If a team like the Denver Nuggets ends up with two picks in the top five, or, even in the top 10, it’s likely Toronto will be able to sway them to trade one of those picks for future picks, cap room and a young player like DeRozan. You can be assured Denver would at last be willing to listen to offers form Toronto for one of its first-round picks this June.
Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers. As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.
Causation is tough to prove, but it seems highly likely that it was Gay’s presence and style that was holding back the Raptors, particularly the team’s crop of young players. Whatever the reason, the team is now playing a much more watchable brand of basketball, as witnessed by the Raptors’ 27 assists on 34 baskets against the Pacers’ league-best defence. The Raptors, clearly, are on quite the high.
The sophomores were floundering early on. But the trade made Jonas Valanciunas a focal point and Terrence Ross a starter and the duo has responded better than anybody could have expected. Valanciunas has been strong on the boards, better defensively and a threat down low. Ross has nailed close to 50% of his three-point attempts since being moved from the bench.
What the Raptors didn’t anticipate was the East collectively crashing and causing Toronto to rise by default. The Raptors are actually being punished by staying healthy and avoiding the kind of internal chaos that’s causing other, more established teams in the East to stink. And so, the result is a Toronto team that looks a lot better than it actually is, and a team that’s picking the wrong time and place to pound its chest. Although, don’t tell that to the players and the coach. “We’re playing with confidence now,” said Dwane Casey. “We’ll find out how far we need to go or if we’re there already.”
What gives? Rudy Gay was Toronto’s leading scorer last season, No. 2 this year and the closest thing to an all-star the franchise had known since Chris Bosh took his talents to South Beach. Don’t you need top skill to succeed in the NBA? Well, sure, but Gay was neither a top talent or a superb fit here. Instead, he was sabotaging his own game and value by playing a historically selfish brand of ball marked by massive turnover numbers and horrid shooting accuracy. He cared about his teammates, just not on the court where he was content to shoot the Raptors in — but mostly out — of contests.
The Raptors’ third-year head coach is getting the chance to show what he can do with a healthy, stable rotation. In his first season with the team, the lockout-shortened campaign of 2011-12, Casey overachieved despite using 20 different starting lineups and losing 124 man-games to injury. In many ways last season was three-in-one, as Casey has called it. The Raptors used 22 different starting units in 2012-13, losing 163 games to injury while navigating through the deal that brought Gay to Toronto midseason. Through 30 games this season, the team has had the benefit of good health, losing just five games to injury. As a result, Casey has started four different five-man units. In return for Gay, Ujiri was able to acquire four veteran players, three of which have been featured in Casey’s nine-man rotation, the first consistent rotation he has felt comfortable using consistently over an extended period of time.
When the recruits from Sacramento arrived, Casey exclaimed, “We got a bench. We got guys that can come in and at least hold serve or increase the lead.” More recently, he has been noticing how hard they are pulling for each other. “We have a bunch of team-first guys pulling for each other, cheering for each other,” Casey said. “Even Greivis was on the bench cheering for Kyle – Kyle was cheering for him. You have to have that if you are a team that is serious about making the playoffs.”
If the Raptors continue to play well and win 31 of their final 52 games, they would finish 46-36. Such a record—poor for a division winner but not downright horrible—might not be enough to lead to the league abandoning divisions and reformatting the conferences…Then again, the Raptors’ recent surge could just be an anomaly. What if they finish 26-26 or worse and their Atlantic cohorts don’t enjoy a turnaround either? Then there would be a division winner with a non-winning record, potentially prompting controversial playoff seeding and the accompanying fan backlash. In that case, the NBA could decide that this season was the final, poisonous incarnation of the divisional format and rearrange the conferences.
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