Changing Goalposts

DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey are victims of their own success. After several years of the Raptors failing to replicate lofty regular season success in the playoffs, Masai Ujiri decided that he had given his roster a chance, and the team as currently constructed was unable to win a championship. Fair. But the context of the team never involved discussion of a championship in the early days of this iteration of the team, when Ujiri and Casey first moved to Toronto. Masai Ujiri took control in the off-season before 2013-14. Casey was hired the year before.

The Globe and Mail described Casey’s hiring as “the 54-year-old Casey [having] been thrown the keys to the Raptors’ broken-down car.”

The team improved dramatically in his first year, increasing their win total from just 23 in 2011-12 to 34 in 2012-13 with Casey at the helm. Kyle Lowry was acquired by trade. Jonas Valanciunas was picked in the draft. DeRozan improved by leaps and bounds, making strides in passing, efficiency, and ball-handling especially. The team may have gotten better, but it still missed the playoffs. Andrea Bargnani was still team captain. In his first off-season with the team, Ujiri was tasked simply with forming the Raptors into something other than a punchline.

“It’s our job to create a winning environment and that’s why I’m here,” said Ujiri at his introductory press conference.

Since 2013, Ujiri has axed or failed to re-sign practically every coach, other than Casey himself until recently. Toronto had rebuilt the coaching staff into an enviable model of success, from the Raptors 905 all the way up to the big club. Other than Lowry, Valanciunas, and until recently DeRozan, the personnel of yesteryear have faded into the dark night, forgotten (except Landry Fields. That guy’s awesome).

Ujiri created exactly what he set out to: a winning environment. From his first season in 2013-14 until today, the Raptors have won an average of 52.6 games per regular season. In 2016, a homegrown star chose to stay in Toronto, which had never before happened in franchise history. The house that Ujiri, Casey, DeRozan, and Lowry built together was altogether studier than expected.

Fast-forward to today, as Ujiri recently fired Casey and traded DeRozan. Ujiri could only gamble on Kawhi Leonard precisely because DeRozan had built the franchise into such a respectable model. Ujiri didn’t just trade DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl; he traded the franchise’s reserve of respectability, betting that Toronto’s culture could absorb a superstar with health and attitude questions.

And so a decision-maker so famous for his patience made a decidedly impatient move. Ujiri bet the house that he himself had built because the goalposts had changed so dramatically. Over the course of five years, the Raptors went from desiring only to be an average franchise to hunting LeBron James in the playoffs. It’s ironic that the Raptors finally have a team with personnel capable of challenging James – only to find the superstar vanished, transported to the Western Conference. The Raptors won’t face him in the playoffs, likely ever again.

It’s good that the goalposts have moved. The Raptors were a team-wide embodiment of Hedo Turkoglu in 2012, long after he had left the actual roster. They were bad and wanted to be better. In 2017-18 they were a very good team. Ujiri still wanted to be better. It’s logical and understandable that the goalposts have moved, but the Raptors haven’t just changed the ceiling of the roster this offseason.

It is conceivable that the Raptors could be worse next year. Leonard could very well fail to reach his incredible peak of 2016, due to a unique and serious right quad injury. Kyle Lowry will be a year older, and he already lost something of his straight-line burst and at-rim finishing last year. Even while his shooting at the rim stayed at an incredible-for-his-size 61 percent, he reached the rim less often, and fewer of his shots taken in the restricted area were unassisted, per Cleaning the Glass. His points per shot attempt and effective field goal percentage dropped slightly, all normal for an aging and diminutive point guard.

While Lowry excelled in the role of sharing ball-handling duties with other point guards on the floor – including DeRozan last season – he may not be able to maintain peak efficiency as the team’s lead shot creator over a full season. His pick and roll numbers already declined greatly in quantity and quality last season, from 9.0 possessions per game creating 1.05 points per possession to 4.2 possessions per game creating 0.9 points per possession.

If a still-injured Leonard isn’t able to sop up creative offensive responsibilities for the 2018-19 Raptors, their offence will be worse. Lowry is still an excellent player, a deserving all-star, and the best point guard in the East, but he is not capable of both being the first option and creating for others on a team hunting the finals. There are only perhaps five players in the world who can do that.

Nick Nurse is the Raptors’ new coach, and he’s never coached in the NBA before. Leading a relatively similar roster to 2017-18, it’s quite possible that Nurse is unable to squeeze the same success that Casey managed. We knew Casey’s floor and ceiling as a coach. Nurse could be anything! Even a boat.

If the Raptors do get significantly worse, they have an automatic eject button built into the system, much like a James Bond car. Every deal on the books other than OG Anunoby’s (team option) and Norman Powell’s (player option) ends after the 2019-20 season. Their cap space could be used to chase a star who very well may want to be in Toronto *cough, Giannis, cough*, backpedal into youth and high draft picks, or re-sign the roster as currently constructed. You can bet they won’t run it back with a roster if it isn’t able to equal Toronto’s 2017-18 peak. It’s uncertain if the Raptors will be able to land a marquee free agent. The Raptors could again be facing the dog days in a few years’ time, and Kevin O’Bomber could finally have his way.

It’s important to note that the Raptors could very well be one of the best two teams in the league next year. If Leonard is healthy, the Raptors are a real superpower, the USSR to Golden State’s United States. Leonard would immediately be a top-two player in the East, which DeRozan never even sniffed. Jacob Goldstein’s terrific work predicts the Raptors as the likely first seed in the East. That is certainly a possibility next year, but it isn’t a forgone conclusion.

If the Raptors had run it back once more, with Coach of the Year Casey at the helm, and DeRozan once again as the team’s primary offensive option, Toronto would undoubtedly have won more than 50 games. Toronto would certainly have gone into the playoffs as a high seed and likely won one or possibly more playoff series. The “winning environment” that Ujiri sought so long ago in 2013 would have been extended and possibly even improved upon.

Of course, the Raptors didn’t run it back. The Raptors could be better next year, but they could also be worse. Toronto made the choice in favour of uncertainty because the goalposts have moved. The city now craves a championship. Such a prize wasn’t on the horizon in 2013, wasn’t even an elusive dream about which fans could whisper in their quiet moments at a barbecue. A championship was inconceivable in 2013. It isn’t any longer.

Ujiri is trying to fulfill the team’s new goals knowing full-well that he might have to tear apart the winning culture he’s spent the better half of a decade building. Five years ago, Ujiri promised to build a winning culture, and he has. Faced with a new problem today, Ujiri opted to kick stability to the curb. It’s difficult to blame him. Yet it’s ironic that in the quest to fulfill 2018’s goal, the Raptors could very well fail the mission they undertook in 2013.

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