2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Raptors rise to Finals stage behind once-lowly cast of players

No one on Toronto's roster was drafted higher than No. 15 overall

TORONTO — It’s the keyboard equivalent of a verbal tic, with a bit of inertia mixed in. Fingers set in motion tend to remain in motion, especially typing frantically on deadline, and certain spellings emerge unwittingly in such moments.

One such word that popped up on my computer screen years ago — “Ratpros” — finally makes sense to me now, as embodied by the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors as they compete as considerable underdogs in their first-ever NBA Finals.

“Ratpros” is, of course, an anagram of “Raptors” and it’s been dropping into my copy whenever I write about Toronto for, oh, the past 23 years or so. All I can think of is, it popped onto my screen back in the Raptors’ early, ugly expansion years and somehow stuck (with me). It always seemed too snide to ever share with an audience … until now.

Now I think there’s a badge of honor in “Ratpros” that captures the tenacity of this bunch. A little of their grunginess, too, based on their backgrounds and far-from-glamorous paths to, or very near, the pinnacle of their sport.

The Raptors are a Finals rarity. They reached the championship series with a cut-and-paste, crazy quilt of a roster distinguished most of all by what it’s lacking: No player drafted higher than No. 15 overall.

Since the NBA began its draft lottery in 1985, every squad that reached The Finals boasted at least one player selected among the top 14 picks. Until now.

Compare that to the Golden State Warriors. The defending champions have gotten plenty of credit during their five straight runs to The Finals for how homegrown their core is: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney (new but undeniable now as a key guy) all were drafted by Golden State — the first three in leaner times.

But if you extend the list to include their top nine players — essentially a playoff rotation — you’ll notice seven lottery picks (six in the Top 10 of the draft) of a group that includes Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut.

If you add up the Draft positions of those nine Warriors, the total is 104. Now do that to the top nine Raptors — wait, make that top eight Raptors, because Fred VanVleet was undrafted and would have to be counted as “infinity.”

The Raptors’ score: 253.

We’ve had guys who have had to work their way up, who have always been counted out and I think that’s what makes this so good.”

Norman Powell, on Toronto’s run to The Finals

So 104-253. If this were golf, Golden State would destroy Toronto. But it’s basketball and Draft positions don’t dictate final scores, so they’ll be playing anywhere from four to seven games over the next couple weeks to sort this out.

“It’s remarkable,” Wayne Embry, senior advisor to the Raptors, said Wednesday morning. “It’s a tribute to being able to find players low in the draft, as well as developing players. They’ve done a terrific job of developing their players. Establishing a winning culture, too. And Nick Nurse has done a tremendous job of coaching them.”

Nurse, it’s worth noting, was a rookie NBA coach this season with a long, tortuous path to his current gig. Toronto’s chief basketball executive is Masai Ujiri, who began his days in Nigeria and traveled the world as a player before grabbing any rungs on the NBA ladder.

Their hard-scrabble backgrounds might provide some insight into how this team was built.

Center Marc Gasol was the 48th player selected in 2007, then known as an overweight player who is Pau Gasol’s younger brother. Today, he’s a three-time All-Star and the 2013 Kia Defensive Player of the Year.

“I was at the back end of the Draft, so I was already asleep when they picked me, so I can’t really tell you much,” Gasol told reporters this week at the Raptors’ practice facility. “I think it tells you more about how much of a lottery the Draft is and how much more important it is to put the work in every day and continue to improve as a player.”

Only two current Raptors — forwards Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby — are original Draft picks by the team, and they were selected 27th in 2016 and 23rd in 2017, respectively. They hail from Cameroon and the United Kingdom, at least before working through high school and college basketball in the U.S.

You’ve got to establish the will to win to have a winning culture, and you’ve got to find the right players. I’ve always said that means trying to get players of high character, everything else being equal. This front office has done a great job of that.”

Raptors executive Wayne Embry

International players, including Gasol and Serge Ibaka, have been a part of Toronto’s formula for years. They also have been players less hung up on taking their games and earning their livings in Canada, relative to guys raised in the U.S.

All part of a “necessity is the mother of invention”-approach that has led to this point for the Raptors.

“We’ve had guys who have had to work their way up, who have always been counted out,” guard Norman Powell said after Toronto eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks in the East finals Saturday night, “and I think that’s what makes this so good.”

Powell spent four years at UCLA at a time when anything beyond one starts to feel like a stigma. He was drafted No. 46 in 2015 by Milwaukee — and ironically traded that night with the pick that would become Anunoby for a guard named Greivis Vasquez. Grievous indeed, since Vasquez played only 23 games for the Bucks and has been out of the league for four years.

Said Powell of the humbling he and various teammates have received: “It makes us so much more hungry, and everyone understands each other because of that. Everybody understands the dog days of working their way up, of people saying ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ But the belief and the fight that these guys have built their whole basketball lives, it really shows.”

Don’t misunderstand: the Raptors have had an appropriate share of high Draft picks for a franchise that missed the playoffs for five seasons before this active six-season run. Several of those players were flipped in trades for others whose value already exceed their Draft positions.

DeMar DeRozan (No. 9) and Jakob Poeltl (9) were dealt to San Antonio in the deal that delivered Kawhi Leonard (15) and Danny Green (46). Jonas Valunciunas (5) was flipped for Gasol. Terrence Ross (8) was shipped to Orlando for Serge Ibaka (24).

But getting traded for a player picked in the lottery doesn’t impact the self-esteem quite like getting picked there oneself.

“A lot of guys have come from some good places, some good stories behind it, but they have a chip on their shoulder,” Green told reporters. “Guys that have been in the league, or guys that know what it’s like to be out of the league or be picked last [in a pickup game], have a point to prove. A lot of character’s built on this team coming from many different places.”

Embry — the first black general manager in professional U.S. sports who helped Milwaukee to its NBA title in 1971 and an esteemed NBA exec ever since — agreed.

“You’ve got to establish the will to win to have a winning culture,” Embry said, “and you’ve got to find the right players. I’ve always said that means trying to get players of high character, everything else being equal. This front office has done a great job of that.”

All things being equal, a team would rather have the No. 1 pick than not. But as Embry said, “You don’t give up if you don’t.”

There is, after all, that stat about the number of No. 1 picks in the past 35 years who have won championships with the NBA team that drafted them. The correct answer is four: Kyrie Irving, Tim Duncan, David Robinson and LeBron James (who gets an asterisk because he left and went back to Cleveland).

Toronto’s roster stands in stark contrast to the Philadelphia team they ousted in the East semifinals. The Sixers embraced “The Process,” a grim plunge into the deep end of the lottery tank in search of the very best Draft spots. They got hits such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as well as several misses.

That, and Toronto’s counter approach, are remembering next month when the 2019 Draft heads toward pick No. 4, after top prospects Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett presumably have gone in the top three picks.

So while “Ratpros” isn’t likely to stick with anyone or anywhere except at the tips of my fingers, it does conjure a gritty team built on bumpy roads and in dark alley. Might not even be surprising if the Raptors took it as a compliment.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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