How did a team that was made up of undrafted players, late-round picks and just one lottery player run their way to an NBA Championship? The Toronto Raptors were on top of the NBA world in June of 2019. They had just come off of defeating the Golden State Warriors in six games in the NBA finals.
The Raptors are well known for their ability to develop their players. A perfect example is when in 2016, the Toronto Raptors selected Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick. At the time, he was a small skinny kid from New Mexico state. Many teams overlooked him because of his slender physique. Since then, he has flourished into an NBA all-star and now an NBA champion. Siakam is currently averaging 22.9 ppg in 35 mpg and has become a defensive force. He is a Raptor who has developed into a star under the Raptors organization with Nick Nurse and his team.
When you look at the list of players on the Raptors, they are undrafted or late-round draft picks, such as Fred VanVleet. Fred Vanvleet went undrafted in 2016; he has now developed into a star shooting guard, currently averaging 17.6 ppg, a significant improvement over the past four years. VanVleet was a vital part of the Raptors 2019 championship run. Of course, you can't talk about VanVleet without mentioning Norman Powell, another diamond in the rough for the Toronto Raptors. A former Milwaukee Buck, who was traded right after being drafted to Toronto in 2015, has made significant improvements in his game, now averaging 16 ppg and a solid bench player who can drop big numbers when it matters. Powell played a substantial role in the Raptor’s success on their way to the finals. Finally, OG Anunoby, who has improved significantly from sitting on the bench to now starting on the floor and averaging ten ppg in the past three years. He is still improving year by year with the Raptors due to their substantial team development. The Raptors can take players that many teams overlook and turn them into stars.
Masai Ujiri is one of the most underrated basketball operations presidents. Over the past four years, along with Bobby Webster, they have been able to put together a powerhouse from the north. Ever since he was hired as the president of basketball operations back in 2013, Masai has helped develop the Toronto Raptors into a winning machine. With the Raptors having seven straight seasons with trips to the playoffs each year. The most significant move of his career would have to be the blockbuster trade that sent Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto in exchange for Jacob Poetl and long-time Raptor Demar Derozan and a projected 2019 first-round pick. Toronto won the trade clean and straightforward. Kawhi Leonard was the player that took control of the Toronto Raptors and helped propel the other players to a higher competitive level. He brought championship DNA to a team that had only been to the conference finals once in 2016. Danny Green got varying numbers on a nightly basis, but still hit the big shots when it mattered most, including several clutch threes in the NBA finals.
Undrafted and Overlooked Players vs. Lottery Picks
When the Toronto Raptors ended the 2018-19 season, they were second in the east to only the Milwaukee Bucks. They had a strong regular season finishing with 58 wins and 24 losses. They started their playoff run with a first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic. After a blunder in game 1, the Raptors took care of business as they defeated the magic in 5 games.
The Raptor's next opponent was the Philadelphia 76ers, who many thought would beat Toronto. If you were to look back at the series on paper, the sixers were stacked with talent. Players like Joel Embiid (2014 Rd 1 Pick 3), Ben Simmons (2016 Rd 1 Pick 1), J.J. Reddick (2006 Rd 1 Pick 11), and of course, Jimmy Butler (2011 Rd 1 Pick 30) all helped the 76ers get the 3rd seed. Three out of the four listed were lottery picks, those selected with the 1st-15th draft pick. So how did Toronto take down Philadelphia, who had a stacked roster? Nick Nurse's defensive tactics helped shut down Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, plus the stellar play from the Raptors VanVleet, Powell, and Kawhi, added a considerable boost.
Strong performances from Gasol, Ibaka and Lowry helped the Raptors trump the 76ers. Throughout the NBA Playoffs, every team overlooked the Raptors, as the opposing team had star talent across the board, especially when it came time to the NBA finals, as the Warriors had Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green. The Raptors used their defensive style of a box and 1, to help contain Curry and Thompson. Plus, the strong play from Kawhi, Lowry, and Siakam helped them dethrone the Warriors.
Toronto was able to not only construct a dominant team with a roster of players picked predominantly outside of the lottery, but they won a championship with that group and showed the world you don't need top-five picks to win championships, you. need a championship DNA.