By Frank McLean
The expectations for the Toronto Raptors as they start the 2018-2019 NBA season are the highest they ever have been and it had nothing to do with their season starting the same day pot became legal in Canada.
After being eliminated for a third straight year by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, team President Masai Ujiri knew that something had to give.
Changes had to be made and they were.
With James leaving the Eastern Conference and taking his talents to Southern California and the Los Angeles Lakers, the excuse that as long as James was in the east nobody else has a chance to win was gone.
First it was the big trade, a no brainer sending DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first round draft pick to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
One of the reasons this team struggled in the playoffs was opponents knew how to stop the Raptors and shutting down DeRozan or his other sidekick at guard Kyle Lowry pretty much did the trick.
Leonard is a superior defender and a major offensive threat BUT… and there is always a BUT. He only played nine games last year for San Antonio because of a quad injury and a shoulder injury. Is he able to stay healthy for an 82-game schedule?
Also he has a year left on his contract and the word around the league is he wants to play in his home of Los Angeles.
The other move was dumping the longest serving head coach in franchise history Dwane Casey.
Seven years, three straight 50-plus win seasons, 320-wins 238-losses all time and coming off a franchise high 59-win regular season and as a reward, the NBA coach of the year award.
BUT… And as we said there is always a BUT, a 21-30 record in the postseason, one appearance in the conference finals and zero appearances in the NBA Finals.
So Ujiri promoted Nick Nurse, who the last five years was one of Casey’s assistants running the offense to his first head coaching gig in the NBA.
Big gambles for a team that thinks they are good enough to win the east and take a shot at a NBA title.
For Ujiri the option of a coaching change is something he has kept in his back pocket since he took over as President. Casey was hired by his predecessor Bryan Colangelo and any new General Manager or President gets a chance to hire their own coach before you can fully review their job of building a winner.
Casey was winning, so there was no need to make a change except for a losing postseason record and the way the Raptors seemed to wave the white flag and surrender against Cleveland every time.
In acquiring Leonard the Raptors have never had a player of his ability before in their 24-year history. A top-10 player, who some may argue is a top five player in the league.
Also if you are Ujiri these moves are not just to make the team better, which he has been obsessed with since he arrived here five years ago. But he has to answer eventually to for the team’s lack of playoff success.
When Ujiri replaced Colangelo five years ago he was hired by former MLSE President Tim Leiweke.
Now Ujiri answers to a different boss running the MLSE board, Michael Frisdhal. With this being his sixth season running the ball club it’s make the conference finals or bust for this team and if they don’t the next move could be Ujiri.
Will know in six months if this all worked.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.