Sometimes it takes a mad scientist to build a championship team — someone who has a willingness to test untried techniques, to sprinkle in ingredients that others have discounted or discarded.
And even then, it often isn’t enough to win a championship. You still need the perfect confluence of luck, timing and performance.
The 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who dethroned the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, are that team. And president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is the mad scientist who built them.
Here’s a look at how Ujiri assembled Toronto’s first-ever NBA title team:
Enter Leonard. The July 2018 trade that sent DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for Leonard undoubtedly changed the course of the franchise. It was clear early on that Leonard was the type of athlete this city had rarely seen before. He was the kind of player who can change a game, who could will his team to victory. The kind of player who could make fans and a city forget about past failure and near misses.
There was always risk in acquiring Leonard. He was coming off a serious injury. He is also a free agent after this season, and the question of whether he will choose to stay in Toronto has loomed since he arrived. But none of that matters now. Sure, who wouldn’t want to see a player of Leonard’s calibre in a Raptors uniform for years to come? But if it doesn’t happen, his work is done here.
Lowry came to the Raptors in a 2012 trade with the Houston Rockets. His rugged play at the point guard position has been a catalyst for the franchise’s steady improvement since his arrival. He’s led the franchise to numerous firsts, including most wins in a season and the team’s first trip to an Eastern Conference Final.
But Lowry’s role in the Raptors’ ride to an NBA title almost wasn’t meant to be. As part of roster makeover intended to increase the team’s odds at selecting Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins in the draft, the Raptors were all set to trade Lowry to the Knicks in 2013. Lowry now admits he had his bags packed, ready to go to New York. But for a variety of factors, the trade fell through at the last moment and the rest, of course, is history.
It takes a lot of guts to fire the reigning NBA coach of the year. But that’s just what Ujiri did when he gave Dwane Casey the pink slip two days after being the named the league’s top coach. Casey’s regular-season record during his time in Toronto was sterling. The playoffs were another story with Casey’s teams never able to overcome LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It wasn’t the first time Ujiri had fired an NBA coach of the year. In 2014, the Denver Nuggets’ George Karl was named the coach of year only to be fired a month later by then-Nuggets GM Ujiri.
WATCH | Raptors celebrate as NBA champs at Oracle:
In his search for the Raptors next head coach Ujiri didn’t seek out a proven NBA coach or a veteran name off an NBA bench.
Instead, he looked inwards and gave the job to Nurse, who had been on the Toronto bench as an assistant since 2013. Before landing in the NBA, Nurse had been the ultimate coaching journeyman, having crisscrossed North America working benches at various levels. His hiring was anything but conventional. But like almost everything else Ujiri did, it worked out brilliantly. Nurse’s temperament was a hit with players and he was able to keep the team performing at a high level all season, culminating with the franchise’s first-ever NBA title.
Now he just better hope he’s never named coach of the year.
It’s rare a player with Siakam’s backstory would emerge so quickly as an impact player in the NBA. But that’s exactly what the forward known as Spicy P has done. By now you have probably heard the story of how Siakam ended up in Toronto. His basketball journey is an uncommon one.
Born in Cameroon, he hadn’t really played the game until about six years ago. Fast forward to 2016, when the Raptors selected Siakam with the 27th pick in the first round of the NBA draft. His rapid evolution into a key contributor is almost unparalleled in league history. His emergence as key player was anything but assured. He was named conference player of the year in WAC (one of the NCAA’s weaker conferences) and was assigned to the NBA G-League after he was drafted. The rest is history.
Green was the other player that came to the Raptors as part of the Kawhi Leonard trade. His impact was felt throughout the season and during the team’s historic playoff run. One of the NBA’s premier three-point shooters, Green quickly endeared himself to Raptors fans with his easy-going personality and silky smooth stroke.
Ibaka was acquired in a trade from the Orlando Magic on Feb. 14, 2017, in exchange for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick. He elected to re-sign with Toronto as a free agent in July 2017. At his best, he’s a strong shot blocker and rebounder who can also provide timely scoring.
A late addition to the roster, the cerebral centre was the final piece that put this team over the top. A player long coveted by Ujiri, the Raptors GM didn’t pause to trade away another fan favourite.
In February Jonas Valanciunas was sent to the Memphis Grizzlies along with forward C.J. Miles, guard Delon Wright and a second-round pick in 2024. A combination of deft passing, key shots and a tremendous basketball IQ made Gasol’s transition into Toronto’s rotation a smooth one.
If you followed college basketball, you definitely knew VanVleet. A two time MVC player of the year, VanVleet led Wichita State to an undefeated season before losing to Kentucky in the finals. Despite his college career, VanVleet went undrafted. He signed with the Raptors as a free agent in 2016. His hard work and timely shooting was rewarded with a multi-year contract last July.
Powell is surprisingly the second-longest tenured Raptor behind Lowry. On draft day in 2015, Ujiri sent backup guard Greivis Vasquez to the Milwaukee Bucks for second-round pick that turned into Powell and a future first rounder that eventually became OG Anunoby. Since then, Powell has feasted on the Bucks, shooting 10-for-11 from deep in a 2017 first-round series before scoring nearly four points above his season average in the 2019 East final.