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
|Sport||Year||Team||Player||Best by Stats?||Playoff MVP?|
|MLB||2018||Red Sox||Steve Pearce||✓|
|MLB||2005||White Sox||Jermaine Dye||✓|
|MLB||2004||Red Sox||Curt Schilling||✓|
|NHL||2002||Red Wings||Dominik Hasek||✓|
|NHL||1997||Red Wings||Brendan Shanahan||✓|
|MLB||1993||Blue Jays||Paul Molitor||✓|
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.