Marc Gasol’s arrival to the Toronto Raptors came in New York City, where the team played at Madison Square Garden a day after the trade deadline in 2019.
He had already made his debut for the Raptors in an easy win over the Knicks by the time he met the media post-game, and he remarked on the many Toronto fans who had made noise in the famed Manhattan arena.
He said he couldn’t believe how many fans “they” had there. Then he caught himself, offering a sheepish grin, realizing that the proper pronoun for the Raptors was “we.”
Serge Ibaka also arrived mid-season, a couple of years earlier. At one of his first games in Toronto, a member of the Raptors media team asked if I needed anything. I asked if Ibaka was available. He was probably in an ice bath, I was told.
There was a whole routine, the staffer explained, seeming a little baffled by it all: This new guy was a bit eccentric.
But if Ibaka and then Gasol came to Toronto as outsiders, guys who established themselves in the NBA on other teams, they leave very much a part of Raptors lore.
Winning a championship does that, but they each had their endearing moments, Ibaka with his fashion and cooking side gigs, Gasol with his extreme revelry at the championship parade, spraying champagne and guzzling it from the bottle like a drunken Spanish bear.
The departure of both big men feels like a significant marker in the history of the Raptors. The loss of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green immediately after the title-winning season was more of a demarcation point in terms of on-court play, but when the 2019-20 season began, the Raptors were still the champs, with rings to receive and a banner to unveil and a good many of the same faces around to remind the fan base that, holy crap, the Toronto Raptors were NBA champions.
This is different. The title defence ended on a neutral court in Orlando in a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics, and with it went the remaining rosy glow from the shocking events of the previous spring in Oakland.
As a franchise, the Raptors had gone through three phases: A long period of general irrelevance, minus the brief spike of the early Vince Carter years; the transformation into reliable competence under the stewardship of Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey; and then the out-of-body experience of the championship season, the good vibes of which leaked into the past campaign and were buttressed by a robust title defence.
The quality of that team is best underlined by how angry Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse were about the defeat to the Celtics, even after they were back in Toronto and had a few days to cool off. They thought they were good enough to go very deep again. Now, though, it’s time for a new iteration of the Raptors. With four of their seven key rotation players gone from the title-winning group, this bunch will look a lot less familiar over the course of a game.
Kyle Lowry will still give the Raptors their snarl and a lot of their heart, but he’s the last of the cagey veterans, and entering the final year of his contract. This is, to be clear, fine.
The toughest thing about building a title contender, other than actually winning it, is figuring out how to move on.
Teams end up with too many costly older players, and too few inexpensive young guys, and front offices often wait a little too long to part ways with the players whose jerseys are pockmarked all over the home stands on game nights.
Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster haven’t even had to make much in the way of those tough calls.
Leonard and Green left on their own, as did Ibaka and Gasol, although either of the latter two might have stayed had the Raptors offered the right mix of money and contract length.
Instead, management opted to build around a new core — Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby — and keep open the option of adding a major free-agent prize in the summer of 2021.
Ujiri has still never done the type of roster tear-down that is fashionable in many pro sports, one that asks fans to accept years of heavy losses in hopes of a payoff down the line. Instead, he built a good team into a very good team and then into a great one.
Now, he’s about to try to do it again, not by the traditional route of assembling a bunch of kids and lottery picks, but with a core group that, with the exception of Lowry, was a vaunted bench unit not that long ago.
All those players who were great secondary pieces on a championship team? They are the primary guys now, at least until next summer.
In the end, it has been a rebuild without many of the usual parts of a rebuild.
As recently as the fall of 2019, NBA observers wondered if Raptors management would deal Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol, blowing it up in one go instead of risking a sag into mediocrity.
Ujiri, Webster and Nurse have charted a different path. There was no bottoming out after the title run.
But they are starting over anyway.