OAKLAND, Calif. – Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey coined the 5% theory. It goes something like this: If you believe your team has even a 5% chance at winning the championship, then you should go all in to try to make it happen.
A year ago, the Toronto Raptors weren’t even a 5% theory team. The oddsmakers had them as a 2.5% team. At one time last summer, the Raptors were 40-1 to win the NBA title.
Then they traded for Kawhi Leonard, traded for Danny Green, traded for Marc Gasol, got an explosive breakout from Pascal Siakam, saw the birth of a child give Fred VanVleet superpowers and had the friendliest rim bounce in history.
Add in a strained calf, a pulled hamstring, some torn cartilage for the Golden State Warriors, and the Raptors are two wins from giving the 5% theory a new name: the Raptors Rule.
It didn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t just about the Kawhi Leonard blockbuster that GM Masai Ujiri pulled. It was a long road to get to that 5%.
Here’s a look at some moments that put them on this serendipitous ride:
Lakers laid people off
Alex McKechnie was one of North America’s most respected athletic trainers and scientists. NBA players pilgrimed for years to visit him in Vancouver when they had injuries or needed rehab. For example, he’s credited with helping save Shaquille O’Neal’s prime years by treating O’Neal’s abdominal injuries in the late 1990s. O’Neal was so effusive that the Los Angeles Lakers hired the Scottish native, and he was with them for five titles between 1999 and 2011.
But when the NBA lockout hit in 2011, the Lakers allowed numerous staff members’ contracts to expire so they didn’t have to pay them during the lockout. The richest team in the league then lost its prized trainer when the Raptors, then led by general manager Bryan Colangelo, swooped in and hired McKechnie after the Lakers left him unemployed.
Now, seven years later and with more than 40 years’ experience in the field, McKechnie was the point man when the Raptors took on the challenge of caring for Leonard. Providing good care for Leonard and building a trust with him was absolutely vital after those bonds eroded in San Antonio.
Nuggets controlled costs
Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke — his son Josh is vice chairman and runs the team now — studied at the side of his father-in-law for decades. He became a self-made billionaire in doing so and one of the most successful sports team owners on the planet.
His father-in-law happened to be Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. Walton believed, almost above all else, that controlling costs is vital to beating competition and growing business. Kroenke has operated his sports teams this way whenever possible.
In 2013 when the Raptors went looking for a GM, then CEO Tim Leiweke was obsessed with getting Ujiri away from the Nuggets, where he had shown great promise. After getting denied permission to interview him several times, Leiweke finally secured it and offered Ujiri a multimillion-dollar-per-season raise. The Nuggets, controlling costs, declined to match and he left.
Ujiri went to Toronto, and the team hasn’t missed the playoffs since, slowing building to these Finals.
It’s well known that the Raptors wanted to trade star point guard Kyle Lowry to the New York Knicks in the 2013-14 season to start a roster makeover. The deal was negotiated. It was to be Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and a future first-round pick for Lowry, who was in the final year of his contract.
Lowry wanted to go. Carmelo Anthony lobbied Knicks management to make the deal. The Raptors, after rounds of talks to get the terms of when they’d get the first-round pick, were ready to schedule the trade call.
For years, Knicks owner Jim Dolan has been blamed as the one who stopped the trade. The previous summer, the Knicks had traded a first-round pick to the Raptors to acquire former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani and the deal had turned sour and the Knicks had been bashed for it. A story went around that Dolan didn’t want to do another deal with Raptors GM Masai Ujiri after that.
Knicks insiders, however, insist that has always been incorrect. Ultimately, the Knicks front office didn’t take the trade to Dolan for approval. Some background research on Lowry revealed that he can be difficult to manage — this was absolutely true, as Lowry has admitted, though he also was a future All-Star and locker room leader — that gave them pause.
As the Knicks were deciding, their team went on a road trip to Texas in early January 2014. As the team went through the triangle, Shumpert caught fire. He scored 27 points and hit six 3-pointers in a win in San Antonio and then played great again the next night in Houston, making six more and putting in 26. Over a five-game span, Shumpert averaged 16 points and shot a sizzling 61 percent on 3-pointers.
About 18 months off a torn ACL, there was thought that Shumpert was turning the corner. Numerous teams wanted to trade for him. The Knicks started having second thoughts about moving him for Lowry. With the other concerns, the trade died. Lowry stayed in Toronto, where he became a franchise player, a captain and a cornerstone of this Finals team.
Siakam’s sister lived in South Africa
Siakam is from a basketball family — his three older brothers played college basketball. But he was the youngest, and although he played as a child, he really preferred soccer. He was identified as a player with promise after being seen at a camp run by Luc Mbah a Moute in their native Cameroon and invited to the prestigious Basketball Without Borders camp run by the NBA in 2012.
Siakam didn’t want to go because he wasn’t really interested in playing more basketball. But when he found out that the camp was in South Africa, it gave him pause. His sister Vanessa lived there, and he hadn’t seen her in several years. The NBA was going to pay for the trip. That’s what got him to change his mind and say yes.
When he got there, other campers were making a fuss over one of the counselors. He asked one of the other campers who the guys was and was told it was Serge Ibaka. Siakam had never heard of him.
Siakam was seen at the camp by Ujiri, who had been attending for more than a decade, plus other scouts. It created a chain of events that led to Ujiri’s selecting Siakam with the 27th pick in the 2016 draft, just four years later.
Now he, Ibaka and Siakam are playing for a title.
Felt surreal to be back at basketball without borders Africa after being one of the kids at the camp 6 years ago. Feeling blessed to be part of a special program and to help inspire the next generation����South Africa thanks 4 the❤️����#humblehustle�������� #doingitforyou���� pic.twitter.com/Mefu0G6MdO
– pascal siakam (@pskills43) August 5, 2018
The Clippers wanted to trade Avery Bradley
For days last February, the Memphis Grizzlies were in trade talks about Gasol. The Raptors were one of the teams making an offer for him. There was competition, especially from the Charlotte Hornets. Plus, the Raptors were looking elsewhere, including talking to the New Orleans Pelicans about Nikola Mirotic.
Finally, on deadline day, the Raptors improved their offer to Memphis, and the Grizzlies decided to take their deal. It was a large trade with Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a 2024 second-round going for Gasol. But there was an issue: The trade required the Grizzlies to take on salary for this season and put them in danger of going into the luxury tax. That was a dealbreaker.
Memphis had to find another trade where they could offload salary. The Grizzlies had talked to the LA Clippers about Avery Bradley, but they couldn’t tell if the Clippers were truly interested. The Grizzlies called the Clippers back. LA was interested, and the teams put together a deal in which Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green, which lowered their payroll to a position where they were comfortably out of the tax.
So Gasol was off to Toronto, the veteran last piece for this team that is now on the cusp of a title.
Their chances are now way greater than 5%.