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What’s Next For the Raptors?

Ujiri webSummer League is over, free agency is drying up and teams are becoming focused inwards, so what’s next for the Raptors in Toronto?

President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has been laying the ground work for next season. He added shooting with the trade of Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for Steve Novak and draft picks. He added toughness with the signing of free agent Tyler Hansbrough of the Pacers. A young experienced backup point guard in DJ Augustin and a young inexperienced backup point guard in Dwight Buycks have rounded out the acquisitions to-date. The oft-injured Linas Kleiza has been amnestied and 39-year-old Marcus Camby, who was picked up in the Bargnani trade, has been waived. It seems like there may not be a lot left for Ujiri to do.

The Raptors success or failure next season will hang largely on Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay. Ujiri is confident that whatever happens, Toronto is in a win-win situation. If the team does well, both players will want to be a part of a promising future and if things do not turn out as hoped, Lowry’s contract is expiring and Gay has a player option to look for a better situation.

“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 they have great years and 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.”

Everything coming out of Toronto and from Summer League indicates Lowry and Gay are set to have big seasons. Lowry has shed weight and looks like a new man. Gay had eye surgery to correct vision issues and has added good weight and strength to offset the demands of being the go-to-guy. Gay might be worried that improvements to his shooting will be credited towards correcting his vision instead of a fiendish workout routine this summer, but the reality is correcting his vision wouldn’t improve his shot if he wasn’t putting the time in the gym.

Both of these players could be looking for new long term deals between now and next summer and it is not unusual for players in this situation to have career years.

After four years, DeMar DeRozan is still only 23-years-old and one of the youngest players on the Raptors and this summer he is working out with the USA Men’s National Basketball Team in Las Vegas – again. Head Coach Dwane Casey said DeRozan took a half step backwards defensively last season, but that was a very disruptive year with multiple player injuries and new teammates on the wing to adjust to. DeRozan fits in Ujiri’s model well as a young up and coming player to throw out there and keep developing.

The past 11 days at Las Vegas Summer League did answer some big questions about the team.

“Summer League, we grind through it and try and comb out as much (as possible),” Ujiri said. “We start making lists of players we are going to watch in the future and analyze the players that played for us and see how they did.”

Terrence Ross was a disappointment. Quincy Acy was a surprise, but confirmed that he is no small forward. Dwight Buycks earned himself a contract from the Raptors. All Jonas Valanciunas did was walk away owning the 2013 NBA Summer League MVP. Ujiri gave a brief assessment of each player.

“(Ross was) up and down a little bit, but (he is) very talented. We are excited about teaching him the game and seeing where it goes from there,” Ujiri said. “A little bit inconsistent, but I was satisfied and happy he got that (Summer League) experience.”

“(Acy) is another tough-nosed guy. I know we have a couple of those already in Amir Johnson and Tyler (Hansbrough) now. It is possible (Acy) will learn how to guard a couple of positions, the three and the four, maybe bigger threes, but we thought he did well. He is trying to stretch (the floor) a little bit, but that will take a while to shoot the ball from outside. He made good progress and his work ethic is unbelievable. That energy type player is always needed in the league.”

“You take a chance sometimes on a kid like Dwight (Buycks) to give him that experience after what he did in college and what he did overseas. Sometimes it takes time for them to find a true fit and find that opportunity. We feel this is a good opportunity for him. Dwight will pick up full court. He is aggressive, has very good speed, but he is yet to do it on an NBA court, so we had to find a little bit of experience (Augustin) to balance it out.”

“(Valanciunas) is an ever willing kid to learn, he plays hard and it is not very easy to find that in big guys. We are happy with his progress and think he will continue (to work) very hard over the summer. We are going to touch (base) a few more times this summer even while he is with his National Team.”

The biggest disappointment about Ross after 11 days in Las Vegas was he still looked like he did last summer as a rookie and Ujiri was describing Ross the way he would talk about a rookie. If Ujiri adds another wing player, Ross’ Summer League performance will have played a big part in that decision. Acy and Buycks flat outworked Ross during Summer League and looked better because of it.

Ujiri still has an open roster spot and Quentin Richardson, who arrived as additional salary cap ballast in the Bargnani trade with the Knicks, is unlikely to make it past training camp before he is waived, so there remains a couple of moves for the Raptors to make. Ujiri insists any more additions will be young players with 100 percent certainty.

“Maybe a wing,” Ujiri said. “We have been looking for another wing. We will see how it goes. It might be something we do this summer or wait until training camp and invite a couple of young guys and give them a shot and see what happens. We are still working on trying to figure out a couple more parts for the roster.”

What is next for the Raptors is not going to be earth-shattering if everything goes as expected. Today’s Raptors roster will likely be the one showing up in training camp with the possibility of another couple of young players to fill in the 14th and 15th spots. Ujiri is happy with his team and happy with his team’s situation. A relatively young roster with lots of potential that is easy to blow up if things aren’t working out.

However, by keeping the core of the Raptors together and adding the toughness and shooting Casey was asking for, expectations are high. If Jonas Valanciunas continues his meteoric rise while Lowry and Gay have contract-inspired years, the Raptors could go a lot further than expected next season no matter what the next move Ujiri makes.

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. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

16 thoughts on “What’s Next For the Raptors?

  1. Vincent Muambi

    I’m actually excited for the Raptors. They have a smart young general manager who wants to build the team based on the head coach. That’s smart. They want to emphasize a style of play based on defense and physical toughness. Classy. Third and final point: they’re ditching the Raptors moniker. So refreshing.

    P.S.: The Charlotte Hornets will return starting in the 2014-2015 season, so this makes me even MORE excited!

    1. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

      You build a strong organization from the top down.

      Leiweke – Ujiri – Casey & all on the same page

  2. Tim W.

    I think the Raptors are in a rather tough situation, right now. They’re a team good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but without the potential, or the flexibility or assets, to do more than that. They’re close to the luxury tax, without an All Star on the roster, let alone an elite player. The players are young, and the team hasn’t made the playoffs in five years, so blowing up the team is not the most palatable thing.

    Unless big changes are made before the trade deadline, there are two likely scenarios for the Raptors:

    1. The Raptors squeak into the playoffs in the 7th or 8th seed, but lose in the first round. Lowry and Gay are re-signed, and probably at a premium (with as many as 22 teams projected to have cap room next summer, it’s a good bet the Raptors won’t get them at a discount), and the team has to move forward with the roster they have, and without an elite player, they will not have a chance to being a contender.

    2. If the Raptors miss the playoffs, it would make no sense to throw money at a roster that wasn’t successful, so Lowry and Gay leave, giving the Raptors loads of cap room in a summer where 22 other teams are projected to have cap room. Because of the sellers market, the Raptors strike out in free agency and because so many teams have cap room, there will be little value in being able to take on another team’s big contract, so the Raptors end up taking a step back.

    With Valanciunas in his third season, and making a bigger impact in the win column, the Raptors are too good to tank for a high lottery pick, and are a year late in doing it in a good draft, anyway.

    Basically, the Raptors are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If things go “well”, then they’re screwed. If the don’t go well, then they’re still screwed.

    1. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

      The short answer is, that’s the GM’s job to figure this out and he has created as much flexibility as possible going forward. It’s easy to see no hope here – but as Leiweke said, ‘I inherited, I didn’t create’ – and as Ujiri has said, ‘it’s my job to fix it.’

      A good thing about Ujiri is he isn’t afraid to make moves and the moves he made in Denver turned out pretty good.

      Gay? It’s hard to see him leaving $19m on the table next year when the market this summer says he’s worth $12-14m – but you never know.

      Raptors deserve to be a show-me team, but there are new guys running the show now – got to give them a chance – and it isn’t reasonable to expect more than progress this season. Right now, 7th or 8th looks pretty good after 5 years in the lottery.

      1. Tim W.

        Apparently the Raptors are under the impression that Gay will opt out, and considering how many teams are currently projected to have, at least, $20 million available next summer (18, at last count), that Gay might be one of the better unrestricted free agents under 30 available next summer, I would actually be surprised if he didn’t opt out.

        Consider this. The last time there was a similar offseason, where there was a glut of teams with excess cap room, and only a few prize free agents, Amare Stoudemire got a 5 year, $100 million contract and Carlos Boozer signed a 5 year, $80 million contract.

        This offseason, a lot of teams were unwilling to spend on big, long term contracts because they wanted to remain flexible for next summer, so I don’t think it’s a good indication of what the market will be like.

        Also, I don’t think the situation is hopeless, but I don’t think the team can stay competitive and not sacrifice the future. I just hope Ujiri is willing to make some tought decisions.

        1. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

          Ujiri said he thought Gay might opt out if the Raptors played poorly this season (can’t be sure), but if they played well, he’d be under pressure to do something with Gay. That something would be either 1) an extension/ new contract or 2) playing out next season with the intention of re-signing Gay. It’s pretty clear Casey & Ujiri are expecting a breakout season from Gay (in this potential contract year) – Leiweke will allow Ujiri to do the big extension if warranted.

          Tough decisions all-around, but decisions based on results (for once). This is the first time Gay will be the star on a team he can call “his” – I wouldn’t underestimate that impact on his decision.

          Those “bad” deals last time – I don’t see an injured big getting paid like that under the new CBA – Boozer would be a $12-13m man under this CBA (and no one would be complaining about his salary). Lakers don’t have a history of becoming stuck with 2nd level talent with superstar salaries & no other team did it this summer – those days may be over/less likely. Seems like it.

          New tougher CBA, definitely a new environment in the NBA & new Ownership & Management at MLSE – what used to be true probably isn’t anymore – some things have to be different – we’ll see.

          1. Tim W.

            I don’t know if I like the idea of basing a contract on a career underperforming player playing in a contract year. Actually, I know I don’t like it. That sort of financial management usually gets teams into trouble (see Colangelo, Bryan).

            I don’t see how Ujiri can hold onto Gay for the entire year, quite frankly. If Gay does have that “breakout season”, then it’s the perfect time to trade him. I don’t see him ever being worth the contract he’ll get, and extending or re-signing him risks putting the Raptors on a path similar to the Hawks with Joe Johnson.

            The Lakers could very well be the landing spot for Gay if they don’t get LeBron. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

          2. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

            The obvious question would be – trade Gay for whom? or for what? There really isn’t much of a point in taking back a bunch of average players that you can readily get at the end of every regular season (like with Vince Carter). I don’t see anyone giving up decent lottery draft picks in 2014. There’s nothing on the Lakers to trade for.

            The path looks to be set – Ujiri has to convince Gay that this is his team, he wants to be here and he’ll take a market salary to stay after his contract ends. Unless maybe someone like Detroit decides signing a player like Josh Smith was a mistake before the new year?

            Actually, I see this season as the turning point in Gay’s career – the year he grows up and takes responsibility for his own future by committing to a program – and that would be Casey’s program. He is acting like that’s the case – but there is always the risk he doesn’t follow thru.

          3. Tim W.

            It’s always difficult to guess what other teams will give up for players. Did anyone expect Ujiri getting anything of value for Bargnani?

            Obviously if the Raptors trade Gay, it’s a step towards rebuilding, so there’s no point in trying to get any productive players back. And I don’t think it’s necessary to get a 2014 lottery pick. It would be nice, but not necessary. A draft pick is an asset that can be used or traded.

            I do see several teams as possible trading partners for Gay, though. Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, Washington and Sacramento all are trying to make the playoffs and be competitive, but lack a piece (or two) to really be a lock for the playoffs. I could see all giving up a draft pick and/or prospect to get Gay. Especially if the Raptors take back a bad contract in return. For example, would Sacramento give up their 2014 pick for Gay if the Raptors also take back a contract like John Salmons and even Travis Outlaw?

            The problem with Gay, is he’s simply never going to be good enough, whether he breaks out or not, to lead the Raptors deep into the playoffs, and his continued presence will keep the Raptors competitive enough to vie for the playoffs, but not good enough to actually do any damage in them. Like Joe Johnson with the Hawks. Eventually, they had to give Johnson up for expiring contracts because his value had declined so much.

          4. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

            LeBron James isn’t coming to Toronto next summer – neither is Chris Paul, Anthony isn’t coming here from NY….

            The Raptors – like most teams – have to build with multiple 2nd tier talent like Rudy Gay (or Bosh) – just like the Pacers are with West, Hibbert, George & hopefully Granger

            The Raptors need to hang onto to Gay and add or develop more talent. They won’t get the equivalent back in trade – they would be flat out lucky to land a free agent this good (never happened before). There’s a reason young players are called prospects.

            I agree with Casey on trying to build a version of the Pacers as that’s a realistic possibility. Ujiri was getting different kinds of players for Denver, but he was acquiring 2nd tier talent because that’s a realistic goal.

            The reason you see a whole lot of teams missing a piece and willing to give up a prospect is because that describes where almost every team ends up – you don’t trade the piece everyone else needs (except maybe for a top 5 lottery pick in 2014 – not happening) You need that player yourself.

            Taking back a bad contract and a prospect for Gay is like trading VC for scraps or CB4 for picks – you may as well say this team will be in the lottery forever – can’t hold onto to anyone – no one wants to be here – etc

            Hawks were a 50 win team for years with JJ – let me experience that for a while before saying it isn’t worthwhile

          5. Tim W.

            We seem to have completely different opinions here.

            First off, I think trying to copy a team that has never reached the Finals is a bad idea. The Pacers didn’t even win 50 games, last year, but no one remembers that because they matched up so well against Miami and took them to 7 games.

            Plus, Rudy Gay is no Paul George, and the Raptors don’t have a defensive presence like Roy Hibbert, so you’re already a pale imitation of a team that didn’t reach the Finals. It’s like when Colangelo was trying to copy Dallas. It was bound to fail.

            I don’t think trying to model yourself after other teams is a successful way to build a team, anyway. No team that tried to copy another team ever won a Championship. The teams that win tend to blaze their own trail. And if you aren’t trying to build a Championship team, then I’m not sure I see the point?

            Which brings up your point about Atlanta. There are certainly a lot of fans that would like to experience that, but I’m not one of them. And I know there are a lot of fans who feel the same way. Atlanta was an ill constructed team with a ceiling of the 2nd round, and everyone knew it. Because of the situation they were in, they could improve the roster enough to actually become a contender, so the only way out of it was to blow the team up. And now they’re trying to remain competitive while rebuilding, and finding it incredibly difficult because they can’t attract the elite players that would actually change their fortunes.

            And that brings up my last point. I agree that the Raptors aren’t going to be able to sign a player of Rudy Gay’s calibre, but I’ve never thought trying to build through free agency was a good idea (Colangelo’s big mistake). Of course, that doesn’t mean you settle for mediocrity.

            That’s why I’m a proponent of the Raptors blowing the team up and trying to get a top pick in next year’s loaded draft. The only way the Raptors have been able to acquire elite players in the past is through the draft. That’s how most non-prime destination teams acquire their elite players. Trading Gay for prospects and draft picks isn’t saying the team is forever a lottery pick and can’t hold onto anyone. It’s saying that Gay simply isn’t good enough to lead the team anywhere and the Raptors aren’t going to settle for anything but great.

            And it puts the team in a much better position with far more valuable and moveable assets (draft picks and prospects) than overpriced contracts for mediocre players. When you overpay so many guys on the team, like the Raptors do, it makes it nearly impossible to upgrade your talent, so you’re stuck where you are. Even if you want to try and trade for an elite player, like what the Rockets did, then having prospects and draft picks is going to put you in a far more manageable position.

          6. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

            No is absolutely no requirement to come to an agreement – All we have at this time of year are opinions and discussion – with hopefully the occasional player/coach/GM interview and those are going to be scarce in August.

            I’ll take your dissatisfaction with the Pacers record and raise you a – the Raptors have NEVER looked that good. You might believe in “equivalent to Miami or bust” but I’d just like to watch a winning team that has a shot at the ECF for once (without leaving town)

            I disagree on Paul George – Rudy Gay is better. George has yet to reach the level Gay is at – you should listen to his own fan base complain about George – we just get enamored because he’s next new guy to show some talent and we are still waiting for Gay to become the superstar the Grizzlies thought he’d become.

            Hibbert wasn’t playing at a max contract level – but he got one because big men that are any good are that hard to find. The Pacers are fortunate he has continued to improve – he obviously puts in the work to keep getting better. By Comparison, Valanciunas already shows signs he’ll be a much better player – unless he tops out early, but he also puts in the work.

            What the Raptors are missing is David West – but no one should be expecting the Raptors to be better than the Pacers next season.

            If you can’t be happy with a perennial 50 win team – you are going to spend a lot of disappointed seasons in just about any NBA city you choose to live in or follow. Can’t help you there.

            Lots of teams go down the blow it up path to try and get their stars through the draft and hope years down the road they’ll become a Champion (actually they just hope they’ll become a playoff team again eventually). Almost never works. Not even Cleveland with LBJ could do it. A GM who can’t do more than build through the draft will have a tough time winning anything.

          7. Tim W.

            I think there are a couple of big differences between Gay and George. George has shown great improvement every year he’s been in the league. Gay has shown virtually none since his rookie season. I think that speaks volumes about a player. Give me the player who has shown constant improvement any day.

            Gay MAY be a better player right now (although I really don’t think so), but that’s with Gay having 7 years in the league and George having just 3.

            While both can be frustratingly passive, George plays consistently good defense, whereas even in Memphis, Gay was hot and cold defensively, and I think at best you’d describe him as slightly above average, defensively.

            It just seems to me that trying to go forward with Gay and the rest of the roster is settling for mediocrity. No one in their right mind would say that roster will ever contend for a Championship. And if you start handing out overpriced contracts, you go down a road that’s VERY difficult to get off.

            It’s always been my belief that you get what you settle for. And in the NBA, the ultimate goal for every team should be to win a Championship. I don’t think you can use the excuse that the Raptors have never won 50 games, so we should just be thankful if we can do that. I think that’s excusing mediocrity.

            Blowing up a team rarely results in a Championship. You’re right. But considering that so few teams have won Championships, over the years, and not one of them is a model you can copy, then you have to do what you can. Cleveland didn’t win a title with LeBron because Danny Ferry was a poor GM. It had nothing to do with how they got him.

            And I don’t necessarily think you ONLY build through the draft, but that is the most likely way a team like Toronto will acquire an elite player.

          8. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

            I don’t believe there is much patience out there for the Raptors to tank for a draft pick and hope 4 years from now they’ll have found a player that’s “good enough”. I know I have zero interest in watching this team lose on purpose again.

            50 wins isn’t mediocrity in my books – that’s typically top 8 in a 30 team league – and 1 piece away from top 4.

            I guess it all depends on how you look at things. 4th place in a conference isn’t a mediocre playoff team, they are top 4 in their conference and have a shot that 11 other teams don’t.

          9. Tim W.

            With the assets the Raptors already have, if it takes four years to rebuild, then Ujiri will have done a horrible job, quite frankly. They already have Valanciunas, Ross, Fields, etc, and whatever assets they get for Gay, DeRozan and Lowry. If they can get an elite player in next year’s draft, then they already have a head start and will have a much better foundation than they have now.

            As for the patience issue, a lot more is going to be needed if the Raptors don’t make the playoffs this year with this roster, which is a very good possibility. How happy do you think people are going to be then when they realized they missed a chance to draft a potential franchise player for nothing?

            I And I think the patience issue is overblown, anyway. In 18 years, the team has made the playoffs just 5 times, yet they are still in the top have for attendance. Besides, there is a very large component of fans that would actually rather see the Raptors rebuild rather than go forward with what they have.

            As for 50 wins, it’s nice, but without a real shot at the title, fans get restless very quickly. When the Raptors reached the playoffs in the second year, after Colangelo took over, fans were bemoaning their inability to get to the second round enough that he went out and gambled on a perennially injured big man on the downside of his career and a lot of fans liked the move.

          10. Stephen Brotherstonsbrotherston Post author

            It’s hard to keep everybody happy.

            But, if this was a 50-win team – the building would be sold out for every game.

            It was pretty sad at the end of last season – they literally couldn’t give the tickets away.

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