The Toronto Raptors are the 2019 National Basketball Association champions. If you live in the United States, you could be excused for forgetting this well-documented fact.
The team’s coverage south of the 49th parallel is blatantly disrespectful to the defending champs. Despite sitting in third place overall in the league standings, they are barely discussed when top contenders for the 2020 title are analyzed by American media outlets like Sports Illustrated, FS1, TNT, and (especially) ESPN.
The departure of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency inspired Vegas oddsmakers to predict a Toronto win total of 47 games this season. Some otherwise intelligent sports analysts publicly predicted the Raptors would miss the playoffs altogether.
Toronto is the only team that looks capable of challenging the Bucks in the playoffs
American armchair critics spent the summer condemning the Raptors to irrelevance. They are currently so irrelevant that they’ve already won 40 games prior to the NBA’s All-Star Game, where they were represented in the starting lineup (Pascal Siakum), reserves (Kyle Lowry) and behind the bench (coach Nick Nurse and his staff). They are outpacing the competition in the Eastern Conference race for the #2 playoff seed (behind the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks — more on them in a minute).
They have three players (Lowry, Siakam and Fred VanVleet) who made names for themselves by hitting big shots in the Finals, yet the Raptors are regularly condemned to also-ran status because they lack “a guy who’s going to take the big shots to win games for you in the playoffs.” The old adage that defence wins championships should auger well for a team with the league’s second-rated defence, yet nearly no one thinks they have the horses to win the East, much less the Finals.
A team on track to win a franchise-best 60 games apparently has less of a chance of making the Finals than the Sixers — arguably the league’s most dysfunctional team. They are led by a point guard who can’t shoot (Ben Simmons) and a centre (Joel Embiid) who finds success against basically every opponent except Marc Gasol, who happens to be a Toronto Raptor.
A team that has won at least 50 games in each of the past four seasons and has the best record in the East during that stretch was never going anywhere. They were always going to come to play.
This is a deep, well-coached, well-managed, professional outfit. It shouldn’t come as a shock that they are where they are, and yet for some reason, the sport’s American punditry seems to be genuinely surprised.
The way the defending champions are playing right now is perhaps the strongest argument against the retirement of jersey #2
They shouldn’t be. This is who the Raptors have been for the last seven seasons. Getting over the hump with the help of Leonard and Danny Green, two guys who won rings with the San Antonio Spurs, taught them how to win the game’s biggest prize on its brightest stage.
Their standing this season is no fluke.
Toronto is the only team that looks well-rounded enough to challenge the Bucks in the playoffs.
- Though the Boston Celtics play stifling defence, they lack big men who can match up with the Bucks’ bigs, including MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetekoumpo.
- The Philadelphia 76ers are the biggest team in the conference but lack the chemistry, cohesiveness and the offence to keep up with the Bucks. Their roster simply doesn’t fit together, despite all their assembled talent.
- The Miami Heat have talented wing players but will be hard-pressed to gel in time after midseason trades shook up their roster. It’s also unclear if their untested bigs will be able to withstand the heat of the postseason.
The Raptors are the only club with the size, defensive flexibility, and offensive prowess to hang with the Bucks. It also doesn’t hurt that after beating Milwaukee in last year’s conference finals, they have no fear of the Deer.
Some will say that their title win last year was only possible because they had Leonard. Of course, Kawhi’s two-way play had a lot to do with Toronto’s six-game series victory, but he didn’t win a championship by himself. Contrary to popular assumptions in America, many current Raptors were indispensable in the team’s wins over the Bucks in the conference finals and the dynastic Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The fans have shown Leonard a lot of love since he led Toronto to its first NBA title last spring. He will eat for free at most restaurants in town for the rest of his life. However, does that accomplishment warrant a jersey retirement for his number 2, after being in Toronto for just a single season?
If you ask any Raptors fan who’s followed this team since its inception in 1995, they will tell you there are only four former or current players in the jersey retirement conversation: Vince Carter, DeMar DeRozan, Leonard and Lowry.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Lowry’s number 7 will one day hang from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena. He is widely considered the greatest Raptor ever, so he should go first. DeRozan, affectionately known as Mr. I Am Toronto during his time with the Raptors, should also have his #10 jersey retired.
And while some still have negative feelings about how he forced his way out of town, Carter’s impact on an entire generation of basketball-loving Canadians is impossible to ignore.
But Leonard’s jersey should not join that illustrious group. No matter how significant his contributions to the franchise’s lone championship, one’s longevity of service to the basketball club needs to count for something. Kawhi simply wasn’t here long enough during the Raptors’ golden years to warrant an accolade that should ideally honour long-term dedication and service to the franchise and its fans.
The way the defending champions are playing right now is perhaps the strongest argument against the retirement of jersey #2. It proves beyond a doubt that while important, Leonard wasn’t the only factor in the team’s climb to the top of the mountain. When he had the chance to choose Toronto, he didn’t stick around to help them win a second time, either.
The team is intent on writing their own chapter in history and that quest doesn’t include Kawhi Leonard.
Toronto is forever grateful for what Leonard did for the Raptors. But that doesn’t mean this strong, vibrant, healthy franchise is so hard up for heroes that its ultimate honorific for the most significant players in Toronto Raptors history should be misused on the 2019 Finals MVP. Gratitude has its limits, and retiring Kawhi’s jersey in Toronto is a bridge too far.
Greg Frankson is a former Canadian national poetry slam champion with words published in collections, anthologies, audiovisual recordings and literary journals. He was the poet laureate for the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership and on-air current affairs poetic commentator for CBC Radio One. Follow Greg on Twitter, Instagram and Medium (@greg_frankson).