ujiri

The summer slumber is near over and the commitment to the Raptors will soon be renewed. The off-season brought with it much-welcomed winds of change, something the franchise desperately needed after years of neglect under Bryan Colangelo. Having said that, the roster Colangelo assembled hasn’t been culled, only amended. The key cogs in the machine remain, and the newcomers are the ilk of D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks, Austin Daye, and Tyler Hansbrough, only the latter being a name that might garner interest.

Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, and most importantly, Jonas Valanciunas form this year’s training camp core, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that only one of them come close to being on the ‘untouchable’ list, and that too not entirely based on results, but more on potential. Looking at it from Masai Ujiri’s perspective, he has little choice but to play the cards he’s been dealt, and his approach so far has been three-folds:

  1. Take advantage of the shifting Eastern landscape by keeping the roster competitive enough to keep fans interested
  2. Avoid change for the sake of change which would result in a reduction of talent at the benefit of 2014 cap space (e.g., Detroit’s Gay offer)
  3. Allow Dwane Casey to coach a roster he stands behind, without any front-office interference (big one!)

The loose talk of aiming for the playoffs is as much a product of the state of the Eastern conference as it is the quality of the roster. On the other hand, the getting “bad to get better” verbiage has also been thrown around, no doubt with a sideways glance to the star-studded 2014 draft.  No matter what happens, the 2013-14 season will get us to one of two places:

  1. Into the playoffs as a late seed, which would do well to remind the rest of the league that there’s a team in Toronto
  2. Into the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes

Neither are bad results, and in either case Ujiri will have an opportunity to reset the coach and adjust the roster in 2015, especially if Rudy Gay decides to forego the final year of his contract in hopes of securing a longer deal paying a higher amount.

If you take the “big three” approach to things, the Raptors would like to be in a position where Valanciunas, DeRozan, and Lowry form that trio, with Johnson and Gay being complementary parts. On the surface, if everyone clicks and plays to their full potential, this could produce some results. However, that’s where coaching comes into play. It’s an area where the Raptors took a step back last year, and one where I’d argue, a tremendous amount of improvement needs to happen.

This is a year where .500 guarantees the playoffs and the Raptors were seven games off that pace last season. It’s an achievable target and I can easily recall seven instances last season where key coaching decisions ultimately cost the game. Can Dwane Casey’s improvement as a head coach, a deeper roster, a weaker East, and greater autonomy make up that gap? I think so, and I’m picking the Raptors to make the playoffs.