Raptors’ ring talk reveals uncomfortable truth about championship run

Jonas Valanciunas during his time with the Raptors. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The uncomfortable truth about Jonas Valanciunas’ status during the Toronto Raptors championship season is that it was judged that they couldn’t win a title with him in the lineup.

And the people who made that decision — Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster — were almost certainly right.

That’s why Valanciunas isn’t getting a championship ring, even if he did spend nearly seven seasons with the franchise and emerged as one of the most likeable, reliable and able players to ever suit up for the club.

A couple of other former Raptors — Delon Wright and CJ Miles, part of the trade-deadline package that netted Marc Gasol — were also left off the list, but it’s Valanciunas missing out that seems like some cold calculus given his length of service with the team.

The story emerged over the weekend when Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun was able to get Webster to confirm that there would be no rings for Valanciunas, Wright and Miles, in keeping with NBA precedent.

The big Lithuanian’s main contribution to the Raptors’ championship was qualifying as the centrepiece of a deal for the player that they believed would put them over the top in their one guaranteed season with Kawhi Leonard on their roster: Gasol.

It worked.

Cue the record-setting TV ratings, the Jurassic Parks set up coast-to-coast and the championship parade the likes of which may never be seen again. It was a Canada-wide love-in fuelled by twists and turns and standout moments that will forever be part of our sports lore.

Raptors fans react inside Jurassic Park as they watch the Raptors defeat the Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. (Nathan Denette/CP)

But the ring talk brings home an uncomfortable truth about the Raptors’ championship run.

For all the buzzy, breezy, warm feelings and memories that were generated and still flow from the roller-coaster ride to the NBA title, it is easy to forget that going for it the way the Raptors did involved real human sacrifice — at least metaphorically.

There was blood on the floor — and a fair bit of it — before it was ever washed away with champagne, and anyone who revels in the Raptors win has at least trace amount of it on their hands.

Valanciunas’ exile was just the end of a brutal carving and remaking of what was already one of the East’s best teams.

It started with the Raptors’ decision to fire Dwane Casey after Toronto was swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the 2018 playoffs.

He’d led the Raptors to five straight playoff appearances and had just completed a franchise-record 59-win season that earned him the NBA’s coach-of-the-year award.

It didn’t matter. Coaching was deemed an area an already very good team could find a way to improve, and he was gone.

Next came DeMar DeRozan, traded after nine years, four all-star appearances and a pair of career-best seasons, and despite almost defiantly pledging his allegiance to a city and a franchise that had been passed over by so many previous stars.

His sin? Not being as good as Leonard, a two-way monster at his best, who was available.

Each move carried significant personal costs. The chill between Ujiri and Casey has warmed somewhat over the past 18 months, but feelings were raw for at least a year following Casey’s dismissal. As of the start of the 2019-20 season, DeRozan and Ujiri — who enjoyed an excellent relationship in Toronto — still hadn’t talked or communicated.

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan acknowledges the fans as he receives a standing ovation in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Ujiri agonized over each of those choices, and in some ways they tempered his ability to fully enjoy reaching the pinnacle of his profession. He had always preached family and loyalty but judged that he could only fulfil his mission to win by fracturing some of those bonds. It is hard to take.

As the Raptors roared out to an electric start and Leonard looked less damaged goods and more like a LeBron James-level difference maker, and Nurse seemed more and more confident in his role, the price paid seemed to recede in significance.

I reference the Casey and DeRozan decisions because the Valanciunas trade featured precisely the same math, and those moves precipitated the next.

The Raptors were very, very good with Valanciunas in the lineup — they were 22-7 when he broke his hand in a win over Golden State in December. It would have been fascinating to see what would have happened if he hadn’t been hurt and had been able to play out what was shaping up to be his most efficient season.

But we’ll never know. He was supposed to play his first game after a two-month absence when the deal came down.

Gasol had a proven track record of being able to stifle the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, and once more the Raptors went for it.

Given that Embiid shot 37 per cent from the floor over seven games against the Raptors in the second round with Gasol as his primary defender, things worked out well.

Still, based on Twitter reaction and other anecdotal responses, there seems to be a sense that Valanciunas — and by extension Wright and Miles, just to be polite — should get some kind recognition for being on the roster for at least some of the championship season.

And at one point it seemed that Valanciunas was in consideration, given he told Ganter that Kyle Lowry — who was the player charged with contributing to the ring design — had texted him asking for his ring size.

Adding fuel is that the ubiquitous Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia got a version of the ring — though not the precise one the players got — and that Drake, the franchise’s ‘Global Ambassador,’ got one, too.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri and rapper Drake. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

The reality is all kinds of people who never touched the floor for the Raptors have a ring of some sort to commemorate the title — sponsors and broadcasters, for example, not to mention roster fringelings such as Eric Moreland, Jodie Meeks and Jeremy Lin.

Would it be that wrong to extend the courtesy to Valanciunas or anyone else with ties to the team?

No, but it would be disingenuous. Providing him or Wright or Miles or even Casey or DeRozan a ring would simply paper over a hard truth: They were all deemed surplus to the goal of winning.

They weren’t innocent bystanders to the Raptors’ championship makeover, collateral damage caught up in the unavoidable grind of roster machinations that every team goes through.

No, the opposite. They were deemed obstacles on the path to the ultimate destination.

Harsh, maybe, but no one seemed to be complaining when Gasol was spraying the parade crowds with bubbly or Nurse was breaking out the ‘Box-and-1’ or Leonard was carrying the Raptors on his broad back for long stretches of the post-season.

Sprinkling some extra jewelry around might make everyone feel better, but it obscures the facts. The Raptors didn’t win in spite of moving on from their past, of which Valanciunas was a big part.

They won because of it.

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