The Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship in one of the most historic single-season runs in NBA history. Led by Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in an intense seven-game series, overcame an 0-2 deficit to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks, and ended the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. Heading into that monumental 2018-19 season, Toronto made three notable changes: They hired Nick Nurse as head coach, traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, and hired assistant coach Phil Handy.
The Raptors had suffered three straight playoff series losses at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2017-18, having the Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey and a franchise record 53 wins couldn’t stop them from getting swept by the Cavs for a second consecutive season. Changes were made.
The hiring of Nurse came on June 12, just days after the 2018 NBA Finals. After being promoted to head coach, Nurse then looked to beef up his coaching staff in anticipation of another big playoff run. With LeBron headed to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Eastern Conference was considered wide open.
Prior to his NBA career, Nurse was the head coach for the Manchester Giants of England for the 1999-2000 season. Phil Handy was a player on the team. Together they won the league championship. That relationship stayed strong throughout the years, and the two were reunited in Toronto.
“I was in Cleveland for five years and I think the Cavs were in a place where they wanted to go in a different direction,” Handy said in the ClutchPoints interview. “Bron was leaving. It was kinda mutually agreed upon and it was time for me to kinda take the next step in my career and figure out what’s next. Nick Nurse got the head coaching job. I played for Nick Nurse in Europe in England and we won a championship together. I played for his team and we always kept a great relationship, kept in touch, competing against the Raptors when I was in Cleveland.
“When he got the job, you just kinda naturally reached out and say, ‘What are you up to?’ And I had just freed myself from my contract in Cleveland and I wanted to go to another place that has the type of team that could potentially compete for a championship.”
Toronto wasn’t far from being a legit contender in the Eastern Conference. They had all the pieces to reach the NBA Finals, but the LeBron James train always got in the way.
“I had always looked at Toronto as a very competitive team,” Handy added. “They were really good. The only thing that was stopping them from having the opportunity to reach the Finals was LeBron and our team in Cleveland. With him leaving, I looked at the makeup of that team and I felt like that Nick wanted me on his staff.”
At the time of his signing, the Raptors were led by the core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, and an up-and-coming Pascal Siakam. Toronto also had one of the best home-court advantages, if not the best, in the entire NBA.
“That’s the place where I wanted to go because I’m going to help their players. Put in some work with DeMar, with Kyle, Pascal, and some of the younger guys. I just looked at them as a great team to really compete in the East. I felt like they had a chance. So when it was agreed upon and they wanted me to come, I made that decision and I was really happy.”
Handy joined Toronto with the intention of taking the current team to the next level. Not even a week after his arrival to Toronto, however, the Raptors changed the entire complexion of their team.
About 1,700 miles to the southwest, the San Antonio Spurs and star Kawhi Leonard were at a stalemate. Leonard requested a trade from the storied franchise, but weren’t trading him to his reported destinations back home in Los Angeles.
Well into the night of July 17, reports had surfaced that the Raptors and Spurs were in talks about a trade for Leonard. In the early morning stages of July 18, the deal was done. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were headed to Toronto. Longtime franchise superstar DeMar DeRozan was headed to San Antonio, along with Jakob Poeltl.
“I made that decision before Kawhi was traded there. I just signed my contract and I think two or three days later, I’m at my house in Cleveland and ESPN pops out and, ‘BREAKING NEWS: Toronto Raptors have traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.’ I literally fell out of my seat, like, ‘C’mon man, this can’t be.’
“Like, listen, in all due respect because again, I felt like, with DeMar, he’s an incredible player. I felt like the team that they had, we would be able to compete. It was just so like, ‘Man, they traded one elite player for another.’ And the rest of it is just history. It was just a great year being there working with the team.”
Despite getting a different team than the one he expected, Handy’s transition both to Toronto and with Leonard was seamless.
“That was one of the easiest transitions that I’ve ever made with a player,” admitted Phil Handy. “Kawhi is … Man, that dude is just all about the love of the game. He just loves the game and he’s a quiet dude that just wants to play basketball. All the fluff, all the whistles, all the social media and all the other stuff, he doesn’t need it. He just wants to hoop.
“Our process was easy. After the trade went through, and a couple of weeks went by and kinda some of the dust settled, I reached out to Kawhi via text and said, ‘Look, we’re both new to Toronto. I’m looking forward to getting in the gym and putting some work in with you.’ And his text back to me was, ‘When are you coming to San Diego?’ That’s how we started. It was an easy process.”
The end result of the process was the 2019 NBA championship, the Raptors’ first in franchise history and Handy’s second in four seasons (the other being the Cavs’ 2016 championship).
“Those parades were amazing,” Handy recalled. “They’re both historical and they both had levels of craziness that you probably wouldn’t get in any other situations. Cleveland with the 50 years, the whole state of Ohio came to Cleveland. I think they said that there was probably two million people that embarked upon Cleveland. Toronto had three million people. You got the whole state of Ohio in there and then you have all of Canada that’s dialed in to this parade. They were both epic on mass proportions. Again, another of those historical moments in my career. Being a part of those parades were phenomenal.”
The Kawhi Leonard era in Toronto didn’t last more than a season, and losing DeMar DeRozan hurt initially, but it was all worth it at the end of the day.
You can listen to the full podcast with Phil Handy on:
Apple: Battle for LA Podcast
Spotify: Battle for LA Podcast