New brain trust tries to turn Raptors around

IAN HARRISON (Associated Press)
The Associated PressOctober 22, 2013
New brain trust tries to turn Raptors around
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Toronto Raptors forward Jonas Valanciunas (17) knocks down New York Knicks forward Andrea Bargnani, right, during first half NBA pre-season basketball action in Toronto on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

TORONTO (AP) -- The biggest changes the Toronto Raptors made this offseason came in the boardroom, not the locker room.

Tim Leiweke was hired as CEO in April after the Raptors were 10th in the Eastern Conference, finishing out of the playoffs for a franchise-worst fifth straight year.

Originally scheduled to take over in Toronto at the start of July, Leiweke moved his start date up by almost a month when it became clear how much work needed doing.

His first big move was demoting general manager Bryan Colangelo. Less than two weeks later, he hired Masai Ujiri, the NBA's reigning executive of the year, away from Denver to take over as president and GM.

A former Raptors assistant, Ujiri tearfully described his Toronto return as a homecoming at his introductory press conference in early June.

Vice president Ed Stefanski was fired while Colangelo, upset at a diminished role that did not include input on basketball activities, resigned as president of team and business operations on June 26.

Ujiri, who remade the Nuggets into a winner after trading Carmelo Anthony to New York, found a willing partner in the Knicks again when unloading Colangelo's most derided asset, former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani. Toronto acquired sharpshooter Steve Novak, a first-round pick and two second-round picks in the deal for the 7-foot Italian.

Other than that, the roster turnover was minimal. Ujiri signed only two players with significant NBA experience, rough-and-tumble forward Tyler Hansbrough and backup point guard D.J. Augustin, both part of Indiana's playoff team last season.

Although the rebuilding process has started slowly, Leiweke and Ujiri have not been shy about their lofty goals for the Raptors, who've won just one playoff series in 18 seasons of existence.

''We've made it clear to all our players: we're going to win championships here,'' Leiweke boldly proclaimed at an event for season ticket holders last week.

Even if the turnaround takes several years, expect significant progress by the time Toronto celebrates its 20th anniversary as an NBA city by hosting the All-Star game for the first time in February, 2016.

Here are five things to watch with the Raptors this season:

STARTING STRONG: In 33 games together after Rudy Gay was acquired from Memphis last January, Toronto's starting unit of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas ranked fifth in the league in points per minute and allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than Indiana, whose defense led the league. The Raptors don't have a ton of talent coming off the bench, but their starters should give them a chance to win.

SEEING STRAIGHT: After his field goal percentage slumped to a career-worst .416 last season, Gay finally acknowledged what many had long suspected: His eyesight was ''terrible.'' Gay, who has an aversion to wearing contact lenses or corrective goggles, underwent eye surgery in late April. Once recovered, he spent the rest of the summer rebuilding and refining his shot, making more than 300 jumpers a day. He also bulked up with 20 pounds of extra muscle to better match up defensively against opposing power forwards.

COACH CASEY: The highest-ranking holdover from the Colangelo regime is coach Dwane Casey, who owns a 57-91 record in two seasons with the Raptors. Entering the final season of his contract, Casey is essentially auditioning for an extension, trying to convince Ujiri that he's the right man to keep the rebuilding process moving along smoothly. Casey was fortunate to avoid a pink slip when Toronto started 4-19 last year. This time, he might not survive another early season stumble.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Arguably the most astute draft pick of the Colangelo era was Valanciunas, the 7-foot Lithuanian center taken fifth in 2011. After missing 20 games as a rookie with a broken hand, Valanciunas won tournament MVP honors in the NBA summer league, then led Lithuania to its first Eurobasket final in 10 years. The Raptors are counting on the 21-year-old to grow into their defensive anchor. ''It's not a finished product yet,'' Casey said, ''but he's getting there and I really like what we have.''

TIME TO TANK?: If ever there was a year the Raptors wanted to win the draft lottery, this would be it. Highly touted teenager Andrew Wiggins, the Kansas freshman who was born in suburban Toronto, would seem the ideal mix of marketing opportunity and talent acquisition for the NBA's lone Canadian entry. And unlike Raptors stars of years past who often seemed eager to flee Canada (Chris Bosh, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, to name a few), Wiggins has already said he'd love to wind up with his hometown team. Fans shouldn't hold their breath, however: Ujiri has already indicated his preference is to build around winning games, not the lottery.