In a lot of ways, in Raptorland, May 28th, 2014 feels a lot like May 28th, 2007.
The NBA playoffs continue sans Raptors, after a young team exceeded expectations by playing greater than the sum of their parts. Both teams were led by a young All-Star (Chris Bosh/DeMar DeRozan), solid point guard play (TJose Caldeford/Kyle Lowry) and featured a player management was hoping would become a franchise-changing centre (Bargnani/Valanciunas). Like now, both teams featured a first-year general manager, fresh off an Executive of the Year victory (in Masai’s case, two years removed), heading into his first full offseason with the team.
And, like this year, the general consensus among fans, reporters, and management is to keep the team as-is, generally, save for a couple small upgrades here and there.
Now, hindsight is 20/20, obviously, and I’m not here to second guess the decisions that were made seven years ago. Further, plenty is different now, personnel wise (we’ll get to that). But a wise man once said that if we don’t learn from our mistakes, we’re doomed to repeat them.
Let’s take a chronological look at that offseason, courtesy of Basketball Reference:
June 15, 2007: Raptors trade 2009 and 2011 2nd round draft picks to the Detroit Pistons for Carlos Delfino, in an attempt to bolster their wing depth. Those picks later became Jonas Jerebko and Kyle Singler.
June 28, 2007: Draft night. Without a pick of their own, the Raptors trade their second-rounder from next year to the Spurs for the pick that became the immortal Georgios Printezis. That Raptors pick? It was used to select none other than Goran Dragic.
July 10, 2007: Raptors sign Jamario Moon as a free-agent out of the D-league.
July 11, 2007: In their “major” move of the off-season, the Raptors sign Jason Kapono to replace unrestricted free agent Morris Peterson. Two weeks later, Peterson signs with the Hornets.
July 25, 2007: Raptors sign Maceo Baston.
OK, first impressions: good God, if the Raptors offer you a second round pick, you’d better take it without hesitation. Three for three on rotation players, including a potential All-Star? Wow.
That being said, all in all, it’d be difficult to characterize the Raptors’ last post-division championship offseason as filled with anything but minor moves. Handcuffed by a lack of draft picks (the Raptors first rounder was used in an earlier trade for Lamond Murray), the Raps’ hope for improvement in the next year were largely pinned on the development of their young players – particularly Bargnani – continued cohesion from their core group, and replacing versatile wings who didn’t necessarily fit the team’s system (Peterson) with those who, at least on paper, did (Kapono and Delfino).
Of course, we all know how that turned out – with a lack of interior defence and rebounding, and a lack of development by Bargnani on that front, the Raptors ended the year 41-41 and were taken out by Dwight Howard’s Magic in the first round of the playoffs. One year (and an overcorrection for Jermaine O’Neal later), the Raptors were back to being perpetually under .500.
So, let’s say Masai and company decide that they want to take the closest case study to their current situation, and learn from it. What lessons can we glean from the Raptors 2006/2007 offseason?
Don’t sacrifice talent for a system fit, unless you’ve already got the talent
The Raptors’ strong 2006/2007 season was in many ways buoyed by bringing a “European” style of basketball to the NBA – the team certainly boasted an international flavour, and was characterized on-court by a floor spacing group that could hit from anywhere. That continued in the offseason when Colangelo and company chose to sign players like Kapono (a pure 3-point shooter) and Delfino to replace Morris Peterson, a more traditional – most would argue more talented – NBA wing player who didn’t necessarily fit the team’s newfound style.
This year, the Raptors’ on-court style is characterized by grit and strong team defence. It’s a more traditional model than the team from seven years past, but the point still stands: just because your system (and your personnel’s fit within it) was largely responsible for your success, it’s important that Ujiri and the Raptor brass remember that in the NBA, talent is responsible for sustained success above all else. Which leads me to:
Use your draft picks, unless you can make a game changing move
Look at that list of players that were drafted with the second rounders the Raptors gave up: Jerebko, Singler, and Dragic. Something tells me that Colangelo would like a bit of a do-over there. This year, the Raptors have two second rounders, in addition to their first, and while it may be tempting to move one or more of those picks (or future picks) for immediate help, it’s paramount to realize that the Raptors still play in a market that is a tough sell for free agents, and thus these picks are by far the best way for them to find quality talent on cost-efficient deals.
Ujiri and his team seem to realize the value of picks – they’ve already stockpiled quite a few since he took over last summer – but it’s important to realize that unless the picks are packaged for a player that will truly move the needle, teams are better off rolling the dice. As impressive as the Raptors are, they aren’t one move away from a title. I’d rather take the minuscule chance that one of our seconds turns into Goran Dragic than pick up a couple more wins next year.
Development is NOT a guarantee
Now, Jonas Valanciunas is not Andrea Bargnani. Far from it. But, if the Raptors REALLY want to improve next season, the Bargnani experiment did teach an important lesson, which is that top prospects don’t always develop at the rate you expect them to. Do I expect Valanciunas to improve next year, and the Raptors to improve with him? Yes. Absolutely. If I want to improve on my performance from this year (in this case, get past the first round of the playoffs), can I count on him improving as what puts the team over the top? Nope.
Basically, what I’m getting at here is that maintaining the status quo personnel wise is extremely likely to result in the status quo being maintained performance wise. For Raptor fans, I’m sure another 48 win season would be much appreciated. But let it not be lost on us that these things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to, and we need to use caution before we throw all of our eggs in the 2014/2015 basket.
Obviously, there are plenty of differences between the two offseasons, too. These Raptors are far more flexible, cap-wise, and a few of our key players (and arguably our MOST key player) are free agents. We didn’t trade our first round draft pick for Lamond Murray. In many ways, we’re in much better shape to make either minor or major changes, or stay the course; whatever management chooses to do.
I guess what I’m advocating here is that, from looking at 2007, the minor changes approach doesn’t really work. If we’re not going to really shake it up, let’s keep our picks, keep collecting assets, and see what happens without the burden of increased expectations.
The biggest change between 2007 and 2014, in my mind, is that Masai Ujiri, and not Bryan Colangelo, is pulling the strings. Here’s hoping his team understands this as well as we think they do.