron (in an offseason when that problem went to the Western Conference), shopped the face of the franchise out of town for only one guaranteed season with an elite player — and one who played in only nine games last season, expressed zero interest in playing for Toronto and is as inscrutable as any top-10 player in the league with regard to his long-term intentions.

Risk aversion has long been a defining feature of front-office strategy in the NBA. Unconventional decisions that come with great uncertainty of outcome often prompt grumbles of “this better work” from ownership and fans alike. So far, Toronto’s gamble has reaped benefits. The 20-5 Raptors have enjoyed a seamless transition with their new coach, Nick Nurse, and superstar. Nurse has doubled down on the fluidity injected into the offense by Casey last season. The product couldn’t be more appealing, as exhibited with flow and style in the first half of their win on Thursday over Golden State.

The Raptors are pacing Leonard, sitting him for one of two games of any back-to-back. This is more than just a precautionary measure made in consultation with Leonard; it’s a collective acknowledgement that the Raptors are playing for May and June. Healthy habits will be developed over the course of the season, young players — from whom much will be demanded in the playoffs — will build confidence, and sure, the No. 1 seed carries an advantage in the spring. But Leonard at 100 percent the second weekend in April is the primary objective.

For good reason, too: If risk yields reward and the Raptors win the conference title that has eluded them despite consistent regular-season success, the probability of Leonard’s return to Toronto increases dramatically. But for all the sound acquisitions, the willingness to do well by Lowry and DeRozan at contract time, the stable culture, the savvy management, the roster depth, the well-oiled coaching operation and the increasing Toronto-philia, Leonard is the ultimate test of whether the Raptors can firmly cement a spot on the NBA’s good list.

Admission into that club doesn’t inoculate a franchise from headaches. But those challenges for Toronto can be confronted with a confidence that says to the league, “This is where you want to work.”



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