The Toronto Raptors have historically sucked. Through the first 18 years of their history they made the playoffs just five times and won just one playoff series. To put it lightly, that is sub-optimal. Then Masai Ujiri returned to Toronto and the reputation began to change.
Masai first extorted the Knicks to give him draft picks in exchange for Andrea Bargnani shortly after his arrival, and then followed it up with an early season trade of Rudy Gay that was intended to start a tank-style rebuild. It never got to that and the Raptors have been winning ever since.
Four season, four playoff appearances, three playoff series victories, and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is a lot of success for a historically inept franchise.
The core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas has been constant for this entire stretch, but the surrounding pieces have largely been interchangeable. Whether it be one season of Lou Williams winning sixth man, or the constant rotation of new forwards in the starting line-up, the team has looked slightly different each year.
The change was particularly large this summer. The Raptors core now includes Serge Ibaka and Norman “Recently Extended and Currently Struggling” Powell, but the surrounding pieces have changed greatly. Out are mainstays like Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph, along with cult hero PJ Tucker, and in is CJ Miles and a host of young and largely unproven players.
Upon his arrival Masai made it clear that the end of the bench was intended for developing young players. After all, an NBA rotation usually tops out at 10 players when healthy, so why spend money for an established veteran to fill the 14th and 15th roster spots?
Years of mostly healthy drafting have now led to this point where the youth are now key rotation pieces.
The trade for Lou Williams was completed at least in part to acquire Bebe Nogueira from Atlanta. Toronto used their own draft picks to select Delon Wright in 2015 (20th pick), and Pascal Siakam in 2016 (27th), along with using a pick acquired from the Knicks for Bargnani to get Jakob Poeltl in 2016 (9th) and a Clippers pick this summer (acquired from the Bucks with Norman Powell for Greivis Vasquez) on OG Anunoby.
That doesn’t even include Bruno Caboclo…for obvious reasons at this point.
Each one of these young player has shown glimpses of production so far this season and have been key contributors to the 4-2 start. In fact, there have been times when the all-bench unit have helped carry the struggling core/starters.
Youthful inexperience though is a double-edged sword. It can provide a significant opportunity for development and improvement, but inexperience can also lead to struggles. Young players not only need to develop physically still (except OG…he is a specimen already), but also in situational awareness and basketball IQ.
Most analysts entering the season had the Raptors had a mid-tier team, with many putting them outside of the top four in the East. The reason for this was made clear: the Raptors are too young on the back end and lack experience.
There were clear concerns: the vaunted Lowry + Bench unit would be almost entirely different; if the youth struggle then Lowry and DeMar get overtaxed; the Raptors aren’t positioned to survive an injury; etc.
All of these concerns could still be proven true, but to date each of the Raptors youth has proven that they are ready for their role. The challenge is that growth is not a linear process. There are ups and downs for most. For every defensive rotation where OG Anunoby switches and shuts down someone like Damian Lillard, there are missed three pointers to balance.
And while wins are the end goal, the most important thing presently is the process the Raptors take in each game. While there will be down parts to any season, especially for young players, the process of development continues. The goal is that each of the young players is better in April than they are today.
While Masai is almost universally adored in Toronto, I still believe he is undersold in this regard. I don’t think we appreciate how difficult it is to simultaneously build a 50+ win team while also stocking the system with the next generation of talent. To build for today and for tomorrow. This dual-identity is an incredible feat.
Casey and his staff also deserve an incredible amount of praise. Three years spent developing Delon to one day play the role he is, or the hours to help OG Anunoby recovering from injury and be put in a position/role that fits his current skill-set, all to get to this point where they can be regular contributors.
If the young guys are able to steadily develop as the season progresses the Raptors will be better prepared for success come playoff time. While the core of Lowry, DeRozan, and Ibaka will establish the tone for who the Raptors are this season, it is players like OG, Poeltl, and Delon that will determine the team’s ceiling.
A young bench was viewed by many as a weakness entering the season, but they are already establishing themselves as potential difference makers.