A popular idiom in sports culture is that all teams should be title or bust. The Toronto Raptors proved why that doesn’t need to be the case.
Championship windows are rare. Team’s scratch and clue for a shot at relevancy in the form of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy only for some to never even get close to the chance. Once that window is open, team’s will do everything they can to maximize their potential odds – usually by making a star-studded trade. Last season, the Toronto Raptors were one of those teams.
Not every team can win a title, though. That honor is handed out to the best team in the NBA and no one else, once a year. That leaves 29 other teams in precarious situations, though not all of those teams are vying for title contention.
For a lot of the teams contending, the phrase “title or bust” is often thrown around. This is their time to win, so they believe. Whether it’s a small window or a year or two, or something more substantial, it’s all about winning the big one or nothing else. That’s a problem.
It’s fair that every team should have aspirations to win a title, but that’s not to say that if they don’t win then they should blow up the roster. That creates an unsustainable culture, one that puts far too much pressure on, well, everyone.
With the culture of title or bust, there is no room for bumps in the road or any sort of failure, nor is there any room for just being a good team. If you’re not a title contender, then you shouldn’t be winning. That’s technically what’s being said here.
For the past few years, the Toronto Raptors have put that theory on the backburner. The team rose to new heights in 2018-19, winning their first-ever NBA title on the back of a historic postseason from Kawhi Leonard, and a very good cast of teammates beside him.
Before that, the Raptors were a very good team, but not one that ever really posed the threat of winning a title. They were viewed as a dark horse multiple teams, but we know that the roster just needed one final piece, as well as the addition of an All-NBA caliber defender and three-point shooter in Danny Green.
The Raptors, led by DeMar DeRozan, were a good team – often a great team – but just didn’t have enough to get over the hump. Rather than sacrifice winning for a loaded rebuild and shot in the future, they stuck to their guns.
They could have reset after the 2015 NBA Playoffs when the Raptors were swept by the Washington Wizards in the first round but bounced back and went to their first-ever Eastern Conference Finals the following year.
After that, there were two humbling losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the next two playoffs. Once again, two more sweeps. They could have packed it in there too. The Raptors weren’t good enough to win a title, but they were good enough to consistently compete in the Eastern Conference.
That goes against the grain of the title or bust culture, but it’s better preparation for winning. The Raptors – even before their recent Finals victory – were in the midst of the most successful run in franchise history.
Three 50-plus win seasons in the three years preceding the 2018-19 season, the Raptors – despite their playoff woes – were acclimatising their players to winning, preparing them for the big moments. That can’t happen in a title or bust scenario. The first sign of trouble could spell the end for a team in the stance, there’s no stability.
Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have built a culture of stability in Toronto. Stability is only present through time, something that isn’t often afforded in the NBA – or any sport, for that matter. That approach was rewarded in the summer of 2018.
The Raptors were biding their time, surely close to calling time on a successful period that just didn’t look like it could present a title opportunity – even with LeBron James taking his talents to the Western Conference.
Call it luck, but Kawhi Leonard wanted out of the Spurs. In return, the Spurs wanted a star player for their two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Raptors knew what they had to do, and it was to trade DeMar DeRozan.
It hurt on an emotional level. DeRozan was the face of the franchise and one of the greatest players in the team’s history. But this was Kawhi Leonard. It had to be done.
The rest, as we know, is what it is. Leonard led the Raptors to their first NBA title, producing an incredible moment or two along the way.
That trade was possible because of stability. DeRozan was molded into a great player, given the opportunity to develop year after year because of stability – along with his hard work and dedication. The Raptors didn’t plan for it to happen, but it wouldn’t have happened had they ended it all prematurely.