Kawhi Leonard won his second career Finals MVP Thursday night, becoming the first player in NBA history to win one in each conference. The magnitude of what he personally accomplished likely will take some time to settle in: After missing a full season due to injury and forcing his way out of San Antonio, Kawhi joined up with a Raptors team he’d never especially wanted, took over as their primary scorer and shot-creator, and in his first and perhaps only season in town, he led them to the franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals and first-ever championship. That’s the stuff of NBA legend.
But for my money, most of the coolest stuff about Toronto’s NBA title comes further down the depth chart. After all, this was Kawhi’s second NBA title-being a champion isn’t exactly old hat, but he’s known the feeling since 2014. Here are some very cool guys who for the first time get to call themselves NBA champions:
For the first half of his NBA career, Kyle Lowry was a grumpy and relatively low-wattage journeyman. For most of the last six seasons in Toronto before this one, he was at worst the second-best player on a Raptors team that, at its best, was not close to contending for a championship. The arrival of Kawhi and the ascension of Pascal Siakam took some of the pressure off, and Lowry’s efficiency dropped in his smaller scoring role this regular season, but he also thrived as a pure facilitator and defensive pest, and had by far the best playoff showing of his career.
Lowry’s court awareness, knack for tracking down loose balls, and willingness to throw his body in front of much huger humans paid constant dividends during Toronto’s championship run, but the best part of Lowry’s Finals performance is that he forever buried his reputation as a guy who turned frantic and shrank away from big moments. Lowry’s offense was clutch in two huge Raptors road wins, and the 26-point double-double in the Game 6 clincher was perhaps the definitive individual performance of the game.
Siakam’s Finals performance was uneven overall, but he came up huge in the clincher, putting up 26 points on 17 shots and helping to stake Toronto to its early lead with two first-quarter three-pointers, the first he’d hit since Game 1 of the series. His slick Euro-step floater finish around Draymond Green with 28 seconds left in the fourth pushed Toronto’s lead to three points, and was the last bucket scored by either team.
This was just Siakam’s third full NBA season, and already he looks like a very slightly nerfed version of Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s just 25 and appears to still be growing into his 6-foot-9 frame. Almost no one else his size in basketball can match his quickness and creativity with the ball, and he’s perfectly comfortable switching across at least four positions defensively. Whatever happens with Kawhi in free agency this summer, Siakam is reason enough for Raptors fans to be excited about what comes next.
Fred VanVleet’s success as a big-minutes rotation guard should serve as a nudge to all NBA general managers about how college upperclassmen who can pair an upperclassman’s court sense with the ability to both penetrate a defense off the dribble and shoot can make for mighty fine draft prospects, even without evident sexy upside. VanVleet is a small guard in a league that is trending more and more toward positionless basketball, but his drive and kick instincts are tremendous, even if he’s a reluctant finisher in the paint, and his willingness and ability to bomb threes make him a perfectly respectable offensive weapon, even without standout athleticism.
But what sets VanVleet apart, and what made him virtually irreplaceable in this series, is his insane, extrasensory defensive instincts. In Steph Curry’s career as one of the most devastating offensive weapons in NBA history, no one has ever done a better job of harassing him across a playoff series than VanVleet did in the 2019 Finals. Because Steph is a monster, his box score statistics were still for the most part strong, but VanVleet made Curry work incredibly hard even to catch the ball, and then coolly slithered around screens and ran Curry off the three-point line, and masterfully played him into defensive help, and forced the ball out of his hands. VanVleet was the one Raptors player not named Kawhi Leonard who received a vote for Finals MVP-that the vote came from no less an authority than wise old Hubie Brown tells you how readily you should scoff at it. VanVleet was a powerhouse.
He had a down regular season and struggled through the early rounds of the playoffs, but powered by the existence of little Fred Jr., VanVleet found his best form when it was most needed. VanVleet had 22 points in 34 minutes in the clincher, while also holding down one of the toughest defensive assignments on the planet.
We have officially entered feel-good territory. Gasol started every playoff game for the Raptors, after joining the team mid-season back in February. It was never going to be about huge box-score production, but it’s worth noting that Toronto’s offense was more than three points better per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor in these playoffs, and their defense was nearly three points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the Finals. He’s just a smart old dude who knows how to tilt the flow of action his team’s way.
Gasol played 10 seasons in Memphis; for seven of them, he was a foundational player on a proud and tough and razor-sharp team that only once seriously contended for a title. He was a three-time All-Star, twice made an All-NBA team, and was Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. Injuries screwed up the last couple years in Memphis, but Gasol smoothly migrated his offensive game away from the paint and out toward the perimeter, where he now functions as an excellent stretch big who can see the whole floor and flip screens and dime up backdoor cutters like an even less mobile Nikola Jokic.
Gasol winning the title means that he and Pau become the first pair of brothers in NBA history to each win an NBA title. Even Draymond had to call that “special,” before acknowledging how much it pisses him off.
Doesn’t it feel like Serge Ibaka has been around for a million years? Not so! This was just Ibaka’s ninth NBA season, and second full season in Toronto. Would it surprise you to learn that Ibaka is a year younger than Kevin Durant and almost 18 months younger than Steph Curry?
Ibaka made three All-Defensive teams with the Oklahoma City Thunder, led the league in blocks four times, and for a while there was considered a future superstar. The game moved away from him a little bit, and the perimeter skills he’d need to thrive in the modern NBA either never developed-Ibaka absolutely cannot take two dribbles in any direction without turning the ball over-or tend to vanish at inopportune moments, as his jumpshot did for most of this season. Superstardom, at this point, no longer appears anywhere on the horizon.
But that doesn’t mean old man Ibaka can’t be a useful guy! He’s still an intimidating shot-blocker, and an aggressive rebounder, and has enough agility to do some reasonable perimeter defending. And his willingness to catch-and-shoot on offense means even when he’s scattershot, sometimes a big one will go down. Ibaka averaged more than 16 points a game over the last three games of the Finals, underscoring just how much value the Raptors got out of assembling a deep roster full of useful guys. This was Ibaka’s second Finals series, after his Thunder were trounced by the Miami Heat in 2012. Now he’s a dang champ.
Norman Powell is the last Raptors guy who can reasonably be described as part of their playoff rotation, contributing 16 minutes a game across the playoffs and 11 minutes per game across the Finals. Earlier in his career-which is still in its relatively early stages-Powell seemed like he might be headed for stardom as a muscular wing guy with an electric, attacking style and the heft to defend other alpha wing scorers. That hasn’t really happened, and for the most part Masai Ujiri has spent the last couple years looking for someone to take Powell’s minutes and usurp his role as a rotation guy. Frankly, had OG Anunoby been healthy for the Finals, it’s unlikely Powell would’ve seen much playing time.
But Anunoby was not healthy, and Powell did see playing time, and by George he made those minutes count. The Raptors outscored the Warriors during Powell’s minutes in all but one game in this series, which is not a small thing when you consider Golden State’s frightening habit of picking out and isolating and terrorizing an opponent’s weakest link, at both ends. Powell may not have made noteworthy box score contributions, but he held up his end of the bargain, and now he is a champion. I’m sure the Wizards will be all too happy to trade an unprotected first round pick for his services.
Jeremy Lin was always more than a little trumped-up as a big-time player, but he’s a very good and useful NBA guard, and what has happened to his career over the past few seasons plain sucks. His 2016-17 season in Brooklyn was marred by persistent hamstring injuries, and then a devastating knee injury in Brooklyn’s first game knocked Lin out of the entirety of the 2017-18 season. A fresh start in Brooklyn was supposed to be Lin’s big chance at revitalizing his career as an NBA starter, but instead he played 36 total games in two years and went from being a clear-cut rotation guy to end-of-bench flotsam.
Lin found his way to the Raptors as veteran depth after he was bought out in Atlanta earlier this season, where he’d been backing up and mentoring Trae Young. He played exactly one minute in the Finals, and just about 25 total minutes in the playoffs, none of them meaningful. Still, it’s cool and good that a guy whose career has been so blown up by bullcrap injuries and Byron Scott now gets to be an NBA champion. Mom was proud!
Actually, it is not cool at all that this one-dimensional beetle-looking Kentucky product was allowed to touch the damn Larry O’Brien trophy! He played eight regular-season games with the Raptors, produced a rotten 36 percent true shooting percentage in the playoffs, and is a lousy NBA player! Get him out of my face!
Other guys are also champions. OG Anunoby is a champion despite missing the entire playoffs following emergency appendectomy surgery. Patrick McCaw won his thirdtitle in only his third NBA season, despite having never actually been good. Danny Green won his second title after very nearly throwing Game 6 away. Someone named Malcolm Miller was for sure photographed celebrating with Raptors players on the floor of Oracle Arena, while wearing Raptors warmups. Some of these guys are real Guys, and some of them will never be more than guys, but the point is no one can ever again say they aren’t champions.