There are some folks who say that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot, although if you hear the rumbling of thunder and see some guy start running, you know that he’ll beg to differ. Over the last few decades we’ve had more than a few back-to-back NBA champions, which indicates that in this league, there are plenty of teams capable of dominating over the course of a few seasons.
The last franchise to land consecutive championships was the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018, their third in three seasons and fifth NBA Finals appearance in a row. Lightning is certainly striking aplenty there and for the Cleveland Cavaliers, their opponents on three out of four occasions for the big prize. However, last year it was the Toronto Raptors who claimed the NBA championship for the first time, though surely, they can’t win it again can they?
The Long-Awaited Canadian Conquest
Considering it was a Canadian named James Naismith who invented the sport of basketball back in 1891, albeit while teaching physical education in Springfield, Massachusetts, it’s perhaps surprising that not one team from his homeland had won the North American championship since the sport first became professional in 1946.
That said, since the inception of pro basketball there’s only ever been three franchises based in Canada. The first was the Toronto Huskies, who competed in the original Basketball Association of America championship during the 1946-47 season and hosted the league’s first official game. However, the team from Ontario lasted just one campaign and folded.
Not until the 1995 expansion north of the border would Canadian basketball fans have NBA teams to cheer for, with the establishment of the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors. When the Grizzlies crossed the border and relocated south to Memphis, Tennessee, only the Raptors remained in the Great White North.
Nevertheless, last season it was the team hailing from Naismith’s home province of Ontario celebrating when the confetti fell, much to the joy of Canadian basketball fans, as the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship in the 73rd season of professional competition and their 24th as a franchise, becoming the first non-U.S. team to do so.
The Nick Nurse Revolution
Lifting the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy in your first season as head coach of a team is no easy feat, although it does appear to have become something of a trend in recent years. Steve Kerr did it with the Golden State Warriors in 2015, then Tyronn Lue did the same the following year with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, proving that it can be done if all the right tools are in place to do the job well.
When they fired 2018 Coach of the Year winner Dwayne Casey, the Toronto Raptors were taking a huge risk that raised plenty of eyebrows, especially after he’d led the team to a first ever Eastern Conference championship title in their history. That said, the management clearly expected the team to go full tilt for the NBA Championship, which meant that being swept 4-0 in the Conference Semifinals by the Cleveland Cavs was below their lofty expectations.
Of course, Nick Nurse was no stranger with the Raptors having worked as Casey’s offensive coach since the 2013-14 season. It’s also perhaps fair to say he was arguably the mastermind behind much of the success Casey enjoyed in recent years. Indeed, the major improvements to the passing game and three-point plays that Nurse introduced made a huge difference, with the Raptors becoming genuine contenders.
Given that Casey couldn’t take the Raptors that extra mile after 7 seasons as head coach, when the Raptors decided it was time for a change and sought to promote from within, many still felt it was a huge gamble naming Nurse as replacement, despite his exemplary achievements as an assistant coach. Nurse proved all the doubters wrong, matching the ambitions of his franchise paymasters and making Raptors history in the process.
The 2019-20 Challenge Without Kawhi Leonard
Some will say that a number of circumstances and variables aided Nurse and the Raptors last season. There was no LeBron James in the Eastern Conference last season, as he made his debut with the Los Angeles Lakers after reigning over the Eastern Conference from his throne in Cleveland. There’s also the important role played by Kawhi Leonard, who proved an amazing offseason trade and hugely influential for the Toronto franchise, especially his 732 points during the 2019 playoffs.
This season the challenge for the Raptors will be to aim for a repeat of last season’s success without superstar Kawhi Leonard, who left snowy Canada to sign a contract reportedly worth $103 million over three years with the Clippers of sunny Los Angeles. While the sportsbook odds suggest that Kawhi’s departure deflated the Raptor’s ambitions for the 2019-20 season, it hasn’t really affected their start to the campaign in the slightest.
After spending a season as Kawhi’s understudy, Pascal Siakam has confidently stepped into the starring role and is already showing Leonard-like importance for his team. Just as they did last season with Kawhi, the Raptors are now building everything around Siakam, which further emphasizes the faith of Nurse and franchise president Masai Ujiri, initially symbolized by a $130 million contract extension for the young power forward from Cameroon.
Early 2019-20 Season Form
The 7-3 record and 70 percent win record after 10 games has the Raptors well positioned in the Eastern Conference standings. However, on Monday, November 12, they faced the LA Clippers and former player Leonard for the first time this season. The Raptors fell 88-98 against the team widely tipped to be the NBA champions.
Although that defeat could be an early indication that the Raptors might not match their achievements of last season, statistically the team is matching and even exceeding the numbers from the early-ons of their championship campaign. This would seem to indicate that even though there’s still a long way to go this season, the team from Toronto is more than capable of producing another run for the NBA championship.