No, Raptors Don’t Deserve Asterisk if They Win NBA Title
The Toronto Raptors are one game away from toppling the injury-ravaged Golden State Warriors and winning their first NBA championship in franchise history. But regardless of whether Warriors star forward Kevin Durant returns at some point—he’s questionable ahead of Monday’s Game 5—no one should suggest the Raptors deserve an asterisk if they do win this year’s title.
“It would also be one of those championships that we put an asterisk next to,” Reid Forgrave of CBS Sports predicted on The DA Show ahead of Game 4. “Fair or not, we’re going to say everyone on the Warriors was injured.”
Injuries have undeniably played a huge role in the Finals. Not only has Durant missed the first four games, but All-Star 2-guard Klay Thompson and key reserve Kevon Looney each missed Game 3 with a hamstring strain and a rib injury, respectively. Although Stephen Curry went supernova for 47 points that night, he couldn’t pull his battered team across the finish line by himself.
With DeMarcus Cousins still working his way back from a quadriceps injury suffered in the opening round of the playoffs, the Warriors’ depth issues have been exposed under the NBA’s brightest lights. Having to give critical minutes to the likes of Jonas Jerebko and Andrew Bogut while Toronto has largely whittled its way down to an eight-man rotation is proving fatal for Golden State.
But if the Raptors do knock off the Warriors, it isn’t as though they’ll be the first championship team to benefit from injurious fortune.
In 2015, the Warriors defeated a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was without Kevin Love throughout the entire Finals and that lost Kyrie Irving after Game 1. Those injuries didn’t stop the Cavaliers from taking a 2-1 series lead—largely because LeBron James averaged an otherworldly 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists—before the Warriors rattled off three straight wins to take home their first title in 40 years.
In 2017, the Warriors found themselves facing a 20-plus-point third-quarter deficit at home during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals when Zaza Pachulia stepped on Kawhi Leonard’s foot. The Warriors came back to win Game 1 and swept the San Antonio Spurs, very likely because Leonard didn’t play another minute in the series.
Last year, the Warriors were down 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals to the Houston Rockets, who lost All-Star point guard Chris Paul to a hamstring strain during the waning moments of Game 5. Golden State rattled off two straight wins to topple Houston and make it back to the Finals, where Cleveland provided little resistance outside of James.
It isn’t as though the Raptors are 100 percent healthy at this stage of the season, either. Kyle Lowry is playing through a torn ligament in his left thumb, according to Joe Vardon of The Athletic, which he suffered in the Raptors’ second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“When he isn’t playing, Lowry has his hands stuffed into a blue, oversized oven mitt for compression to help with circulation,” Vardon noted after Game 2.
Meanwhile, All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard has been playing through a knee injury that “stems from overcompensating for his injured right quad suffered last season,” according to Vardon and Sam Amick of The Athletic. Leonard’s uncle, Dennis Robertson, wouldn’t confirm the nature of the injury to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes ahead of the Finals, but he acknowledged Leonard wasn’t at full strength.
“I think if there was anybody capable of doing this, I would have said he could do it,” Robertson said. “And if there were any doubts that he wasn’t 100 percent last series, even though you could clearly see he was in pain because it was national TV, you might have thought he couldn’t get through this. But his basketball IQ is above most and he figured out a way to get through it and we feel good about where we’re at.”
Key Raptors guard Fred VanVleet hasn’t emerged unscathed, either. He found himself on the wrong end of Shaun Livingston’s elbow in the fourth quarter of Game 4, which caused him to start gushing blood from his face and cost a tooth. VanVleet did not return to action that night, but the Raptors closed out the Warriors in Oracle Arena without him.
What’s more, sometime starter (and key rotation piece either way) OG Anunoby has been missing for the entire playoffs after needing an appendectomy on April 9.
To some extent, all sports titles come down to a battle of attrition. Whichever team suffers the fewest amount of costly injuries often has a leg up on its playoff opponent, whether it’s a Pro Bowl quarterback or an All-Star center. While miraculous upsets happen—remember the time Nick Foles beat Tom Brady in the Super Bowl?—some injuries prove too insurmountable to overcome.
And Durant’s shaky status heading into the Finals didn’t stop a majority of experts from favoring the Warriors regardless.
Heading into the series, all but two of a panel of 21 ESPN analysts picked Golden State to win. All nine of CBS Sports’ experts did the same, as did nine of 11 Bleacher Report writers. B/R’s Eric Pincus was the only one among all three groups to predict the Raptors would win in five games rather than six or seven, for which he caught an enormous amount of flak.
He’s now one Toronto win away from looking prophetic—the coming of the “AntiPierce”, if you will— and the uncertainty surrounding Durant is why he stepped out on that limb in the first place.
If anything, this unpredictable series of circumstances further justifies Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri’s bold gambles to acquire Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol in the first place. Rather than preemptively concede this season to a Warriors team that added Cousins with the taxpayer mid-level exception, Ujiri went all-in on assembling a roster with potentially only a one-year window if Leonard leaves this summer as a free agent.
But he did it anyway, because a lot of things can and do happen during an NBA season. Including freak injuries. (That’s how the Raptors were able to get Kawhi for a relatively “cheap” price in the first place!)
Regardless of how many talking heads inevitably bring up the asterisk topic if the Raptors do win, they should take solace in knowing that sentiment will likely fade with time.
“What I would say to the city is that I don’t know if they’re getting the respect that they should, but at the same time, I really wouldn’t even care,” former Raptors star Damon Stoudamire told Sonny Sachdeva of Sportsnet. “Because a title is a title. They don’t put an asterisk next to it, man.”
Don’t begrudge the Raptors for taking advantage of an injury-ravaged Warriors squad. Almost every team needs a fortunate break to win a title. We may talk about the caveats for a season or two, but it’s the rings that stand the test of time, not some tacked-on punctuation.
Otherwise, just ask the 2014-15, 2016-17 and 2017-18 Warriors about whether their wins came with asterisks.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.