After a disappointing end to the season last year, Toronto Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri knew the team needed a drastic change to get over the hump.
The Raptors had come off back-to-back playoff sweeps at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and frustrations were mounting. Just days after being eliminated, Ujiri got to work and fired Head Coach Dwane Casey, who would go on to win the Coach of the Year award for his work that season.
About a month later, the Raptors hired then-assistant coach Nick Nurse to take over the reins. At the time, Nurse had never served as a head bench boss in the NBA.
With James leaving Cleveland for the sunny weather of Los Angeles, Ujiri saw an opening and gambled on trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. The San Antonio Spurs’ superstar was no question an upgrade to the Raptors’ roster, but he had played just nine games in the 2017-2018 season following a quadriceps injury.
On top of the injury, questions swirled about whether Leonard would even report to Toronto, as his preference was apparently for a trade to his hometown in Los Angeles.
“I think the change was hard at the time, but we knew the kind of player we were getting,” Ujiri told reporters before the NBA Finals. “If we overcame and dealt with all the issues, we felt that it could come together. We were all positive about this kind of moment and all dreamt about it.”
Ujiri’s gamble on Nurse and Leonard has proven fruitful as the Raptors won their first championship in franchise history.
Leonard has proven to be everything the Raptors had hoped. He averaged 26.6 points and 7.3 assists per game in 60 regular season games.
Both totals are career highs for Leonard, who now leads the NBA in playoff scoring and needs just 49 points to set an NBA record for single-season playoff points. He is also the only player in NBA history to record 700 points, 200 rebounds and 35 steals in a single postseason.
Nurse, on the other hand, managed his use of Leonard to a tee, and has out-coached each of the Raptors’ opponents thus far in the playoffs.
“Nick has just been one to never complain,” Ujiri said. “That’s one thing that has really stood out with him and he’s done a remarkable job.”
Ujiri’s gamble did not end with Leonard and Nurse, however. At the NBA trade deadline in February, the Raptors shipped off fan favourite Jonas Valanciunas to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol, a player who is considerably older than Valanciunas and has arguably lost a step over time, but has provided more shooting firepower and marginally better defensive play.
Gasol is proving to be a valuable player for Nick Nurse and the Raptors, the team is 6-2 in the postseason when he scores at least 10 points and he ranks among the best in the NBA’s post-season three-point shooting percentage, one of Valanciunas’ noticeable weaknesses.
It been clear since the offseason that the Raptors have been all-in for an NBA championship.