This year’s iteration of the NBA Finals has been nothing short of a delight for any basketball fan. For the first time in a while, the Golden State Warriors feel vulnerable with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson sidelined with injuries and a mediocre supporting cast. It’s the first time in a while that the Cleveland Cavaliers are not the team that has Golden State on the ropes.
That honor goes to Cleveland’s Eastern Conference little brother - the Toronto Raptors. Well, the Raptors were the Cavs’ little brother and punching bag when LeBron James was still in town. Soon after James announced that he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, the Raptors seized the opportunity by sending DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It was both a power move and a gamble made by the Raptors. Toronto got a top-five player in Leonard, but also gained the fear that they could easily lose him in free agency this summer.
But for now, the trade has paid off in spades as Leonard has single-handedly carried Toronto to their first NBA Finals. Without Leonard, the Raptors likely would not stand a chance against the Warriors and now they have a legitimate chance of winning a championship. But, a lot of credit should also go to the Raptors organization as well as they made a lot of intelligent personnel decisions leading up to the Leonard trade to make their situation a reality.
Ever since Chris Bosh left Toronto to join the Miami Heat, the Raptors have been slowly building. In the first season after Bosh, DeRozan, the key piece in the Leonard deal, was the only noteworthy player on the roster and Toronto finished 22-60. That following offseason, they drafted Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall. He was solid for years and became part of their Marc Gasol trade this past season. The summer after drafting Valanciunas, Toronto traded for Kyle Lowry — arguably one of the best point guards in the Eastern Conference and another difference maker in the Finals. Even after Toronto started winning again they were still able to find talent with late draft picks or undrafted players like Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakim. Both are vital to Toronto’s success..
Trading for Leonard was the final piece to the puzzle for the Raptors, but they had to build up to it.. Granted, that consistency did not win them a championship - he Cavs prevented that from happening -- but Toronto’s approach to slowly rebuilding is something that Cleveland should take a look at.
In the first season after James’ second exodus, the Cavs were in a similar situation to Toronto’s, but with Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman as the two noteworthy youngsters on Cleveland’s roster. The Cavs finished this year 19-63 and ended up with the fifth pick in the draft and the No. 26 pick via the Houston Rockets. Cleveland ultimately might not end up picking at those spots, as they can either trade with the New York Knicks for the third pick or trade back with the Atlanta Hawks and acquire any of the three first-rounders they possess.
The Cavs are a team that is starving for talent and should do whatever it takes to accumulate it over the next few seasons. This rebuild will likely be a slow burn for Cleveland, much like Toronto’s was and that’s totally fine! As beautiful of a city as it is, Cleveland will never be a premier free agent destination, much like Toronto. Rebuilding won’t be finished in one summer. So the Cavs will have to rely on the draft and the trade market to rebuild, hopefully making it back to the playoffs within the next few seasons.
After that Cleveland can still continue to grow and also bide their time, waiting out the duration of teams like Toronto, the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers. Through rebuilding, the Cavs will acquire a boatload of assets and if a shift in power were to happen, like James leaving to join the Lakers, Cleveland can cross the Rubicon and make a move to become a title threat again. It all takes time, though, and thanks to the Raptors looking like a serious title threat it feels like it can happen for the Cavaliers again.