With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Toronto Raptors.
Expectations are funny things. The Toronto Raptors had the home court advantage, seeming matchup trends in their favor, and they won four more games than the Brooklyn Nets squad in the regular season. The Nets still prevailed in that first round series, which would seem to be a disappointment for any Raptor fan that only started watching their team play in April.
Those fans don’t exist, though, because these are the Raptors – a loud and proud fan base even in times of storm and stress. And any NBA fan worth his or her weight will remind you that the Raptors were routinely and rightfully lumped in with Philadelphia, Orlando, Boston and Phoenix as teams that were looking to tank the 2013-14 regular season in the hopes of starting over with a high end draft pick. While the Nets team that ultimately prevailed over Toronto put together a player and coaching roster that cost the team’s owner nearly $200 million once taxes were concerned, expecting to win the Atlantic Division and make an extended playoff run all along.
The Raptors ended up taking that division, capping off a surprising run that saw its team’s core warm to the task of moving its feet defensively, and sharing the ball offensively. The deal that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento helped encourage this, even if Gay’s individual statistics with the Kings were good enough, but this wasn’t just mere addition by subtraction. Dwane Casey guided the team to a top ten offense and defense. DeMar DeRozan earned an All-Star berth, and the looked-over Kyle Lowry seemed to just about earn one as well. Terrence Ross dropped a 51-point game, Amir Johnson frustrated opponents on both ends, and young center Jonas Valanciunas impressed with his growth on those same two ends of the court.
Of course, every element listed above was initially hired, traded for, or drafted by deposed former general manager Bryan Colangelo. New GM Masai Ujiri may have spent 2013-14 as the NBA’s reigning Executive of the Year, but just about every positive Raptor force working toward those 48 wins, with the possible exception of reserve guard Greivis Vasquez and to a far lesser extent swingman John Salmons was brought in by someone else.
And now Ujiri has to build off of the work of someone he was hired to make people forget. Without that high-end draft pick. And with all those contributors, seemingly not long for Toronto as recently as six months ago, looking to either stick in town with their largish contracts, or re-sign with the Raptors for big, and well-earned, money.
It’s a spicy pickle, this one.
Ujiri’s offseason started with an extension for Dwane Casey, a Colangelo-hire that wasn’t given any future assurances heading into the last year of his contract in 2013-14. Casey has obviously proven his mettle, and it lends credibility to the idea that an ego-mad Ujiri would balk at retaining any elements from the previous administration’s unsuccessful run.
Far from it, as Masai is a mindful sort (save for some harmless bits of fun), and Casey is a holdover worth holding onto. That said, players are a different matter altogether, and though it would seem strange for Ujiri to re-start shopping players like DeRozan or Lowry, one shouldn’t put that past him in spite of Toronto’s nice little run to a (admittedly crappy) Atlantic Division title.
The lack of a star hasn’t bothered Ujiri in the past, though. His 2013 Denver Nuggets may have flamed out in the postseason after injuries and matchup issues hit the squad at the absolute worst time, but Ujiri dove into building that borderline faceless crew with gusto. Lowry is a free agent in his prime that will receive quite a bit of consideration from desperate NBA teams looking to get something – anything – out of all the cap space they’ve accrued this summer, but Ujiri isn’t going to let ego get in the way of keeping Colangelo’s crew.
Masai also knows what he’s doing, though, and it would be hard to him getting into a bidding war should some team go way over the top with an initial offer for Lowry. If the Raptors let John Salmons (at just $1 million guaranteed for 2014-15, it’s likely) and Greivis Vasquez (less likely, and a potential restricted free agent) walk this summer, the team will have double-figure cap space if Lowry jets somewhere else and all the cap holds are renounced. There are still options here.
In the meantime, DeRozan is working on a $9.5 million deal that seemed onerous last summer but passable enough right now. Ross is still on his rookie deal, Amir Johnson can be brought back for a bargain at a $7 million team option, and all the rest of the rotation parts are quite tradeable save for Landry Fields’ – wow – $6.25 million deal for 2014-15.
DeRozan did make the All-Star team and Lowry came close, but this is still a relatively anonymous team outside of Toronto, one that won’t have that high end lottery pick, and one that may not be able to make the expected splash (remember, it seemed like Ujiri was going to clear his inherited deck via trades as the season moved along) in free agency this summer. That can be worrying, and it does remind of the way the 2006-07 Raptors swung their way into the playoffs working mostly with a roster and coach that the previous unsuccessful GM cobbled together.
History could repeat itself, eventually. Still, the Raptors get to raise a division championship banner, after 2013-14. Their fans will take it, for now at least.
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