Make of the Toronto Raptors’ inaugural NBA championship victory what you will. Feel free to hypothesise as to what might have been if the opposing Golden State Warriors were at full strength. Feel free to speculate as to whether Toronto would have been the better team if they had truly had to face the best that their opponents could throw at them.
Feel free to evaluate the close margin of victory in the deciding game six and decry the fact that the absence of Kevin Durant and the in-game injury to Klay Thompson would have been plenty enough to swing the outcome of the game, considering how close it was kept by such an undermanned Warriors team.
Do whatever you’ve got to do. But do not put an asterisk by this title.
The idea behind asterisking the achievements of championship winners is to properly log in the history books which titles were won ‘fair and square’, and who won theirs the ‘right way’. It is a concept built on hypocrisy and an implied understanding of what the ‘right way’ is.
The ‘right way’ does not have a definition, because it is not a thing that actually exists. This, in turn, gives us the opportunity to interpret and define it however we want to.
In this instance, the belief in the legitimacy of an asterisk will be tied to the myriad injuries that turned the series.
Whereas Toronto were missing only reserve forward OG Anunoby from their rotation, the comparatively veteran Warriors were breaking down all over the place.
Durant, as we now know, managed only 11 minutes in the series and suffered a debilitating torn Achilles tendon.
Thompson, who had had to leave Game 2 with a hamstring strain, came out of Game 6 as well at a crucial time despite leading his Warriors with 30 points on the night; it turns out that he too had suffered a very serious injury, this one a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Kevon Looney played with a fractured collarbone that he re-aggravated with every hard foul or fall to the ground. Andre Iguodala only had one working leg. It is hard to remember any NBA finals series being this affected by injury.
But so what?
It must be remembered that at one time – indeed, for the best part of three years – people have been wielding the asterisk against the Warriors. Ever since the unique series of events that allowed Durant to join the team back in 2016, creating an embarrassment of riches for a team that was already setting NBA records, we have used it to discredit the two titles that they won with him in tow.
Had they pulled off the three-peat this season, we probably would have done so again, especially after the signing of DeMarcus Cousins in the offseason, one which did not ultimately work out but which nevertheless will long be remembered as the supremely rich entering Bill Gates territory. It was something only made possible by the previous two asterisks.
Therein lies the wider points about asterisks. They are subjective. You can apply them anywhere at your discretion, by your rules, in any series.
There is always some kind of luck involved any time anyone wins. The Cleveland Cavaliers, for example – the only team prior to these Raptors to have beaten the Warriors in this spectacular five-season run of theirs – were only able to come back from 3-1 down in the 2016 NBA Finals due to the suspension to Draymond Green for Game 5.
The loss of such an important two-way player on both ends of the court and the subsequent momentum shift were crucial catalysts in the turnaround, yet it was nothing that Cleveland could control. Brilliant as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving worth, they got lucky to even reach that point.
At what point do we start asterisking luck? How about last year, when only a historic shooting slump in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals by the Houston Rockets (7-44 from three-point range including 27 misses in a row at one point) prevented them from winning the series and denying the Warriors even making the NBA Finals, a series that Houston themselves would surely have won against an overmatched Cavaliers team?
If that is worthy of an asterisk, as was Durant’s edition, as was the subsequent signing of Cousins that only happened because those two things did, does that mean the Warriors would have had three asterisks had they won these Finals? And if so, why does the team that beat them now merit one?
If the only way to win a title without the cloak of doubt over its legitimacy is to constantly beat opponents at full strength, opponents that were built the ‘right way’ (which apparently means through the NBA Draft or something; another nebulous concept cited only when convenient), without injuries or suspensions or asteroid impacts or spontaneous human combustion to sway the outcome of the series, then no one will ever win legitimately. We can always find reasons and excuses.
Scarlett Johansson may have fallen madly in love with you if only she had met you. We will never know. But there is an awfully convenient excuse in there if you want it.
What we can definitely deal in is facts. The facts are that for all bar a few stretches – the very end of Game 5, the third quarter of Game 2 – the Raptors were a better team than the Warriors.
Injuries notwithstanding, this is the same Warriors team that had sported a 38-5 record over every team not named the Rockets in the playoffs over the previous three seasons. And yet these Raptors just took four games off them.
Of course, the Warriors were without Durant for the majority of this time. Yet it was also a mere fortnight ago that we were speculating – and some outright decreeing – that the Warriors were better without Durant anyway. The Portland Trail Blazers faced a Durant-less team and got swept in four games. Toronto instead won in six, and had bested the regular season-best Milwaukee Bucks on the way. They are worthy winners.
Toronto were extremely well prepared for what the Warriors had. They exposed their defensive limitations, imparted their own defensive will and slowed down the weapons Golden State had left. They won multiple individual battles, and did all this in a relatively small market whilst dodging the luxury tax and without ever being the benefactors of star players taking pay cuts just to join them.
They were better, and, if such things matter to you, built in a more wholesome way.
To put an asterisk by their achievement is to diminish a triumph of team-building, coaching, player commitment and defense.
Timely aggression at the front office level combined with developing talents internally, having the confidence to fire a head coach after a 59-win season knowing that this team could still be better than the sum of its parts, throwing off the shackles of their own history of playoff jitters and never backing down behind the superb play of their superstar – Toronto, I would suggest, did it the right way.
They are unlikely NBA champions, but in absolutely no way are they an unworthy one.
And if they had some luck to get to where they are today – well, so do we all.