Chemistry and continuity are two words you’re sure to hear plenty of in the coming months as a Toronto Raptors fan.
This year’s team, a rousing success by any standard, outperformed expectations by a significant margin due in large part to factors that are not entirely tangible. A better fit of the pieces. Buy-in from every single player up and down the roster. Role acceptance. Brotherhood. All of those things were very likely real and surely had an effect on the success of this team.
That hasn’t been lost on management, it seems, as general manager Masai Ujiri has signed head coach Dwane Casey to a three-year contract extension. The team on the floor seemed the personality extension of Casey, a no-nonsense, never-say-die competitive unit that occasionally lacked tactically but never emotionally. For just the second time in franchise history, the Raptors will enter a season with a coach in his fourth year on the job. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but it should – continuity is important, both for building a team culture and for creating a blueprint for where the team is heading.
At the season-ending pressers on Tuesday, Ujiri was clear that stability is a goal, and that the organization sees those intangibles that the team showed this season as building blocks for the franchise. While Casey warned that chemistry can disappear without warning, Ujiri showed far less concern:
There’s none. I don’t think there’s any risk. I’ll announce it here: We’re going to go through hard times. You have to expect them. We’re going to bump heads. Our job is to figure it out and move forward.
These guys are just a phenomenal group of guys that want to work and go out and compete. When that time comes, we’ll deal with it. For me, the overall culture is what you want to create.
As Eric Koreen points out in that article, Ujiri’s history with the Denver Nuggets is worth remembering when deciding whether or not to take these comments at face value. The Nuggets were built similarly to the Raptors following the Carmelo Anthony trade, and Ujiri showed no hesitation in tinkering with the core group, allowing key pieces to walk or, in several cases, dealing pieces shortly after anointing them a part of the core.
I went back and pulled Denver’s transaction logs from Ujiri’s tenure there. Forgive the crudeness of the presentation.
|Masai Ujiri, Denver Nuggets GM tenure|
|Hired August 2010, left May 31, 2013|
|Hired 2010 offseason after 53-29 season and 1st round exit|
|(Team had alreayd let Allen, Graham and Petro walk, signing Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Al Harrington)|
|Waived Coby Karl and Brian Butch|
|Signed Gary Forbes, Melvin Ely|
|Extend-and-trade Carmelo Anthony to Knicks with Shelden Williams, Carter, Billups, Balkman and 2nd (2015) for Mozgov, Koufos, Gallinari, Felton, Wilson Chandler, cash, a 2nd (Q Miller), a 2nd (Osby) and a 1st (2014)|
|Select Faried 22nd overall|
|Acquired 56th pick (Maduabum) for future 2nd (can’t find detail)|
|Acquired 26th pick (Jordan Hamilton) with Andre Miller, 2nd (2014) for Felton|
|JR Smith, Nene, KMart, Forbes, Ely, Chandler, Afflalo free agents|
|Sign Julyan Stone|
|Sign Mbah a Moute but Bucks match (4-yrs, $18.8M)|
|Sign DeMarre Carroll|
|Acquire Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer for a 2nd (2016)|
|Signed Nene (5-yrs, 65M), Afflalo (5-yrs, $36.8M)|
|Acquired Turiaf, McGee for Nene|
|Signed Wilson Chandler (5-yrs, $31.7M)|
|Extend Gallinari (4-yrs, 42M), Koufos (3-yrs, 9M)|
|Drafted Fournier (20), Quincy Miller (38), Turkyilmaz (50)|
|McGee, Miller, Fernandez free agents|
|Signed McGee (4-yrs, 44M), Andre Miller (3-yrs, $14.6M)|
|Signed Anthony Randolph (3-yrs, 5.25M)|
|Trade Harrington, Afflalo, 2nd (Osby), 1st (2014) for Iguodala|
|Extend Ty Lawson (4-yrs, 48M)|
|Iguodala free agent|
|Drafted Gobert (27), trade to Utah for 46 (Erick green) and cash|
|Trade Koufos for Arthur and 55 (Lauvergne)|
What sticks out, or what should, anyway, is that Ujiri made his one major move in his first season as he evaluated what was on hand. That’s similar to Toronto, where he unloaded a pair of albatross deals and evaluated from there. In both cases, the team was better than expected, and the Nuggets only took a slight step back in year two.
In his first offseason, he connected with a pick in the 20s (yes!), tinkered a bit on the margins with some cap space (Brewer, Fernandez and Miller), and then locked up two pieces long-term that he viewed as core elements. Rather, he either saw them as building blocks or tradeable assets at those prices, I can’t suggest I know his thought process. In any case, the core was Nene, Afflalo, Faried and Gallinari moving forward.
That sounds similar to what some people would like to see him do this offseason as it pertains to Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Kyle Lowry, albeit at (hopefully) more reasonable deals. Even assuming Ujiri does that while maintaing the flexibility to improve on the periphery (upgrading the John Salmons and Chuck Hayes/Tyler Hansbrough positions), there’s really no saying that this is now the franchise’s core group for the next few years.
He continued to tinker in Denver, leading some to suggest the “revolving door must stop” in early 2012-13 but Ujiri continued to preach patience later that season. In particular, the hot take is referring to the fact that Ujiri turned around and traded away Nene in short order before bringing Chandler back and then extending Gallinari and Koufos. Later, Afflalo was out the door, Lawson and McGee were extended, apparently as key pieces, with Iguodala being brought in.
That’s a lot of change in short order. You can’t quibble with the value propositions at the time, as each deal itself was pretty solid, but it’s indicative of the fact that Ujiri wasn’t necessarily willing to let a team build said chemistry. This is a good thing, generally, that Ujiri, while patient in evaluation, is not hesitant to make moves to improve the team.
I’m not suggesting he won’t allow a team to build the requisite in Toronto. In fact, since the Raptors have already built said chemistry, it’s entirely possible Ujiri will be comfortable tinkering less. That sure would be nice considering a grand total of 20 players in the franchise’s 19-year history have played more than 164 games (two season’s worth) for the team, and only 48 have even reached the 100-game mark. This is a franchise that has employed a turnstile roster forever, and that instability is a problem.
The point here isn’t really that Ujiri will or will not keep the group together and/or continue to tinker. It’s just important to keep in mind that perceived chemistry is fluid and the advantages gained from it are difficult to measure. If a few roster upgrades and an incoming draft pick somehow see that chemistry dissipate, don’t expect Ujiri to simply wait while the team finds it again.
The franchise seems to hope this year’s core is the core for 2014-15, which is great. But it’s only the core until it’s not, and that’s a positive for the future of the franchise, too.