The Toronto Raptors weren’t supposed to win last season.
They weren’t designed to fail, but they weren’t far off. In fairness they weren’t designed at all by general manager Masai Uriri, who was lured from Denver after the 2012-13 season concluded to replace former GM Bryan Colangelo. Working without a first round draft pick and much trade leverage, Ujiri still managed to dump Andrea Bargnani and his contract on the New York Knicks for a cadre of draft picks, but by and large his Raptors looked very much like the squad Colangelo had put together in hopes of making the playoffs the year before.
Search any 2013-14 season preview roundup, though, and you’ll find Toronto’s name listed squarely amongst those that were expected to more or less sit out the season during the NBA’s Great Tanking Scourge of the Long Winter. The Raps may have featured a playoff-level payroll, nearly dishing out the luxury tax last year, but Toronto was supposed to battle with the 76ers, Celtics and Magic in the race for more and more ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.
Rudy Gay’s value was at an all-time low, and he would be later dealt for a series of rotation parts that didn’t even provide immediate salary cap relief. Coach Dwane Casey was in the final year of a contract that Ujiri didn’t sign him to. Guard Kyle Lowry, the reason for that missed draft pick in 2013, was coming off of a year full of grousing and expected to be dealt to his third team in three years midseason. DeMar DeRozan, even at just 24 years of age, appeared to be working on a plateau.
Then, the team just stopped losing.
Stuck at 7-13 two days after the Rudy Gay deal, Casey and Lowry led the Raptors to a 41-21 finish, showcasing sound instincts on both ends of the floor in spite of some dodgy late-game play. Toronto not only made the playoffs, it won the second Atlantic Division title in the franchise’s history. It probably should have made the second-round, too, had Kyle Lowry’s much-rued potential game-winner not have been blocked by former Brooklyn Nets swingman (still weird) Paul Pierce in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs.
All of this put Ujiri in a somewhat enviable position that seems quite familiar.
If you’ll recall, Colangelo’s Raptors took off in his first full year with Toronto, making the playoffs in 2007 with a series of carry-over players and coaches that were supposed to be on the outs with the new regime on its way in. With a postseason berth in hand, Colangelo doubled-down on what he was given, including the coaching staff, while over-committing to what he brought in (Bargnani). Things didn’t really grow from there.
Ujiri wasn’t wrong to bring back Casey, or to re-sign Lowry to a very reasonable deal, or to draft a project pick that was shamed on national TV as being “two years away from being two years away.” He really didn’t have much room to move, what with a solid roster already in place, chemistry established, and no real free agent prospects to work with in the summer before several Raptors’ deals will come off the book.
No, this wasn’t a bad offseason, and it won’t be a bad season. It’s just a too-familiar scenario, as we lead up to Masai’s great big chance to shake things up in the summer of 2015.
After too many years in the wilderness, Raptor fans will take whatever they can get.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
It can’t help but, um, help. Giving Lowry a sense of permanence that aligns with the realization that at his best behavior led directly to a contract commensurate with his talents should create great things. Jonas Valanciunas enjoyed a solid time out at the FIBA World Cup with Lithuania, and he’s still working on his rookie contract. DeRozan just turned 25, and Dwane Casey remains a sound coaching mind. The squad signed Patrick Patterson to a reasonable deal, and absolutely stole Lou Williams from the Atlanta Hawks for an incredibly cheap return.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Lou Williams, at his lowest ebb as he recovered from an ACL tear while working in an Atlanta system that did him no favors, seems like the obvious candidate here. It’s Kyle Lowry, however, that stirs this drink. His ability to defend and rebound while pushing the ball on the other end is of paramount importance to Dwane Casey’s schemes, and settling into a contract negotiation that was noted for its lack of contentious moments speaks volumes for both sides. Unless something terrible happens, he’ll thrive partly as a result of this.
It was too trite a response in spring and it remains too trite a response several months later, but that doesn’t take away from the truth behind the fact that the Raptors are absolutely terrible down the stretch of games, and that Lowry’s late-game miss against Brooklyn was typical. One would think that with a ball-dominating point guard like Lowry the Raps would be able to scare up some better plays in close games, especially with DeRozan floating around the baseline, but that wasn’t the case last season and it needs to turn on its heel in 2014-15.
Contributor with something to prove:
DeMar DeRozan probably shouldn’t have made the All-Star team ahead of Lowry, but he did turn in a very good season at a position that remains understaffed in the modern NBA. It all came after four mainly so-so years in his first NBA turn, leaving many wondering if he’d ever find the handle and touch needed to turn his length and athleticism into something that could win games at a dying position. If the Raptors are to make a jump, and turn into a second round team and Conference finals contender, DeRozan is going to have to turn into an obvious, high-end All-Star.
Potential breakout stud:
It’s easy to forget just how fantastic Lou Williams was playing during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season before tearing his ACL, turning in borderline All-Star play while working in the throes of anonymity with a dull 76ers squad. Fully healthy and recovered last season, it was expected that he’d return to that level at age 27, but instead Williams regressed with the Hawks. Lou will have a clear role as Toronto’s off the pine scoring demon, a feature they sorely lacked last season, and he’ll have all the chances he needs to help turn around Toronto’s issues in the clutch. This could be a perfect pairing.
With the Atlantic Division still in flux, the Raptors could once again secure home court advantage and the third seed in the playoffs, this time taking to the postseason with an improving, older roster while staring down an Eastern bracket that hasn’t done itself any favors outside of Cleveland, Chicago, Charlotte and (maybe) Washington. This is a group that should expect to make it past Game 7 of the opening round.
If everything falls apart:
In this conference, only injuries could derail a squad like this. The Raptors are too deep and too fundamentally sound to make last year’s 48-win turn look like a fluke, and while it’s possible that the team could see a few wins shaved off their 2013-14 total while working without the element of surprise, the Raptors were the division leader for most of the second half of the season, used to playing while ahead. There is the chance, however slight, that Kyle Lowry reverts to his combative form, but that would be a grave and unexpected disappointment.
Kelly Dwyer’s best guess at a record:
Third in the conference, 50-32.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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