The Toronto Raptors reversed direction this summer, going back to what worked two seasons ago when they were a top-10 defensive team. In many ways President and General Manager Masai Ujiri is following his own advice and building a team around the strengths of Head Coach Dwane Casey. Casey is a blue collar coach and targeting DeMarre Carroll with the first visit in free agency signaled the Raptors were serious about starting a blue collar era.
“I want to use this opportunity to thank Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams and Amir Johnson, they were phenomenal for us,” Ujiri said. “We just decided to take another route and it was really hard letting those guys go because they really contributed to the success of this team the last couple of years.
“But, we want to add players that are going to fit different roles and what we feel that we haven’t done so well and hopefully these (new) guys do.”
Two seasons ago, Toronto outrebounded their opponents by 1.5 boards a game while holding them to just 98 points on route to 48 wins. This past year’s 49-win Raptors were fourth in scoring at 104 points per game, but their points differential actually shrunk from the year before and they were getting outrebounded by a board per game. Toronto was getting hammered on the glass by the better teams. The difference between the two versions of the Raptors showed up in the postseason where Toronto was swept in four games this past April.
“We need to get better,” Ujiri said. “Obviously we were going to address some of the things that we don’t do so well and rebounding was one of them, so hopefully we can get better at that with guys that are tough-nosed and have a nose for the ball.”
At the draft the Raptors added mature two-way defensive minded guards in Delon Wright and Norman Powell. In a very blue collar free agency, Ujiri set his sights on and acquired Carroll, Bismack Biyombo, Cory Joseph and Luis Scola. There is not a weak link on the glass or at the defensive end in the group.
“Masai did a good job trying to bring in that toughness adding myself, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola,” Carroll said. “He’s done a good job of creating some perimeter defense.
“I am going to come out and be the Junkyard Dog and do the little things that are going to help this team get over the hump. I am a blue collar guy trying to help my team win by any means necessary.
“Finally the blue collar guys are getting a little recognition.”
The 27-year-old Carroll found his game over the past two seasons in Atlanta becoming a key cog in the Hawks first ever 60-win season as a proficient ‘3-and-D’ forward. Carroll did all the dirty work, guarding the opponent’s best wing or forward and helping to create opportunities for Kyle Korver and his team’s scorers at the other end.
“The most I can help this team is on the defensive end and really play offense secondary,” Carroll explained. “At the same time, I really do want to be one of the best two-way players in the league.
“I actually told Demar that now you don’t have to fight with those big guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant no more. You can just go out there and take this team to the promised land.”
Carroll came by his ‘Junkyard Dog’ status the hard way. He has faced many disheartening obstacles in his life and persevered through hard work and determination.
“I’ve been through a lot of obstacles in my life,” Carroll said. “From being shot in college, to having my liver condition, for an organization to take me under their wing and bring me here and look at me as a true part of this team, it means a lot.
“I always believed hard work is a talent. When I was in elementary school and middle school, I wasn’t the brightest kid in the class, but I did all the extra credit, I did all my homework and I reached the same goal as maybe the smartest person in the class and that’s how I feel on the basketball court.
“I don’t take nothing for granted. Every time I step on the court, I play my hardest because this game is never promised to you.”
In Ujiri’s first summer in Toronto he promised the Raptors would no longer be viewed as one of the NBAs softest teams or a weak opponent that visitors to the Air Canada Centre could look at with an easy road win in mind. This summer he kept that promise. Every opponent will expect to be in for a fight when they visit the blue collar Toronto Raptors in 2015-16.