Sculpting a Winning Culture

10 mins read

The Toronto Raptors were two wins away from the NBA Finals. As the feeling of euphoria dies down with the passage of time, one can objectively ask the question – how did this happen? The team accomplished this feat in large part because of strong defensive play, often grinding out wins while struggling offensively. This approach was emphasized in the playoffs, as the team’s two stars posted historically low shooting percentages deep into the second round. Opposing squads now know that if Toronto is on the schedule, their night is going to involve a physical contest where nothing easy will be given. But this wasn’t always the case.

April 2010 – Chris Bosh’s last season in Toronto. It began with much promise, as Raptors seasons often did, with a splash in free agency in the form of Hedo Turkoglu, an NBA finalist the season before. The promise dimmed early in the year, then rekindled with a positive stretch before the All-Star break. A Chris Bosh injury thwarted the team’s momentum, derailing their campaign. Yet with only a few games left, their playoff fate was still in their hands. The Raptors played host to Derrick Rose’s pesky Chicago Bulls in a direct battle for the eighth seed, knowing full well that a win would send them to a matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Raptors would go on to lose that game in lackluster fashion, leading to their elimination on the last day of the regular season. LeBron James had commented on the result, stating that the Raptors did not want to make the playoffs. He mentioned being pleased to have played the Bulls rather than the Raptors in the postseason, citing Chicago’s ferocity as better preparation for the latter rounds of the playoffs. This was a clear assessment of Toronto’s greatest weakness – the club often found itself at the bottom of the league on the defensive side of the ball thanks in part to a lack of mental toughness.

This deficiency was magnified after Chris Bosh’s departure and the resulting decrease in talent level, sending Toronto out of the playoff chase altogether. The Raptors were labeled ‘soft,’ more Barney than T-Rex. Sadly, the claims were well founded. It was for this reason that then-general manager Bryan Colangelo chose to bring in a defense-first coach in Dwane Casey, and with him arrived a 1,300-pound rock that would become a part of the club’s daily lexicon. The two together came to symbolize a new era of Toronto basketball – the time had come for the Raptors to instill a culture.

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter

hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as

much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first

blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last

blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

Jacob A. Riis (

It was this message that Casey aimed to enshrine within the Raptors, preaching the process from day one. His mantra never changed, the tone remaining the same in 2016 as it was in 2010. Bit by bit, he molded the club to his vision. As advertised, the results didn’t arrive quickly. The gulf in talent was simply too great, as the team’s best player was an aloof seven-footer with motivation issues. Casey himself was pounding his own rock, learning what it took to be a successful head coach in the NBA.

With the Raptors’ cap flexibility all but gone and the on-court product hardly improving, Colangelo was shown the way out, opening the door for his former protégé, Masai Ujiri. The new boss’ first move was to get rid of his predecessor’s greatest blunder – Il Mago. The move promised financial flexibility along with what would turn out to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft. As Ujiri prepared for a possible rebuild, the Bargnani trade was the first of many moves that would reflect his new mandate – to change the makeup of the team’s roster. (A second change, a far less-heralded one, was the addition of Tyler Hansbrough. What the former Pacer lacked in talent he made up for with unrelenting hustle and effort, his modus operandi representing a first draft blueprint of what the Raptors would become.)

Ujiri went on to have a soul-to-soul conversation with Kyle Lowry, igniting a fire in the Villanova product’s belly that would burn for the next three years. He traded away Rudy Gay on a fateful December night, replacing him with driven role players and potential cap flexibility. When the Raptors finally took off, he believed he had found the magic ingredient – chemistry built on the back of coachable, team-oriented players. Ujiri re-signed the merry band, valuing continuity as a part of his vision. The gamble didn’t pay off the following postseason, as the Raptors were eliminated with a resounding sweep, raising legitimate questions about the team’s direction and future.

All the while, Casey maintained his calm. He was called out for mismanaging player minutes, questioned regarding his rotations, and blamed for lack of adjustments. These voices were not without merit, but Casey was steadfast. He continued hammering away at the rock.

The summer of 2015 represented the latest part in the transformation of the Raptors’ culture. After deciding to keep Casey, Ujiri was determined to continue changing the makeup of the roster. He let go of players that were not a fit for his vision (Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams), and brought in his favorites – hard working role-players (DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola). He even drafted defense-first players in Norman Powell and Delon Wright. The message could not be clearer. Crucially, the team’s leader adopted it, as Lowry spent the summer transforming his body in preparation for the grueling playoffs.

The entire roster bought in, and the rock was finally split, as the team recorded its best overall season.

The club’s success trickled down from the ownership at the top down to Ujiri’s steady hand. The Raptors general manager had plenty of opportunities to change course, but chose instead to trust the process. He had a vision, and believed Casey could be a part of it. He provided stability – so rare, and yet so important in the world of professional sports. He allowed his head coach to mold the product, day by day, practice by practice, arriving at the current (but hopefully not final) peak in 2016.

The benefits of the newly established culture were numerous. From Lowry’s commitment to helping the team in any way he could in the postseason (curbing his penchant for arguing with officials and keeping his cool, unlike last year), to the seamless integration of a proven veteran in Jason Thompson late in the season (we heard no complaints despite his meager playing time). From the complete lack of drama emanating from the locker room (the casino story became a non-issue overnight), to the capability of improving young players in-season (a second round pick played a significant role in winning a playoff series). The culture kept improving, kept growing, kept providing value.

Casey will tell you they’re not there yet. That too, is an aspect of the new culture – a thirst that is never quenched, a club that continues ever onward on the quest to get better. Pound the rock.

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