Nothing Was The Same for the Raptors once they hired general manager Masai Ujiri, who breathed life into the organization by dumping Andrea Bargnani last summer. That move displayed a competence that had been lacking in Toronto in recent years, and following it up by quickly sending Rudy Gay to Sacramento showed that fit and logic would triumph over name recognition under this new regime. Gay’s resurgence in a more compact role with the Kings is irrelevant to the Raptors’ first-half mark: Toronto is clearly a better, more inspired and more fun team since his departure (6-12 with Gay, 15-8 without him).
Addition by subtraction rarely is this cut-and-dried. Kyle Lowry (16.1 points, 7.3 assists, 39.7 percent three-point shooting, 19.5 PER) and DeMar DeRozan (21.8 points, 17.8 PER) have made cases for All-Star selections as they have filled in the gaps, and the Raptors’ ball movement has picked up noticeably (Toronto averaged 17 assists before the trade and 22.5 since). The trade will pay dividends for years to come, too, as it places a greater burden on promising young center Jonas Valanciunas (10.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 14.2 PER), who hasn’t yet taken the leap forward this season that The Point Forward anticipated. The Lithuanian center is still just 21, though, and coach Dwane Casey is making him earn his minutes as Toronto has emerged to compete for a division title.
Casey’s Raptors are back to scrapping defensively like they did in 2011-12, and Toronto ranks just behind Charlotte as the most-improved team on that end. The Raptors have leaped from 22nd in defensive efficiency last year to sixth this year. They excel at defending the basket area (top five in opponent shooting percentage from five feet and in) and limiting opportunities from beyond the arc (sixth in opponent three-point attempts).
In sum, it might be argued that the Raptors have performed a little bit over their heads, but they’ve done it by playing intelligent defense and unselfish offense and by making a savvy trade that improves their cap and basketball picture. Drake should be proud.