In 1993, the NBA decided to expand north of the border as they set their sights on the country of Canada, and in 1994, the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors would make their debuts. The NBA knew that it would take some time for a country who’s national sport is hockey to warm up to basketball. But whereas the Grizzlies would struggle financially and eventually leave Vancouver for Memphis, Tennessee in 2001, the Raptors were able to develop a following for themselves.
At first the Raptors played their home games at the cavernous SkyDome which was also the home of Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, but they were attempting to build something with the likes of young players such as point guard Damon Stoudemire and center Marcus Camby leading the way. The Raptors biggest break came in 1998 at the NBA Draft when they made a trade with the Golden State Warriors to obtain the draft of small forward Vince Carter and he would soon put NBA Basketball in Canada on the map.
Carter was quickly dubbed “Air Canada” for his high flying dunks as he excited the folks at the SkyDome, and when the Raptors moved into the Air Canada Centre in 1999, the arena became his personal playground.
With Carter leading the way, the Raptors made the playoffs for the first time in 2000 as they were one of the more popular teams in the NBA, but he alone could not lead them to a championship.
By 2003, the Raptors found themselves rebuilding and in the first round of that year’s NBA Draft, the Raptors picked power forward Chris Bosh who would quickly become the new face of the franchise as his ascension would result in the demise of Carter in Toronto as he’d be traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.
The Raptors would build around Bosh who would lead them to their first Atlantic Division Title in franchise history in 2007, but like Carter, championship glory would elude him Toronto. And by 2010, Bosh was ready to leave town and join the Miami Heat.
Luckily for the Raptors they would use a first-round pick on swignman DeMar DeRozan in 2009 as his emergence was able to offset the loss of Bosh. Just like it was with Carter and Bosh, Toronto would build around DeRozan as he and point guard Kyle Lowry, along with head coach Duane Casey would make the Raptors one of the more formidable teams in the NBA.
In 2016, the Raptors would win a franchise best 56 games en route to their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. But unfortunately for Toronto, the aura of small forward LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers would be too much for them to overcome.
James would continue to be a thorn in the side of the Raptors as not only would he eliminate them from the postseason in each of the next two seasons, but he would do it via the sweep. And in spite of the Raptors winning a franchise best 59 games during the 2017-2018 NBA season, Casey would be fired fresh off of being named as the league’s Coach of the Year.
Casey was not the only who would get his walking papers as the Raptors would trade DeRozan (who became their franchise leader in most statistical categories) to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for small forward Kawhi Leonard.
The trade brought out of a ton of critics due to the fact that Leonard appeared to be a rental as he was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 NBA season. This season has been highlighted by the talk of which team that Leonard will be heading to in the summer, but those talks will now be put on hold as he is set to lead the Raptors onto the NBA’s biggest stage.
After helping the Raptors win 58 games in the regular season, Leonard entered the NBA Playoffs looking to remind people that he is one of the best players in the game. After helping the Spurs win the NBA Championship in 2014, the rest of Leonard’s time in San Antonio was mired by quad injury that damaged his relationship with the team which resulted in them shipping him to Toronto.
But during these playoffs Leonard has averaged 31.2 points per game to lead the Raptors which includes making clutch plays. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Philadelphia 76ers, it was Leonard’s fadeaway jumper over center Joel Embiid as time expired that sent Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals. And in the conference finals versus the favored Milwaukee Bucks, it was Leonard’s stifling defense on Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as his hunger to make the big play on offense that allowed the Raptors to erase an 0-2 deficit in the series as they stormed back to win the next four. And when it was all said and done, Leonard had done what couldn’t be done by other star players which was to get the Raptors to the NBA Finals.
Toronto has always been a tremendous sports town as their fans are second to none in regards to supporting the local teams. Aside from fans consistently filling the now renamed Scotiabank Arena, they also come out in droves to stand outside of the arena and watch games in a complex that is known as “Jurassic Park”. And after helping to will their team to a comeback versus Milwaukee, they are hopeful that their beloved Raptors will be able to slay the dragon that is the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
For Nurse, he had to replace the best head coach in Raptors franchise history in Casey who in spite of leading Toronto to five consecutive trips to the postseason was forced to pay the price for the team’s inability to overcome James and the Cavs.
But Nurse took over a Raptors team that no longer had to worry about James who is now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference as his departure opened things up in the Eastern Conference in a similar fashion as to when Michael Jordan abruptly retired in 1993 at the height of his career. The Raptors now had to deal with an Eastern Conference that was full of young players that are still attempting to figure out what it takes to win, as they like Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in 1994 who took advantage of Jordan’s absence, seized the opportunity which was afforded to them.
In less than a calendar year Leonard has become the most important player in Raptors franchise history, and because of that I’d be hard pressed to see him leave Toronto now as he has quickly become a revered figure. And if Leonard were to lead the Raptors to their first NBA Championship in two weeks, he would have more than a puncher’s chance to be elected as prime minister in Canada.