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Masai Ujiri at podium

Ujiri’s Dilemma: Raptors Veterans Are Winners

Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has a dilemma.  This team unexpectedly developed chemistry after Rudy Gay was told to stay in his hotel room in Los Angeles because he had just been traded.  The Raptors have won two-thirds of their games since that move and part of the reason is Ujiri gave Head Coach Dwane Casey some proven NBA veterans to help stabilize his rotation and bail out his young roster when the going gets tough.

With the changes, Coach Casey’s defense has become a reality again.  Over the past 27 games, the Raptors are holding teams to a stingy 95.4 points per game and 43.5 percent shooting and at least some of this falls on the shoulders of the 30-year-old Chuck Hayes and the 34-year-old John Salmons.

SAC_Hayes_Chuck“It’s veterans on the floor, guys understanding, it is really guys buying in,” Hayes said.  “Guys making the commitment mentally and physically to zone in on their opponent.

“We are just talking.  We are breaking down our opponent, understanding our opponent, what they like to do and try to take away his strengths.”

An undersized center, Hayes has carved out a 9 year NBA career as a defensive specialist by being better prepared and working harder than his more naturally gifted competitors.  At 6’6, Hayes didn’t have a choice if he was to survive in the paint against 7-footers.

“My defense starts with preparation and after that you use your strengths and what you do well and take away what they do well,” Hayes said.  “Your preparation before every game that sets you apart – bad to mediocre, mediocre to good, good to great.”

The Raptors sophomore center Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t have a better example to follow for his defensive game.  Valanciunas is naturally gifted and if he can learn preparation skills from a survivor like Hayes, his progress will move that much faster.

“Not only do I and other veterans talk to (Valanciunas), but the coaching staff and he is always watching film – watching with a teammate or a coach,” Hayes said.  “He is a student.  He wants to learn more and with a young guy, that is all you can ask.”

Hayes knows what has been happening in Toronto is bigger than just himself and the other 3 additions from Sacramento – mostly because he recognizes the Raptors have become a team and the reasons for that happening are not always easy to pinpoint.

“I wouldn’t say me and the newly acquired guys are the answer,” Hayes said.  “We are all just committed, that is all it is.  Our chemistry is great.  There are no egos in this locker room.  Everybody is enjoying it.  When you enjoy working together, everything falls into place.”

Therein lies Ujiri’s dilemma.  The Raptors have chemistry and it hasn’t been just the short term adrenaline boost of a big trade.  Look around the NBA and there are plenty of examples of teams with talent but missing chemistry (or something mysterious) and the results just aren’t there.  There will be teams that have noticed the positive impact guys like Hayes and Salmons had on a young Toronto roster.

Ujiri will have opportunities to make moves as the NBA rushes towards the trade deadline and a number of teams are legitimately suspected of being willing to move good players for salary cap savings, prospects and draft picks. However, when you mess with something that is working, things don’t always get better – so the question becomes, what now?

As happens every year at this time, the NBA is about to get a lot more interesting.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

Check out the latest All-Star news:

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Raptors NBA All-Star Press Release
The NBA announced Thursday that guard DeMar DeRozan has been named as a reserve to the Eastern Conference team for the 2014 All-Star Game. DeRozan is the fourth Raptor selected to the All-Star Game, joining Vince Carter (5X), Antonio Davis and Chris Bosh (5X).  DeRozan will make his third appearance at NBA All-Star Weekend. He participated in the Sprite Slam Dunk in 2010 and 2011 and played in the 2011 T-Mobile Rookie Challenge.