Toronto fans have the right to be cynical about their team. The Raptors have missed the postseason for five years in a row and in what has become a theme in recent years, the players who were supposed to get the job done last year missed a significant number of games to injury – again. However, as new MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke explained on his introduction to Toronto, he inherited this situation, he didn’t create it. It is, however, his job to fix it.
Real change in any organization starts at the top and Leiweke didn’t waste any time putting his personal stamp on the team. The main reason the Raptors will make the playoffs this year goes all the way back to what Leiweke did before a single player move was made.
Before the end of May, Leiweke reached out to the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri and offered him a lucrative 5 year deal to run the Toronto Raptors. Where former Raptors President Bryan Colangelo was burned when All-Star Chris Bosh became a free agent, Ujiri had made his team better by trading All-Star Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Where Colangelo was hesitant go after All-Star Andre Iguodala who had just one year left on his contract, Ujiri made the move and last season, the Nuggets had the most wins since they joined the NBA in 1976.
Colangelo is a highly respected basketball icon and top-ranked administrator, but where Colangelo is hands-on and was noticeably involved in how his teams were coached, Ujiri has a different approach. Ujiri believes it’s his job to acquire players that fit with his coach and based on how Coach George Karl was allowed to use the talent provided, Ujiri doesn’t stick his nose in his coach’s job.
A new GM is hired for the long term, so the biggest reason to expect the Raptors to make the postseason this year is Ujiri’s decision to stick with Dwane Casey, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan instead of blowing this roster up and starting over from scratch.
2. Head Coach Dwane Casey
To everyone’s surprise, Coach Casey got a group of offensive-minded players to defend in his first season with the Raptors and while there was some slippage defensively last year when Casey tried to generate more offense, that defense-first philosophy will be back front and center this season.
There was a lot of speculation about Casey’s future when Ujiri was hired, but Casey and Ujiri go way back and have seemed to be on the same page from day one. Where most of the coaching, scouting and executive staff has been replaced, Casey remains to provide some much needed continuity with the players.
Casey provides leadership and direction to this team as they wait to see if Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry or possibly Jonas Valanciunas will emerge to fill that role. In the meantime, Casey has the respect of the players and he has their buy-in to his philosophy and the roles assigned. Even the somewhat stubborn Lowry changed his approach to match what Casey was looking for over the course of last season.
3. Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay has been filling up the stats sheet since he was a rookie in 2006-2007 with Memphis. For the past 6 seasons, Gay has averaged 18-20 points, 5.5-6.5 rebounds, 1.9-2.7 assists, 0.7-1.1 blocks and 1.2-1.7 steals every year and except for last season when he was the subject of trade rumors that started in training camp, he has shot 45-47 percent from the field.
Gay got a maximum contract extension from the Grizzlies in 2010 because it reflected his production and the current complaints about his salary are simply ignoring the realities in the NBA, even if the new CBA may have temporarily tamped down expectations. However, the Paul George contract extension says that’s over already.
Now the number one option again, Gay has a chance to recreate his impressive 2010-2011 stats and as a player who could become a free agent at the end of this season, Gay has every incentive to accomplish that.
Gay impressed Casey with his summer workout routine and the corrective eye surgery (it’s about time) that will improve his court vision and view of the rim. If a young veteran that should score 20 points per game can have a breakout season, it’s Gay.
4. Kyle Lowry
Last year Kyle Lowry got off to as fast a start with Toronto as was humanly possible. In his first 3 games he averaged 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7 assists and 3.7 steals. He shot 57.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. However, the Raptors went 1 win and 2 losses over that stretch and Lowry was playing with reckless abandon. That recklessness led to a bruised bone in his foot in his fourth game, a sore shoulder later on and those injuries eventually cost him his starting job to a more mature and reliable Jose Calderon.
This less than desirable start to his career in Toronto led to the inevitable speculation about problems between Lowry and Coach Casey, but it was Lowry that played a more controlled game in the second half of the season and his effectiveness improved because of it.
Post All-Star game, Lowry averaged 10 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and 1.4 steals. He took fewer chances and got fewer steals, but he played Casey’s style of defense and the team was better for it. Lowry didn’t shoot as well in the second half, but shooting is something that should bounce back fairly quickly with a fresh start this season.
Casey reported Lowry was in great shape, not surprising as Lowry will be a free agent after this season. This is a very proud individual that has an edge to his game and wants to succeed. There should be little doubt Lowry will have a career year.
A lot will be expected from the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in March and NBA Summer League MVP Jonas Valanciunas. While many of the Raptors scoring plays will end up in the hands of Gay or DeMar DeRozan, Casey has stated his half court offense will run through his young center this season and there were plenty of examples of how that might work in Summer League.
Valanciunas has great hands and footwork around the basket to run an effective pick-and-roll or post-up and he has shown the court vision necessary to pass out of the double team to cutters or shooters. It’s a lot of responsibility for a 21-year-old, but Valanciunas looked like he was ready to take another step at the end of last season. In Summer League, it looked like he had spent a lot of time in the weight room.
Andrea Bargnani took an inordinate amount of fan abuse last season as he returned from a summer of not being to train properly as he rehabbed a calf injury and then suffered two separate elbow injuries that trashed the rest of his season. While it might not have been his fault, Bargnani became an anchor around the neck of the Raptors’ season punctuated by a 2-19 shooting performance against the Spurs on November 25. His problems, combined with the team’s other injuries, were almost totally to blame for the team’s 4-19 start.
In July, Ujiri managed to trade his anchor for a couple of draft picks, some badly needed salary cap space, two players to be waived later and the veteran three-point specialist Steve Novak. If Bargnani is healthy, he will help the Knicks, but there should be no doubt that Novak will give the Raptors more this season than Bargnani gave them last season. Casey had been stuck using Bargnani to spread the floor even though his big man was shooting just 30.9 percent from deep. Novak is a career 43.3 percent three-point shooter.
Where Novak gives Coach Casey the three-point specialist he had been requesting, Ujiri immediately used some of that salary cap space to sign free agent tough guy Tyler Hansbrough. Last year Casey was forced to use Bargnani to defend other skilled big men in the post as Valanciunas was a rookie and he didn’t have many options. This year Hansbrough provides a big strong physical force Casey can pair with Amir Johnson or this year’s bigger Valanciunas. The Raptors just got a lot tougher to push around.
After the acquisition of Gay, Toronto was a .500 club and that included a stretch where Gay’s effectiveness was impaired by a sore back. The current roster is deeper, tougher and has more three-point shooting last season.
Both Lowry and Gay should be expected to impress from day one and Valanciunas is ready to take another step. DeMar DeRozan is probably the third option in the starting lineup, but the 24-year-old shooting guard should be better than last year and he played well beside Gay last season. However, the most obvious improvement will likely come at the defensive end as Coach Casey implements his system in training camp with a group of players that are better suited to his style of play thanks to Ujiri.
This team should easily make the playoffs, but based on their past history, no one should be blamed for playing the show-me card.
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