By Eoin O’Callaghan/The Guardian
In Toronto, it’s the hope that kills you. It’s a sports-mad place boasting competitive teams across a multitude of codes but lots of chaos and a dearth of success. And even when the city’s franchises manage to get a taste of it, the fizz is fleeting.
Baseball’s Blue Jays claimed back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, and then didn’t reach the playoffs for 21 years. The Maple Leafs have won more Stanley Cups than all but two NHL clubs, but none in more than 50 years. As recently as 2012, they were voted the most embarrassing team to support.
Toronto FC bounced from one humiliating episode to the next before their MLS Cup triumph in 2017. But following the pattern of self-destruction, the joy was short-lived and they failed to qualify for the postseason earlier this year.
Canada’s largest city has a difficult relationship with winning. It doesn’t happen very often and on the rare occasions when it does, it doesn’t really know what to do with it.
And that’s why there remains an unshakable spectre overhanging the Toronto Raptors this season.
After a seismic summer defined by splashy transactions, the team has transitioned impressively and remains well in contention to finish at the top of the Eastern Conference for the second successive year. The Raptors are not a side accustomed to drama and conflict so, considering the offseason saw the firing of long-time coach Dwane Casey and the trade of the legendary DeMar DeRozan, that’s no small feat.
The recriminations and finger-pointing still linger but going by the performances so far this term, there’s no scar tissue. The players seem invested in Nick Nurse, who was brought on by Casey as an assistant back in 2013 before sliding into the lead role in June. And despite the trauma of the DeRozan trade, the gamble of bringing in Kahwi Leonard as his replacement has worked a treat.
Many wondered which Leonard would show up in Toronto. He’d been immense for San Antonio and was voted MVP when the Spurs beat Miami in the 2014 finals. There were back-to-back All-NBA first team appearances in 2016 and 2017, too. But things ended bitterly last season when a quad injury led to a prolonged absence and tension regarding best treatment. His relationship with Gregg Popovich broke down and he looked for a way out.
But, when Toronto was first mooted as a possible destination, it was claimed that Leonard was underwhelmed, had ‘no desire’ in going there and much preferred a switch to his hometown of Los Angeles.
Still, with some pressure on his shoulders, he’s smiled, stepped up and, most importantly, delivered in the big games. He’s poured in 30 or more points on 13 occasions, including a career-high 45-point haul against Utah on New Year’s Day.
And when he was mercilessly booed and kept quiet on his much-vaunted return to San Antonio two days later, there was no moodiness. When he stepped to the free throw line during the second quarter and thousands of home fans screamed “traitor” relentlessly, there was no reaction. And when the game was done, there was a laugh, a joke and warm embrace with Popovich.
Of course, it hasn’t all been about him.
Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam have excelled and, quite rightly, much has been made of the roster’s depth. With the Eastern Conference seldom as wide open, it’s not outlandish to look at the Raptors as favourites to reach their first NBA finals and genuine championship contenders.
However, you can’t shake the past: Toronto have been here very recently.
There was last season’s record-breaking campaign: 59 wins and the conference’s No 1 seed entering the playoffs for the first time in club history. Then it all came crashing down when they were whitewashed by LeBron James and the Cavaliers for a second straight year.
It was a humiliating end to a season that had been bursting with promise. In 2017, team president Masai Ujiri spoke of a ‘culture reset’. Alas, nothing had changed. Despite all the talk, all the hype, all of those Atlantic Division titles, there was still a valley of emptiness when it mattered most.
For Ujiri, it seemed that mindset was a big problem under Casey, who had performed small miracles to transform the Raptors from persistent punchline to Eastern Conference heavyweights. Though they had clearly blossomed throughout Casey’s seven years in charge, there seemed little belief within the team as they headed into high-profile matchups against LeBron.
So Ujiri rolled the dice.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” he later told reporters of his decision to fire Casey, who was voted Coach of the Year by his peers two days earlier and who’d go on to be named NBA Coach of the Year too. But, Ujiri made sure to add that it was a ‘very difficult but necessary step’.
When the DeRozan trade followed in mid-summer, it was representative of the Raptors’ new era: ruthless, business-oriented and cold-blooded.
Moving on the team’s biggest star and bringing in Leonard was a bold decision. Again, certainly not what the Raptors were known for. Pushing out both Casey and DeRozan – seven- and nine-year veterans of the organisation, respectively – was hardly coincidental. Gone was that cliche Canadian niceness.
But it has been tough for fans to properly park the nostalgia and embrace the new version of the side. Casey’s future had been a frequent sports-bar discussion ever since the 2018 playoff series with the Cavs took a familiar turn. He contributed so much to the team’s development and immersed himself in the city.
Leonard becomes a free agent at the end of the season and Ujiri would do well to persuade him to stick around. But will supporters care too much if he helps the Raptors land the conference title … or better?
Nurse is a rookie NBA coach, plucked from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA’s developmental G League and previously a two-time coach of the year in the British Basketball League. But, crucially, his players like him. Last month, he was fined $15,000 after criticising officials for not protecting Leonard enough during a loss in Denver. The support wasn’t lost on Leonard, who spoke afterwards about Nurse having his back. And the coach’s passion wasn’t lost on fans either.
And while the regular season has been a big success, the playoffs will offer plenty of nerves, particularly with LeBron not around to get in their heads this time. On paper, they’re in a much stronger position than last year. But considering the investment in the short term, there seems immense pressure on the team doing something special in 2019. If that doesn’t happen, and Leonard walks in the summer while Ujiri is faced with starting over again, will it have all been worth it?
Then again, perhaps the new-era Raptors, who are intent on looking to the future rather than the past, won’t care too much.
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