Raptors president seeing fruits of his rebuild 10 months after blockbuster Leonard deal
TORONTO -- The reaction from Toronto Raptors fans last summer was swift and scathing. One fan superimposed Masai Ujiri's face on the head of a snake. Another warned Ujiri had traded away most of the Raptors' fan base to the San Antonio Spurs.
When Ujiri unceremoniously shipped franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for then-injured superstar Kawhi Leonard last July, the blockbuster trade rocked the Raptors landscape.
Ten months later, Ujiri looks like a genius.
Addressing the media ahead of the Raptors' first appearance in the NBA Finals in franchise history, Ujiri talked about that day last July. Could he have envisioned how successful his plan would play out?
"It's surreal, but when you put the team together and we all dream of a championship, we all think about that, and I think the change was hard at the time, but we knew the kind of player we were getting, and if we overcame and we dealt with all the issues that we felt we could come together," said Ujiri, who called DeRozan from Nairobi, Kenya to break the news. "I think we were all positive about this kind of moment, and all dreamt about it."
On the eve of Thursday's NBA Finals opener against the visiting Golden State Warriors, Ujiri took time to credit two key members of the organization he sent packing. When asked about the job coach Nick Nurse has done, Ujiri shifted the focus to ex-coach Dwane Casey, who was fired after Toronto's third consecutive playoff loss against Cleveland, and DeRozan before praising his current bench boss.
"Give Dwane Casey credit," Ujiri said. "He prepared us for this, too. It's not something that started in one year ... I want to say Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are part of this. They are part of our journey and how far this has come."
Leonard's health was a huge asterisk on the trade, a major concern after he missed all but nine games last season with a serious quadriceps injury.
Was there a point in the season when Ujiri could finally exhale? That Leonard was out of the woods injury-wise, and the Raptors would be getting the absolute best of the 2014 Finals MVP?
"Honestly as soon as we made the trade, I thought that," Ujiri said. "As soon as the guy was in our hands, to get a player like that. He made it clear that his health was a priority for him ... and just his mindset when he came into the building, and into training camp, the work he did in the summer, the work he's done all year.
"Kawhi's quiet but he's relentless. I tell you, his work ethic is almost crazy. So you are confident and when you see the preparation throughout the season, you feel what this kind of player is going to produce."
Leonard was managed with kid gloves in the regular season. He never played both games on back-to-back nights, sitting out 20 games for "load management" -- a term that was both part of the team's lexicon this season and a lightning rod for fans during the regular season. Fans are fully on board with it now, calling "load management" the Raptors' sixth man this season.
Nurse credited the team's director of sports science Alex McKechnie for Leonard's health.
"There were countless hours in preparation, and really smart ideas and planning on that, to both physically and mentally get Kawhi to where he was able to start playing the way he wanted to play in the playoffs," Nurse said.
Leonard has played his way into Raptors' fans hearts. His likeness is splashed on murals around the city. Dozens of restaurants and bars across Toronto have joined the "Ka'Wine & Dine" initiative offering Leonard free food in a plea for him to re-sign with the Raptors when he becomes a free agent this summer. A Toronto real estate brokerage has offered a free penthouse apartment.
A reporter noted Wednesday that Leonard flies under the radar compared to superstars like Steph Curry and LeBron James. Does he prefer that?
"I'm not playing the game for that reason," Leonard said. "I'm playing to have fun and try to be the best player I can be. It's not about me being famous or wanting to have more fame than those guys. It's about me playing basketball and having fun on the floor."
The 2014 Finals MVP has recorded career highs in virtually every category this post-season, including points (45), rebounds (17) and assists (nine).
Ujiri calls him the "best two-way player in the NBA," and Nurse echoed his sentiments.
"I think Kawhi takes a lot of pride in being a two-way player," the coach said. "That's where it starts. You have to want to do it. Then he has some IQ. He has some really good athleticism. He has really big hands that get in there and snatch the ball away.
"The scoring is great and the big baskets are great, but when he makes up his mind to impact a play on the defensive end, and next thing you know he's got the ball coming the other way and getting a transition bucket ... those are huge momentum plays."
Leonard's stats have shot up since the regular season, which he famously referred to as 82 "practice games." He's proven his ability to grab a game by the ear and turn it in Toronto's favour. Think: the now-famous Game 7 Eastern Conference semifinal buzzer-beater against Philadelphia, or his play down the stretch of Game 6 of the conference final versus Milwaukee.
Nurse had an inkling around February's all-star break Leonard had another gear in him.
"I kind of kept thinking that he was holding back a little bit or he was getting his 30 points but it seemed like he wasn't expending a whole lot of effort some nights to do it," the coach said. "And I was looking and thinking there was another gear maybe coming.
"Then he said something to the effect of these first 82 are just practice. Then I thought 'OK, he's getting ready to throw it in another gear here pretty soon."'
The first two games of the best-of-seven series are Thursday and Sunday in Toronto before the teams head to Oakland for Games 3 and 4 next week.