Predictability can be boring. Yet, we require predictability in so much of what we do on a daily basis. From catching our morning bus or train to watching our favourite TV shows, a familiar pattern of behaviour makes us feel comfortable. I mean, how annoying is it to wait for buses that constantly came at a different time each day? Or how weird would it be if every Tim Hortons location had different tasting coffee? Consistency and predictability are essential in so many of our daily habits.
Basketball, like any other sport, is an activity rooted in routine. And inconsistency, like travel to a road game or an early start time, can seriously throw players off. While analysts and fans are quick to make this observation, many fail to realize that inconsistency in terms of a team’s front office, coaching, or player personnel, can wreak equal, if not more, havoc on a franchise. After all, changes in these departments can alter the direction of a franchise – and especially mid-season, this sort of change is probably the most difficult to deal with for traded players or new/fired coaches. Not only are you attending to business, but you’re moving homes, families, and personal belongings along the way. In other words, it’s a lot more difficult than a back-to-back or an early start time.
So, just like the routine players like to establish in their playing patterns, consistency in the front office, coaching staff, and player personnel is incredibly important to a franchise’s success. It is this sole principle which seems to be the guiding hand for Masai Ujiri, the shrewd operator behind this low-key 5-year playoff run for the Toronto Raptors. That’s half a decade of playoffs for a franchise that could only boast one playoff series win in its history prior to Masai’s arrival.
The most glaring example of Masai’s penchant of consistency has been his handling of Dwane Casey, who has remained Ujiri’s man since day 1. Despite so many ups and downs, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, throughout the past several years, Ujiri has never waivered. Seemingly taking after a franchise like the San Antonio Spurs, it’s almost as if the Raptors viewed Dwane Casey as the poor man’s Gregg Popovich in this scenario. Here was a compelling personality, that clearly knew his defensive stuff, but was still developing as an overall coach; and Ujiri, upon arriving in Toronto in 2013, instilled an unrelenting belief in Casey that seemed to bring the best out of the former championship-winning assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks.
Describing himself as “not a trade deadline guy” in past years, and once again playing down the hype of the trade deadline in his media availability yesterday, Masai’s stability-based strategy has been a clear focus on developing internally rather than via free agency or through trades. Aside from the Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker acquisitions made last year at the trade deadline, both of which were made on on the heels of a disappointing start to calendar year 2017, or the buyout candidate that might be signed this season, Ujiri has focused on organic rather than acquisitive growth, with some trimmings around the margins. While his draft history hasn’t been perfect, it’s been damn good. And Masai hasn’t been afraid to build a roster that really leans on the performance of those draft picks, which was clear coming into this year; the Raptors parted ways with veterans Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll and PJ Tucker in large part due to their belief in their young guys. It was time for Pascal, Jakob, Norm, Delon and FVV to take the reigns.
And, just like Ujiri did with Coach Casey, the trust he placed in these young guys has resulted in arguably the league’s best bench so far, that plays with an insatiable desire on the defensive end with an efficient, passing-oriented offense. All of that is combined with lower usage for Lowry and DeRozan, who in past years, were the clear regular season workhorses that just didn’t seem right in the playoffs. It’s been a stark turnaround this season for the Raptors and Ujiri, whose desire to change the culture around this franchise in the offseason didn’t affect his belief in his roster and his coach. It just meant that things had to be done differently.
What makes all of this so impressive is that it’s all been happening with the backdrop of the rest of the NBA. Player movement in the league has reached an all time high it seems, with the free agency movement we’ve seen in the past few years, and the trades we witnessed at this year’s trade deadline. In a dizzying flurry of moves, the Cleveland Cavaliers basically replaced half their roster and have somehow turned many of their critics into believers. Granted there are some exceptions to the stability principle, such as transcendent talents like LeBron James, but as a GM, if you’re hanging your hat on something without such a luxury, aiming for stability is a pretty solid bet.
Aside from their trade of Bruno, which was obviously big news for the Raptor die-hards, the Raptors really didn’t make any noise at the trade deadline – and that’s probably a good thing. They can just focus on themselves, while the Cavs and others will have to focus on on-boarding new teammates with a limited number of games and little practice time available. Unless you’ve got generational talent, it’s pretty difficult to overcome those challenges. It’s the type of challenge that makes every game feel like a back-to-back…on the road…in Denver. It’s just not the type of challenge you want to be dealing with as a team gearing up for a playoff run.
With that, all that’s left now is for Toronto to prove this out in the postseason. It’s clear that the East is still wide open, and a trip to the Finals is at stake. And while the firings of Jason Kidd and David Fizdale, or the trades we’ve seen from Cleveland, LA, Detroit and others may seem like news that’s overtaking all the headlines in the league, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day…all of that is chaos. And sure, some teams might be better for it, but to say it’s the perfect solution for everyone is far from the truth. So, despite the Raptors not really showing up on our news feeds this past Thursday, remember that sometimes…no news, is good news.