The route to an NBA championship is a well-worn boulevard that runs one way, lit by the sparkle cast by MVP trophies and Hall-of-Fame plaques for its full length, all the way to promised land.
You can’t miss it.
For nearly the entire history of the modern NBA — beginning with Larry Bird-Magic Johnson renaissance and right through to the LeBron James-in-the-bubble present — championships have been won by teams with a variety of styles but all with one essential ingredient: An MVP-level superstar (or two and sometimes three) around which the lesser moons orbit.
Beginning with the Lakers’ title in 1980 – a team that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won the last of his six MVP awards that year and Johnson, who would go on to win three while finishing in the top-three of voting for nine straight years – almost every team that has won the last game of the NBA season has had at least one player who had or would win an MVP award and typically was sprinkled liberally with current, former or future all-NBA players.
The Toronto Raptors made history last year when they became the first team to win a title without a player taken in the lottery rounds of the draft but they didn’t buck convention when it came to how they did it: Kawhi Leonard – twice in the top-three in MVP voting and twice an NBA Finals MVP – was their organizing principle.
As they begin their defence with a best-of-seven first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, they’re trying to swim upstream against an even more formidable current as they look to repeat without a true superstar or a player who has ever finished in the top five of the MVP voting.
It’s one reason the Raptors were 55-1 longshots to defend their title before the season began and even now having put together the second-best record in the regular season, are 9-1 odds to repeat, well behind the Milwaukee Bucks and presumptive MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Lakers with James and Anthony Davis and the Clippers with the Leonard and Paul George.
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They have at least one believer though. Former Detroit Pistons star Chauncey Billups knows what it’s like to be part of an elite team that people were slow to take seriously and when he looks at the Raptors, he sees parallels between them and the team he led to a 2004 title.
He likes their chances.
“When you have a team of guys that’s connected like [the Raptors are], that’s led the right way by a guy like Kyle [Lowry] and not only the floor but on the bench, in coach [Nick] Nurse, who’s done a terrific job, and not only coach Nurse but [Raptors president Masai Ujiri], who’s done a terrific job, yes, they have a chance to win it. Damn right,” Billups said to me when we spoke on the phone recently.
“Now will it be tough? Of course. The Clippers are tough, the Lakers are tough. Milwaukee has been the best team all season, Boston is going to be tough [in the East] … [the Raptors] have work to do, but for me, they are one of the teams that are in contention to win it all, absolutely.”
The former Pistons guard earned the Finals MVP in 2004 after his Pistons obliterated the Los Angeles Lakers and their stable of legends 4-1 in the Finals.
Like the Raptors today, the Pistons were given scant chance. The Lakers, coming off three straight titles, were heavy in MVP-level pedigree. In addition to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, winners of two MVP awards combined, along with 18 years in the top-five of voting, the Lakers had Karl Malone who had won two MVP awards of his own and Gary Payton, who finished third in the voting in 1996-97.
In contrast, Billups was on his fourth team in his seventh season and had yet to make an all-star team and wouldn’t until his ninth season. The Pistons only all-star that season was Ben Wallace, the undersized centre with the full-sized Afro who rose from a second-round pick to a four-time defensive player of the year due to his combination of unrelenting rebounding and ferocious rim protection, but never averaged more than 9.7 points a game.
Billups is one of Lowry’s mentors and a close friend. They’ve bonded over the long road each of them had to take to be considered “elite” – Lowry didn’t make his first all-star team until his eighth year – and he sees some of the Pistons in the Raptors club he’s leading too.
“That 2004 championship team, they had some great players … they had a lot of guys, they just were tough, and Larry Brown was a defensive-minded head coach. That’s just what they did,” said Lowry. “That team was really, really good. They were underrated.
“But for us, we just try to be ourselves. That team, they were champions for a reason, and that was that. For right now, with us, we’re just trying to be who we are and continue to grow. Our defence is kind of what we base everything on and we go from there. Our defence gets everything else going for us.”
In NBA shorthand the Raptors are a nice team and all, but they don’t have “the guy.” A go-to bucket getter; the single player that shatters any defensive scheme.
But those in the know look at the Raptors differently.
For Billups it’s not only the Raptors’ approach on the floor that rings a bell or the similarities in the lineups – in addition to the Lowry-Billups connection you can pull a thread through Marc Gasol and Wallace as defensive-minded centres; Serge Ibaka and Rasheed Wallace as rim protecting bigs that can stretch the floor and Pascal Siakam and Richard Hamilton as primary scorers that can play within the flow of the offence and the deep, versatile benches for each team.
To Billups, it’s the way the Raptors are seemingly so close as people and teammates that rings true.
“No. 1, I love how they seem to be a very connected group. I think that’s one of the most underrated things that we were. We were really connected,” said Billups. “… they seem to really, really love each other, as people. I think that connection and that synergy shows in the way that they play for one another.
“It seems to me, watching them, that no one cares who scores the most one night or who gets the shots. No one cares about that and that’s what our team was all about, so I see, and like that about them.”
One-time Raptor Mike James joined the ‘04 Pistons by way of trade and was part of a fierce bench that helped Detroit control games even when their starters were resting.
He didn’t know what to expect when he arrived in Detroit’s locker room as a well-travelled journeyman pro still early in his NBA career, but he was blown away by the welcoming atmosphere.
“There wasn’t any egos. Everyone knew their role and accepted their roles … and we hung out together,” James said. “When we went on the road before we got off the bus at the hotel, Rip [Richard Hamilton], would scream out, ‘Hey guys, we’re leaving in 30 minutes, whoever’s downstairs, let’s go eat, whatever.’ It was never a whisper, ‘Hey you want to hang out with us?’ It was almost on a loudspeaker, for everyone, whether it was front office, coaching staff, players … whoever is part of the Detroit Pistons family is invited.
“The doors were always open for everyone to be family and act like family. I think that was the beauty of it. Superstars were willing to make everyone feel comfortable.”
Billups agrees: “The thing about it is in creating that on-court chemistry we covered so much ground off the court. All of us hung out on the road, a lot, whether it was dinner or sometimes going out to a club. We hung out at all times and kept each other accountable, but if there was a boxing match on I would have everyone at my house and invite everyone and their family and Rasheed would have Christmas parties and New Year’s parties at his house and Rip would have people over.
“…What happens is when you do get to know your buddy, your teammate, there’s a different level of investment and pride in being there for him, on the court. That’s just kind of how we did it, that’s just kind of how we vibed and that’s the reason we were the team we became.”
The Raptors’ parallel is team dinners at Lowry’s house in Villanova when Toronto is visiting Philadelphia or Halloween parties in Toronto and an honest sense of camaraderie that seems to have held the team in good stead even now that they’ve spent eight weeks together under quarantine in Florida – the longest road trip in NBA history.
When Paul Watson Jr. – the last player to join the roster – had a breakout game in the regular-season finale on Friday he gave credit to Norm Powell, the second-round pick whose persistence and perseverance has turned him into one of the NBA’s most explosive bench scorers.
“I’m always going to him, talking to him,” Watson said. “Before each time I check in the game he’s the first one to grab me. He always reminds me, ‘You know what to do, go in there and do your thing. Play hard and everything will take care of itself.’”
It’s the kind of gesture that lends weight when Lowry speaks like so: “The organization, we’re a family. We’re always pulling for one another. We’re always checking in to make sure everybody’s good, not only the players on the team but their families and the people that support them away from basketball. I think we’re a really tight-knit group and it really shows. … I think it’s brought us together during these times.”
It shows up on the floor, too.
The Raptors play defence selflessly with everyone switching their assignments on the fly, seamlessly anticipating the needs of their teammates before the opposition has time to exploit any potential mismatch. The result is the second-ranked defence in the NBA. Lowry leads the league in charges drawn, giving up his body as proof of real sacrifice.
Offensively, the Raptors are one of the most egalitarian teams the NBA has ever seen. According to Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference, the Raptors are the first team in nearly 50 years to have five starters average 15 points a game or more, led by Pascal Siakam at 22.9 points a night.
The Pistons’ version was to have seven players average at least 9.5 points a game (on a team that averaged 90.1, total) and six players with a usage rate above 20 per cent.
“Inside our room, inside our organization, we didn’t believe what y’all were saying about not having a superstar,” said Billups. “We just didn’t play that way. We didn’t have a guy who was going to go score 30 a night … we didn’t care about the whole ‘no superstar’ thing because I promise you, the people who played against us, didn’t feel that way, you feel me?”
The Raptors current state has been an evolving process. For the first five years of their playoff runs they were a more traditionally-structured offence, with DeMar DeRozan and – to a lesser extent Lowry – commanding most of the touches. As former Raptor wise man Luis Scola said to me once at the end of the 2015-16 season: “We all understand, our role is to make them [Lowry and DeRozan] happy.”
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Last season it was all about Leonard. And while this season has been a coming-out party for Siakam as a primary offensive fulcrum, the Raptors take pride in their ability to defend for each other, move the ball at will and score from all angles.
“The beauty of basketball is the strength of the team,” said Gasol, the quick-passing big man. “This is not tennis. We’re not talking about Rafa Nadal or [Novak] Djokovic or Roger Federer or [Milos] Raonic … we’re talking about basketball. It’s a team sport. I know we as fans of the game and media do a tremendous job of trying to make this about players, about single players, but this is about a team, and always will be about a team.
“It’s how well you work as a team, it’s how well your talents complement the best player’s or the star player’s talents and every team meets together with the coaching staff and the fans and so forth. It’s a team effort. It always will be. Doesn’t matter how much we try to singularize the game.”
Nurse said the Raptors approach to sharing the load offensively wasn’t’ necessarily a plan coming out of training camp but is consistent with how he’s always viewed the game itself.
“That’s part of how I believe offence should be played,” said Nurse. “I think all five guys out there should be threats, they should be able to shoot, pass, attack the rim, they should be able to make the right reads, they should all be able to play screen-and-roll basketball, and did I say shoot yet? They should all be able to shoot. It’s more fun for everybody to shoot. Or get a chance at it.”
It sounds good and for an odd, unprecedented regular season it has worked for the Raptors better than almost anyone would have predicted.
But now the playoffs are here and the road to the championship has almost exclusively been walked by teams built around the biggest stars in the game.
There have been exceptions – the 2004 Pistons being a notable one.
The Raptors believe they can be another and the rest us get to find out right along with them.