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The Raptors Traded For An MVP, And It Got Them Over The Championship Hump

With a chance to win the franchise’s first-ever championship Thursday night in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Toronto Raptors didn’t miss. Led by Kawhi Leonard, Toronto officially sealed its membership in the exclusive first-time winners club. Maybe the Raptors drew inspiration from another first-time winner that had sealed its own unlikely championship on Wednesday: the St. Louis Blues (a team that has more in common with the Raptors than you might think).

The NBA hasn’t traditionally welcomed new members into its championship clique. In the 39 completed seasons from 1980 through 2018, only 11 of the league’s 30 teams had won a championship at all — and of those 11, four (the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and Warriors) were legacy teams that had already won titles in an earlier era of the game. Meanwhile, out of the seven first-time winners over that span (the Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Cavaliers), all but two went on to win multiple championships. The NBA is a dynastic league, so out-of-nowhere championship runs like the one Toronto just wrapped up are exceedingly difficult to find.

By contrast, first-time Stanley Cup winners like the Blues are a little easier to come by. Between St. Louis and the Washington Capitals, each of the past two NHL seasons has seen a maiden title-winner. In fact, since 1980, there have been 18 different championship franchises in hockey, including 13 first-time winners and nine one-off champions. This isn’t overly surprising, since hockey and basketball are basically at opposite ends of the parity spectrum among the major pro sports.1 What the Blues did was impressive; what the Raptors did was almost unprecedented in the modern era.

So how did a team like Toronto, which had never previously advanced past the conference finals, bust down the door of a club that ordinarily laughs at wannabe members? It required another rarity in major pro sports: Acquiring a championship-caliber best player, ready for an immediate title bid. In his first season with Toronto, Leonard ranked first on the Raptors in Wins Created2 during the regular season, and he was named the NBA Finals MVP as well. I went looking for other players who fit the same criteria — best players on championship teams in their first season with the club — not only from the NBA but also from the NFL, NHL, WNBA and MLB.3

Kawhi joins the list of championship newcomers

Players in the NBA, NHL, NFL, NHL or WNBA who were new to a championship team and were deemed most valuable either by the stats* or voters for a postseason MVP award, 1980-2019

Sport Year Team Player Best by Stats? Playoff MVP?
NBA 2019 Raptors Kawhi Leonard
NHL 2019 Blues Ryan O’Reilly
MLB 2018 Red Sox Steve Pearce
NBA 2017 Warriors Kevin Durant
NFL 2017 Eagles Nick Foles
MLB 2016 Cubs Ben Zobrist
WNBA 2015 Lynx Sylvia Fowles
NBA 2008 Celtics Kevin Garnett
NHL 2006 Hurricanes Cam Ward
MLB 2005 White Sox Jermaine Dye
MLB 2004 Red Sox Curt Schilling
WNBA 2004 Storm Betty Lennox
WNBA 2003 Shock Ruth Riley
NHL 2002 Red Wings Dominik Hasek
NFL 1999 Rams Marshall Faulk
MLB 1998 Yankees Scott Brosius
NHL 1997 Red Wings Brendan Shanahan
NFL 1996 Packers Desmond Howard
MLB 1993 Blue Jays Paul Molitor
MLB 1991 Twins Jack Morris
MLB 1989 Athletics Rickey Henderson
MLB 1988 Dodgers Kirk Gibson
NBA 1983 76ers Moses Malone
MLB 1982 Cardinals Lonnie Smith
NFL 1981 49ers Ronnie Lott
NBA 1980 Lakers Magic Johnson

*Statistics considered were Wins Created (NBA and WNBA), Approximate Value (NFL), Goals Versus Threshold (NHL) and wins above replacement (MLB).

Source: Sports-Reference.com, FanGraphs

The list of Leonard-like players is surprisingly short. Only 12 newcomers were the best on a championship team according to our agreed-upon set of metrics — excluding Cynthia Cooper of the 1997 Houston Comets, who technically was new to her team but only because the WNBA was in its first season. Fourteen more were their league’s designated “playoff MVP” (whether the award was specifically for the final series/game or the postseason as a whole, depending on the sport), even granting that those awards can sometimes be prone to fluke performances — did anyone think Steve Pearce was Boston’s best player outside of the 2018 World Series? Joining a list of (at most) 26 players in five major sports over the past four decades puts Leonard in some pretty impressive company.

Even if we dig down into championship newcomers that our first layer of criteria may have missed, the list doesn’t get much bigger. Fifteen other players4 joined a new club and were its second-best player, according to our metrics, while winning a title. In football, Trent Dilfer of the 2000 Ravens is the only new primary regular-season quarterback to lead a Super Bowl winner since 1980, while Nick Foles started and won the Super Bowl for the 2017 Eagles in his first year back with Philly after a two-season absence. None of those other players really compares very favorably to what Leonard has done as the Raptors’ clear-cut superstar during their championship run.

O’Reilly represents another interesting parallel between the Blues and Raptors. Both franchises secured their first-ever titles this year, and both teams were led — in both the regular season and the playoffs — by new top players. O’Reilly isn’t the transcendent talent that Leonard is, but he has long been hailed for his all-around skills,5 and he tied for the lead among all playoff scorers with 23 points this postseason. And like Leonard, O’Reilly was acquired in a blockbuster trade last summer, which sent him from Buffalo to St. Louis for veterans, draft picks and a prospect. Suffice it to say, both megadeals paid off.

Any way you slice it, Leonard became the rare example (across all sports) of a player joining a new team and leading it to a title — sealing his place among the all-time immortals of sport in the process. With Toronto’s win over the Golden State Warriors and the Blues’ win over the Boston Bruins, there can be no doubt: We just witnessed two of the most unique first-time champs in sports history.

Footnotes

  1. The NHL also expanded a ton — even more than the NBA — since the late 1980s, creating more teams for which a first-time title would even be possible.

  2. My mix of three widely accepted NBA metrics — Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares and Estimated Wins Added — set to a common scale of total wins generated.

  3. The statistical criteria for “best player” in each league were as follows: Wins Created (WNBA), Approximate Value (NFL), Goals Versus Threshold (NHL) and wins above replacement (MLB, using a mix of the WAR versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs).

  4. Natasha Howard of the 2018 Storm, Darrelle Revis of the 2014 Patriots, Martin Jones of the 2014 Kings, Shane Victorino of the 2013 Red Sox, Melky Cabrera of the 2012 Giants, Aubrey Huff of the 2010 Giants, CC Sabathia of the 2009 Yankees, Nicole Powell of the 2005 Monarchs, Corey Dillon of the 2004 Patriots, Cory Stillman of the 2004 Lightning, Ivan Rodriguez of the 2003 Marlins, Antowain Smith of the 2001 Patriots, Latasha Byears of the 2001 Sparks, Clyde Drexler of the 1995 Rockets and Charlie Brown of the 1982 Redskins.

  5. He’s received votes for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward in every season of his career but his rookie year, and he’s a finalist for the award this year.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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