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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Masai Ujiri deserves credit for the Toronto Raptors’ historic run

The Toronto Raptors are going to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. The person behind the road to them winning the Eastern Conference, president Masai Ujiri, deserves a lot of credit.

The Raptors made a bevy of headlines last offseason as a result of two bold decisions. The first was firing long-time head coach Dwane Casey. After making the playoffs, but failing to win the East for the fifth consecutive season, Ujiri pulled the plug. The initial reaction was that he got a raw deal given how a LeBron James-led team won the East for eight consecutive seasons, meaning Casey wasn’t to blame.

To replace the veteran coach the Raptors promoted assistant Nick Nurse — a decision which made sense, but was a yawning hire.

The other decision Ujiri made was executing the blockbuster trade of the summer. Acquiring All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs for, most notably, lifelong Raptor DeMar DeRozan — Ujiri sent shock waves throughout the NBA. The trade also sent center Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick to the Spurs, as well as shooting guard Danny Green to the Raptors.

When the deal went down it was highly expected Leonard, who is a free agent this summer, wouldn’t re-up with the Raptors. There was also the supposed behind-the-scenes aspect of the deal, including Ujiri telling DeRozan two weeks before the trade he wasn’t going to be moved. This also apparently made point guard Kyle Lowry avoid contact with the organization.

It was an epic offseason for the Raptors; it was a matter of how it would pan out in the short-term. Well, it worked out pretty darn well.

The Raptors (58-24) finished the regular season as the two seed in the East, beat the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs in five games, and defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in a back-and-forth seven-game series that emphatically ended with Leonard hitting a fadeaway corner jump shot to beat the buzzer in Game 7. Then the Raptors won four consecutive games against the Milwaukee Bucks the ensuing round after trailing the series 2-0.

Now it’s off to the NBA Finals where the Raptors will face the back-to-back NBA-champion Golden State Warriors. Let’s put this matchup to the side, though, as we’re focusing on the road to this point for the Raptors.

Is Ujiri trying to get himself fired? Has the Raptors’ championship window closed? Why did they trade for Leonard if he’s leaving in free agency?

The aforementioned questions were all debated throughout the offseason and, in some cases, still are today. But you wouldn’t tell that the Raptors are under this type of critique by the way they’ve gone about their business. We know their history of coming up short in the playoffs, but this season they put it in the rearview mirror.

Leonard had the best season of his career and proved that he’s not a product of the Spurs’ system. He averaged career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3) per game in the regular season. He’s also averaging an astonishing 31.2 points per game in the postseason, and has flat-out taken over games. He’s defending teams’ number one frontline scorer, taking the big shot, and operates as a machine with no off-switch. He even appeared to play with an injured leg throughout parts of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Meanwhile, Nurse has a case for being the 2018-19 NBA Coach of the Year. One of, if not the biggest decision he made was inserting forward Pascal Siakam into the starting lineup. Siakam had a tremendous season, is an irreplaceable figure on both ends of the floor, and is likely going to be a finalist for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award.

Before the NBA trade deadline, Ujiri forced Nurse to make some adjustments when he acquired former All-Star center Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies for life-long Raptor Jonas Valanciunas — which was another heartfelt goodbye. After bringing Gasol off the bench and gradually giving him a larger role, he became a glue guy, given his ability to stretch the floor at his size (7-foot-1) and play elite defense; it’s just another move paying dividends for the Raptors.

If the Raptors were ever going to win the East, or the NBA Finals, they had to make big-boy moves, and taking a chance on Leonard getting them over the hump and maybe re-signing in the offseason was doing as such. Fans of teams who aren’t competitive, or come up short in the postseason clamor for their front office to do the same.

We can debate all day whether James staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers would’ve changed this outcome for the Raptors. At the same time, many had the Boston Celtics running away with the East and the 76ers being a force to be reckoned with this season. How’d that work out? One was obliterated in the second round, and the other lost to the Raptors.

Ujiri took chances, franchise-altering ones for that matter, and continued doing so throughout the regular season. He and the Raptors were scrutinized and doubted the entire time, and look where they are: moments away from appearing in the NBA Finals with home-court advantage on their side.

There wasn’t an executive, or general manager under more heat for what they did in the offseason than Ujiri. Given the caliber of a player he traded away in DeRozan, and the way he supposedly took a 180, there was risk. If it panned out well, like it is right now, all was going to be well. On the other hand, if it blew up in his face, it could’ve easily resulted in him being fired. Difficult decisions were made and some painted him in a negative light, regardless of whether it was warranted.

What can’t be denied is that it worked. If you ridiculed Ujiri for what he did in the offseason, you have to applaud the results of those same decisions. Few outside of Toronto felt this outcome was feasible.

They could’ve blown up their roster, concede to rising teams in the conference, and build for the future. Instead, Ujiri adjusted and fine-tuned the Raptors for another run at a championship.

Time will tell whether the Raptors come out on top as NBA champions. In the meantime, their president deserves his due; he’s the reason why they have the chance to dethrone the Warriors.