Kings of the North; Toronto the Championship City

The Raptors have done what we in Toronto have waited 26 years to do: Toronto is finally a winner again. Not since the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays has The Big Smoke been the winner of a major sports trophy, until now.

Fuelled by star power, supported by elite talent, and defined by hard work, the Raptors have set the new standard for Toronto sports teams. So what can the Leafs and Blue Jays learn from this never-back-down, no-quit team?

Patience.

Patience to develop your team and build a winning culture before playing the first minute of game one.

Masai Ujiri said it best, “championships aren’t built in one year.” Despite adding Danny a Green, Marc Gasol, and oh yeah Kawhi Leonard all this season, the backbone has been in place for years. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet are all long term Raptors and have massively impacted this team’s developed culture far beyond this season.

Can the Leafs take a page out of the 2019 Raptors playbook?

The Leafs are deep into the process of making their team into a championship squad. All the pieces are here: generational drafted talent, world-class free agent signing, recent playoff experience. So what lesson can they take from this season’s Raptors?

Sometimes you need to bet on yourself and take some risks to take the next step. Moving on from DeMar DeRozan was a massive risk, not to mention mortgaging the future with a first your draft pick to get a better return on the player, too. At the time of the deal it was a heavily criticized move, I mean Kawhi barely played last season!

Hindsight is 20/20 and now with a franchise-first Championship secured, the deal was a home run even if Kawhi doesn’t stay. The Leafs don’t need to make this much of a massive deal with the talent already on the roster, but moving out players and picks to push your chances over the top could be that next step for the Maple Leafs’ search for a cup.

Culture, culture, culture, for the Blue Jays now

The less glamorous lesson the Blue Jays can learn from the Raptors is to invest in creating a winning culture in the locker room now. This Blue Jays team is loaded with young talent, but without motivation and leadership, it could be wasted.

Kyle Lowry, that type of talented leader is what the Blue Jays need… to keep because the equivalent is Marcus Stroman and he’s already here. Yes he’s loud, yes he’s polarizing, but more than anything he’s talented and he hates losing. If that winning mentality can rub off onto the young core entering the league now, it can only have positive results.

Ken Giles, Freddie Galvis, Justin Smoak. All of these players are being brought up in trade talks but all of them play an integral role in the team’s development. Galvis’ Latin leadership role, Giles’ intensity and winning mentality, and Smoak’s even-keeled mindset are all assets to this team.

These players aren’t superstars but they lead by example and they are currently trying to hold the young players on the team to a higher standard of play. Invest in more players like this and the team culture will continue to develop alongside the players.

Now is the time for celebration, Toronto. The only city with a non-US NBA team has lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy. As unlikely as it was to happen the blueprint is there for the other big Toronto sports teams to follow. Boiled down: don’t be afraid to bet on yourself, and a winning culture breeds success.

Is Jake Gardiner the DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

A star of a different iteration of the current, better team. A proposed team leader. Offensive upside but inconsistent. Failure to take the next step towards a championship caliber team, and eventually forcing the team to move on from them. There are a lot of similarities between Jake Gardiner and DeMar DeRozan.

Recently, amidst questions of his role in the current Raptors success, DeRozen stated that he was the “sacrificial lamb” for their success this season. And while the statement was extremely self-righteous, it is fair, if not disrespectful to the greatness of Kawhi Leonard.

Masai Ujiri made the extremely difficult decision to go all-in on the 2018/19 season, moving on from the star player, face-of-the-franchise talent that DeRozan was. It was a gamble, but it wasn’t underthought or done half-heartedly.

Dubas isn’t looking to trade Gardiner as Ujiri did with DeRozan, though. No, instead Dubas has to decide whether bringing back the polarizing defenseman is the right move. Or, perhaps letting him go will provide a fresh start for both parties.

The Raptors used the inked DeRozan (plus a late first round pick) to leverage the return of Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. It’s now clear that the Raps have never had a player of Leonard’s level before. And while originally a heavily criticized move, the Raps underpaid for him. The Leafs aren’t going to b bringing in a generational player of Leonard’s caliber, but Gardiner moving on could free up the cap space to resign Mitch Marner, a uniquely talented generational player.

The situations aren’t mirrors of each other, but the sentiments really are similar. Jake Gardiner is a very skillful offensive defenseman, and if he the exact same player was available on the free agent market the Leafs would be going after him 100%. However, Gardiner’s contribution to recent playoff failure has not gone unnoticed. Are his past transgressions too great to overcome in the mentality of Leafs nation?

Yes, Gardiner is a great skater with poise on the puck and a sense for the net. He can chip in with plentiful assists and can skate himself out of a tough situation most times. Is his time up in Toronto, though? Yes, and just like DeMar DeRozan, his team needs to move on from him to take the next step forward.