We can officially say it now- Jeremy Lin is an NBA champion. Yes, he watched the entirety of Game Six from his seat on the Toronto bench, but he’s still adding a ring to his memorable career resume. Aside from Lin getting the championship he deserved, this year’s NBA Finals was filled with wild storylines and exciting finishes that made for must-watch TV. To digest the magnitude and the fallout of the Raptors-Warriors title clash, I’ll distinguish which players, teams and stories are the winners and which ones are the losers.
Winner: Kawhi Leonard- Kawhi’s outcome from the past few years played out perfectly. Not only did he escape San Antonio and win a championship as the undisputed top player on his team, but he made a strong case for being the game’s best player, a far cry from where he was in his nine-game 2017-18 season. With the victory, Kawhi becomes a legend in NBA lore and throughout Canada.
Loser: Steph’s Finals MVP hopes– One of the great ironies of the Warriors’ dynasty has been that their core player, Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, has never won Finals MVP. Whether it was Andre Iguodala taking the honors in the Warriors’ first title to Kevin Durant stealing the show in the last two, Curry has never had a moment to establish him as a clutch playoff shooter, whether that’s the validation of a Finals MVP or a memorable buzzer-beating shot like Damian Lillard or Kawhi Leonard. With the Warriors likely heading their separate ways in the coming seasons, Golden State’s title window, and Steph’s Finals MVP window, may be closed.
Winner: Kevin Durant’s respect- KD’s injury was jarring and heartbreaking, but it has undoubtedly shown Durant’s value as a basketball player and heart for the game to the public. Without KD, the Warriors couldn’t keep up with the Raptors (needing an otherworldly 3-point barrage in Game Five to steal a game in Toronto) and hardly looked like the pre-Durant Warriors. Even with the injury, Durant will likely be offered max contracts this summer and be seen as a top-three player in the game.
Loser: DeMar DeRozan, Dwayne Casey and Jonas Valanciunas- For the casualties of Toronto’s wheeling and dealing the past 12 months, this Toronto championship must have been a tough pill to swallow. DeRozan and Valanciunas were key contributors for Toronto’s playoff runs the last half-decade before being shipped away for Leonard and Gasol, respectively, while Casey was fired after a Coach of the Year-winning season and leading the Raptors to 59 wins and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Winner: Masai Ujiri– Ujiri’s bold moves paid off big time this season, and now he is in his own stratosphere among NBA front office executives. Washington has reportedly offered $10 million and an ownership stake for Ujiri to come stateside, while the Raptors would certainly love to keep Ujiri up north. He’s effectively the front office equivalent of Kawhi Leonard right now.
Loser: Oakland- “The Town” has seen its fair share of NBA champion teams the past five years, but this was a hard way to go out before the team moves to San Francisco. The Warriors, who have long held the game’s greatest home court advantage, didn’t win a single Finals game at home and were closed out on their home floor. With the Warriors and Raiders on the move, Oakland fans are left with just the MLB’s Athletics. Rough stuff.
Winner: Kyle Lowry’s legacy- Over the past couple seasons, Kyle Lowry’s playoff performances have been a punch line as the Raptors point guard has changed from an All Star during the season to nearly absent and ineffective come playoff time. When he scored a grand total of zero points against Orlando in the Raptors’ first playoff game, it felt like the same trend all over again. Instead, Lowry had a magnificent Finals, with the best performance saved for last with 15 first-quarter points and an improbable fadeaway in the final minutes to lift Toronto over the top.
Loser: Warriors’ Greatest-Dynasty-Ever Talk- Golden State has accomplished a great deal over the past five years, from breaking the regular season wins record to winning five straight Western Conference titles to winning three NBA championships. But with the dynasty seemingly nearing its end, the case for the Warriors as the best team of all-time doesn’t seem so clear-cut. Losing to Toronto eradicated chances of a Golden State three-peat, and the team has looked far from invincible the past few years. A third title could have blown the Bulls, Celtics and Lakers out of the discussion, but the loss keeps it open for debate.
Winner: DeMarcus Cousins- “Boogie” Cousins’ signing during the last offseason seemingly made the Warriors shoo-ins for a fourth title as he has been an elite-level NBA center, but due to injury it wasn’t until the Finals that Cousins found a major role with the team. While his performances were inconsistent, Cousins looks like a dominant post presence again and could parlay his momentum into a significant contract next season that is more reflective of his talent.
Loser: Draymond Green- If Draymond Green had not been suspended during the Warriors’ NBA Finals loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers three seasons ago, the Warriors would’ve almost certainly won their second straight title. This year, with Durant and Thompson off the floor for extended periods of time, Green had the opportunity to seize the moment and change his playoff legacy. Instead, he failed to take the offensive burden off Curry and Thompson and was a turnover machine, registering eight of the team’s 16 turnovers in the decisive Game Six. Given that the Warriors’ title days may be over, Green’s chances at true redemption may be over.
Winner: The World (as in, the World outside of the United States)- Toronto’s win brings the NBA title outside of the United States for the first time, but it also marked a huge step forward for international basketball. Aside from Leonard, the team’s major stars all came from the international game, from recent trade acquisition Marc Gasol (Spain) to Serge Ibaka (Congo) to emerging star and Most Improved Player favorite Pascal Siakam (Cameroon). Masai Ujiri (Nigeria) is also a huge proponent of growing the game internationally, including attending the Basketball Without Borders camp where he saw Siakam’s raw skill as a teenager. Commissioner Adam Silver has pushed the game’s international growth, and the Raptors’ run could be a major turning point.
Loser: Conventional Wisdom- Conventional wisdom goes against the idea of trading your best player for a disgruntled, injured player with one year left on his contract. Conventional wisdom goes against firing your head coach after a Coach of the Year-worthy season. And conventional wisdom certainly contradicts the notion of using the primitive box-and-one defense to beat the Warriors. But the Raptors didn’t follow conventional wisdom, and the result is sweet- a Larry O’Brien trophy.
Winner: Rest of the West- Golden State’s prospective demise opens the West for the first time in five years for another team to take over. Houston could finally break through if the Warriors regress, and younger teams such as Denver and Utah could be serious challengers if they continue to develop. And don’t forget the elephant in the room- the LeBron-led Los Angeles Lakers, who are a free agent splash or two away from being the team nobody wants to face in the Western Conference playoffs.
Loser: The San Antonio Spurs- If only the San Antonio Spurs had handled the Kawhi Leonard situation with their trademark class. After winning a Finals MVP award in his second season, Leonard emerged as the future of the Spurs, and the opportunity was there to lock him up with a huge deal and ensure a smooth transition of the league’s longtime dynasty. Instead, the Spurs botched Leonard’s injury situation, then were forced to trade him for less than ideal compensation. One first round exit later, and San Antonio is probably wondering what could’ve been.
Winner: NBA Talk Shows- There was no shortage of content for sports talk shows like The Jump and First Take the past couple months, from the impending free agencies of seemingly every superstar whose name begins with a “K” to the injuries of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to the sensational reaction from the draft lottery to the drama and excitement on the court. And with the draft and free agency on the docket, the fun won’t stop now.
Loser: Postgame interviews- On the flipside of the media coverage of the Finals, I found the postgame interviews to be painstaking. Kawhi Leonard was never going to be the most engaging interview, and Doris Burke is a great NBA personality who was probably under orders from ABC executives, but having to ask Kawhi about his free agency was just rough to watch amidst a joyous celebration.
Winner: Free Agency drama- Arguably three of the top four names on the free agency market played in the Finals, and all three could bolt their teams for greener pastures in a month. While the injuries of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson complicates things, their departures could drop the Warriors back to the level of the rest of the NBA and radically change the NBA landscape. Kawhi Leonard is a Canadian hero after just a couple months in Toronto, but will a parade be enough to keep him in the country? Plus, each player’s decision could affect others and start a domino effect. It will be a wild July.
Loser: The Boston Celtics- The Celtics may have seen their short-term window for an NBA Finals close. The Celtics were the prohibitive favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference and challenge the warriors, but their season was a disaster from a chemistry perspective. Kyrie Irving now on the free agent market and could well go to a division rival, and the hopes of an Anthony Davis trade dimmed when agent Rich Paul said Davis would definitely enter free agency after a year. The Raptors’ loss should sting especially because the Celtics had the pieces for a Kawhi trade, and instead saw a division rival strike first and reap the benefits.
Winner: Small Markets- Amidst all of the talk of LeBron to LA and KD to New York, small markets had a pretty good year. Toronto, never seen as a top-level NBA market, went wild for the Raptors’ run with passionate fans packing “Jurassic Parks” across Canada and exhibiting a passion for the game most other basketball fans didn’t know they had. The last four teams alive all came from smaller markets, with Toronto, Milwaukee, Portland and Oakland all seeing representation. Storied franchises like the Heat, Celtics and Lakers may lure the big name free agents from smaller markets, but it’s the little guys who’ve been coming out on top due to impeccable drafting and ingenuitive roster maneuvers and are giving a blueprint for any NBA team to make it all the way. Just because I have to flex, Orlando made it to the playoffs and beat the Toronto Raptors in Game 1, giving yet another example of the small market teams holding their own in the National Basketball Association.