If there was one thing the Toronto Raptors were not known for under the rein of Bryan Colangelo it was toughness. Not that the former club president and general manager didn’t occasionally try to add a tough guy, it was more that he didn’t add many and the few he did sign got hurt almost the moment they arrived. A lack of toughness doesn’t fit with how Head Coach Dwane Casey wants to play and he has delivered that message loud, clear and often since the end of the season.
“We have some work to do with our roster,” Casey said. “Whether it is adding young toughness or veteran toughness, there are some things we got to do.”
It should be apparent by now that Casey and President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri are on the same page. Ujiri told us when he arrived in Toronto that we would know the direction he is taking this team when we see it and after he officially retained Casey for next season that was a pretty big clue. Now with free agents Tyler Hansbrough and Julyan Stone about to join the Raptors, Ujiri let loose. He is embarrassed by how other teams view the Raptors and it is going to change.
“I’m tired of all this. People come here and everyone calls the team soft or calls the team pushovers or all these stupid names they have mentioned,” Ujiri said. “You come to Canada and you come to play. That’s the identity we’re trying to build here. This is our team. We’re in Canada. This is our team and we are going to be tough out there.”
For a city and a Country with a hockey mentality, Ujiri strikes a chord. Toughness is music to the typical Canadian sports fan and the Raptors may finally be getting in tune.
This view is not out of sync with how many players, coaches and fans everywhere believe basketball is supposed to be played. It’s a physical game. Casey explained how Ujiri and himself view winning basketball and toughness is the common dominator. They see both tough-minded defensive play as the road to success in playoffs.
“We share the same vision. We have talked about what we need to improve on. The direction we need to go,” Casey said. “He is about a lot of the same things that I stand for. Toughness and playing hard and being accountable, just all of the things it takes to win.”
“Ultimate goal is to develop it into not just a team that sneaks into the playoffs, but a team that can consistently – each year – say we have a chance of fighting for a championship.”
The most important difference in the regime shift from Colangelo to Ujiri, however, may be a change in overall philosophy in how a general manager works with his coach. Where Colangelo was a consensus builder with an obvious bias towards acquiring offensive-minded players, Ujiri looks to acquire players that fit his coach’s style. In Denver, he built a running team to get the most out of Head Coach George Karl. In Toronto, he knows Casey will be most successful with grit and grim, so that’s what he’s looking for. Ujiri knows how important it is for a team to reflect the identity of its coach.
“It’s very important I think,” Ujiri said. “It was the same thing in Denver. George Karl liked to run, so you bring players that do that. That’s my job to find him those players. Coach [Casey] here is tough, defensive-minded and a grit-type guy, so I’m out to find those kinds of talented players that will come and give us that.”
The good news from the Colangelo era is Ujiri is not starting from scratch. The Raptors have players that can score, Ujiri just needs to fill in the missing elements. For those with concerns about the effectiveness of offensive players like Kyle Lowry, Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan under Casey, Ujiri points out the Raptors are in a win-win situation. Either the Raptors will win with this group and everyone stays to continue growing together or if they lose, Lowry and Gay will both bolt in the off season for greener pastures and the Raptors will rebuild.
“Our core guys can score,” Casey said. “Jonas [Valanciunas] these past two weeks has shown he is going to be a dominant scorer in the paint. DeMar [DeRozan] is a scorer. Rudy [Gay] is a scorer.”
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Ujiri said. “It’s a good team and you know what, the pressure’s on us if [Lowry and Gay] have great years. If they want to stay. For me it’s a win-win situation for us. It’s a win-win situation for them too. Great years, they stay. If it’s not, they think about it, we think about it, and we go from there. We have to do well on the court and grow as a team and I think that’s our goal here. No expectations let them play. Win-win, what happens, happens.”
What happens next season will be Lowry, DeRozan and Gay will be playing with some much needed added toughness beside them. Don’t forget, the Raptors have Aaron Gray and Amir Johnson returning from last season. Adding Hansbrough to this mix will make the Raptors front court a physical presence in the paint. The smiling baby-faced center Jonas Valanciunas doesn’t look tough, but he wasn’t afraid to mix things up as a rookie and he’ll be a lot more effective playing physical in his second season. There remains work to be done, but Ujiri is answering Casey’s call for a tougher roster. Next season, visiting teams at the Air Canada Centre will not be calling the Raptors soft.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.