Masai Ujiri brought the band back together. Is that a good thing?
The Eastern Conference, as compared to its Western counterpart, saw a fair bit of shuffling this offseason. In addition to a trio of All-Stars — Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez, Al Horford — returning from injury, seven of the eight playoff teams (and Cleveland) underwent major makeovers.
Atlanta will have a revamped perimeter and a healthy Al Horford. Charlotte shed Josh McRoberts but added Noah Vonleh, Marvin Williams and Lance Stephenson. Brooklyn lost two rotation pieces in Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce. Washington snagged Pierce to replace Trevor Ariza. The Bulls lost out on Carmelo Anthony, but won the Pau Gasol sweepstakes and Derrick Rose is on the mend. Indiana lost both Stephenson and Paul George. The Heat lost LeBron James, but plugged holes by inking Luol Deng and McRoberts. And, of course, the Cavaliers sunk everyone’s battleship by landing LeBron and (eventually) Kevin Love.
Why even bother? The East is ours.
By contrast, the Raptors were the only playoff hopeful that stood pat this offseason. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri elected to re-sign Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry, but save for some minor adds, the 2014-15 Raptors projects to look very similar to the previous iteration.
There was logic behind each transaction. Vasquez, Lowry and Patterson were all key cogs in the post-Gay squad that went 42-24, a record besting the East over that stretch. Lowry returns as the team’s leader, Patterson reclaims the floor-stretch half of the platoon at power forward, and Vasquez is back to lead the second unit.
Not adding anyone of significance isn’t the whole story. There’s also something to be said about addressing needs. Ujiri didn’t acquire anyone significant, but he did try to plug holes using his limited budget. The playoffs exposed the need for a wing stopper; enter James Johnson. Ball-handling was also an issue to the point where John Salmons had to play the seventh-most minutes last season. Lou Williams reprises that role, and fits nicely alongside Vasquez. If the Raptors get anything from Bebe Nogueira or Bruno Caboclo, that’s gravy.
But for the most part, the biggest advantage the Raptors had over their shuffle-happy competitors is continuity. Aside from the Wizards, every other playoff team drastically changed their team structure.
Rose and Pau should command nearly 50 percent of possessions when they’re on the floor. Charlotte brought in two new starters, including a ball-dominant Stephenson to replace an excellent facilitator in McRoberts. Brooklyn goes from being a smallball team to a plodding post-oriented squad. Atlanta adding Al Horford means they can no longer field five three-point threats. The Pacers’ entire playbook went out the window. Teams rarely click right away. There will be some growing pains.
That’s where the Raptors should theoretically have an edge. Eight of the top-nine in minutes played last season — DeMar DeRozan, Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, Vasquez, Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough — have been retained, with the lone substitution being Williams for Salmons. The team should have the schemes down pat. Lowry knows that if he’s running the fast break, Terrence Ross will flash to the corner for an open triple. Amir knows to hand-off and screen after DeRozan tosses him the rock in the high-post.
The same applies in the locker room. The guys all know each other, and there’s no need to awkwardly suss out a pecking order. DeRozan and Lowry are the leaders, it’s their team. If someone steps out of line and Lowry calls them out for it, no one will bat an eye.
We never made big moves. We just win.
I can’t speak with any authority as to how much continuity really matters. The obvious example is the San Antonio Spurs, but that’s the outlier not the norm. With all due respect, the Raptors’ foundation isn’t nearly as solid as the Spurs’ for reasons that should be obvious. And for every team-oriented championship squad like the Spurs or Pistons, there’s a superstar-laden winner like the Heat or Lakers.
But having a per-established culture and system has to inherently hold some value, even if it just translates to two or three extra wins to start of the season. In the Eastern Conference, where the homogenous set of sub-contenders — Raptors, Wizards, Hornets, Hawks, Heat — aren’t ostensibly distinct in terms of talent, every win should count for something. In that respect, perhaps Ujiri not rocking the boat with a splashy acquisition is his biggest addition of all.