Both men have expressed dissatisfaction at the turn of events, but the past two days was all about celebrating their friendship that began when Casey was hired by the Raptors in 2011. Back then, DeRozan was a young man of 22 going into his third season as a pro.
“I’m just so proud of him,” Casey said. “From growing from being a young, skinny kid from Compton to the man he is today, that’s why you coach. You watch young men become great men, great fathers. I can’t say enough great things about what he’s meant to me and my coaching career.
“We won a lot of games.”
DeRozan turned into a four-time All-Star and one of the league’s top scorers.
“I was young when (Casey) became my head coach,” DeRozan said in the Spurs locker room. “He’s seen me grow from a kid to a grown man. He gave me the green light and he let me evolve into the player I am today. He made me comfortable with being the player that I am today. I got to give a lot of my success, a lot of my growth to Coach Casey.”
He didn’t address who picked up the tab.
“It was great to catch up with him, sit and talk to him to hear about his transition, tell him about mine,” DeRozan said.
DeRozan may have some lingering bitterness with the Raptors, but Casey thinks he’s in a good spot with the Spurs and Gregg Popovich.
“He’s a fine young man,” Casey said. “He’s going to love it here. The fans here, they’re going to love him, the man, his family. Pop is going to be good for him. It’s a good situation for everyone.”
In Lowry and Leonard, the Raptors have two quieter players atop the roster, but they’re armed elsewhere with heady communicators in Green, VanVleet, and C.J. Miles. VanVleet in particular emerged as a natural leader last season, the rare role player who commanded the attention of both Lowry and DeRozan.
Nurse’s collective approach could end up being a necessary salve against the risk of a leadership vacuum developing, especially when conflict, in a season where the uncertainty of Leonard’s contract status governs the season, is an inevitability.
The Raptors will go to Los Angeles twice, where speculation will run abound about Leonard’s future. Occasional rumors about his ‘preferred destination’ will have to be addressed while the front office embarks on the tricky balance of accommodating Leonard without appearing as though they’re giving him special treatment.
All the while, Nurse’s experimental bent — trading continuity for creativity — could shake up the starting lineup and bench. Nurse wants to imbue his players with the confidence to make their own decisions, but they’ll have to see the court to do that. The fact that there are only so many minutes for a hoard of swingmen in OG Anunoby, Green, Miles, Norman Powell, and Delon Wright is a good problem for now. When the experiments cease and the concrete thickens, it’ll lead to tough conversations with competitive, prideful guys, many of whom are chomping at the bit to reclaim their mantle after individual and personal disappointments last year.
As Green would go on to note, Leonard’s new, chattier leadership style can probably be attributed, at least in part, to the circle of life in the NBA. In San Antonio, Leonard was always a kid on veteran teams. With future hall of famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili around, as well as a legendary coach in Gregg Popovich, it made perfect sense for him to be more of a listener than a talker.
Now, at 27 and in his prime, Leonard is out from under their shadow and comes to Toronto as the unrivalled face of this new-look Raptors team. For the first time in his NBA career, he’s not likely to be upstaged by his teammates, coach or the storied history of a franchise that always felt bigger than him. He’s the guy and, so far, he seems to be embracing the responsibility that brings.
“It’s a different system, new identity,” Green said. “A lot of it is he’s older here. There are a lot of young guys who look up to him and respect him. I don’t know, you have to ask him, he probably has other feelings about it, but I would think it’s comfort level and him being one of the older vets here. He’s not that old, but he’s a veteran here so he kinda has to lead by example and vocally.”
The Raptors are only a few months into their yearlong recruitment of Leonard, a process that president Masai Ujiri insists will develop organically, but they may be onto something. Selling the enigmatic Leonard on a long-term future in Toronto will require them to figure him out, at least to the point in which they can decipher his motives in free agency.
What does he want? They already know he wants to win, and assuming things come together as they hope this season that will be a big part of their sales pitch. They can offer more money and a longer term than any other team, which doesn’t hurt. However, they can also offer him an opportunity to be the frontman, and perhaps that’s something that appeals to him more than people imagined it would.
OG Anunoby returned to the team after being away for 11/2 weeks to attend to a family matter.
Nurse said Anunoby “did great and that he sees the second-year forward and Leonard as being virtually interchangeable at the small forward and power forward spots this season.
Norman Powell was held out again with a minor injury for precautionary reasons.
Nurse and his staff are still deciding on what the starting group might look like for the opener against Cleveland a week Wednesday, but it sure seems like he intends to alternate (Leonard, Kyle Lowry and perhaps Green aside) depending on matchups.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much of a set (rotation) to start especially,” Nurse said.
“I think there will be some different starting lineups which therefore means there will be some different second units. We’ll roll from there.”
Fred VanVleet likes the way the staff has shuffled the lineups in scrimmages in advance of what is to come.
“I think it makes you ready for kind of anything and for them, for the staff, they get to see what works, what (doesn’t) work,” VanVleet said.
“For us, we get to mix and match with each other and maybe it takes a little bit of the pressure of who is starting, who is not starting, kind of take that out of the equation and we just say: ‘All right, this is the best five for this game or this week,’ or this five is really rolling and you roll with it. We have so many pieces this year that there (are) probably 10 different starting lineups that we could have for any given matchup.”
Like Leonard, Green hopes to have an impact on and off the court. One of his goals is to contend for the NBA all-defensive team. He was a second-team selection two seasons ago, when Leonard made the first team for the third straight year.
As far as the bigger picture, a lot has changed in the NBA since 2009 when Green began his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers — the Raptors’ opponent on opening night a week from Wednesday.
“With LeBron leaving and going west … a lot of guys have left and gone west,” he said. “Back then, the east was stronger than what it is now. Not saying that it’s weak now, there’s just so much depth out west that it’s tough to compare. Indiana’s very good, Boston, Philly — those teams are on the (rise) and they’re doing very well and they’re tough teams. So you can’t sleep on anybody, even Washington.”
In the end, though, Green’s goals are clear regardless of the opposition.
“All in all, just win,” he said, “and also find a home.”
Danny Green says Kawhi Leonard has been leading vocally more than ever before on and off the court, and it looks like he feels comfortable and feels ‘at home’.
Leonard’s seemingly made it a bit of a point to show more personality this preseason. His laugh alone is already the biggest meme of the early part of the season. While that likely wasn’t intentional, Leonard expressing any sort of personality is a change from his tight-lipped nature in San Antonio.
Leonard requested a trade from the Spurs following a lost 2017-18 season that saw him have a falling out with the organization. He played in just seven games due to a quad injury, which he felt was mishandled by the Spurs medical staff. San Antonio traded Leonard and Green to the Raptors in July for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick.
Given Leonard’s status as a free agent this summer and the fact he’s replacing DeRozan, one of the most popular figures in franchise history, his interactions with fans and teammates merited watching. Kyle Lowry and DeRozan remain close friends, and Lowry has been noticeably icy when asked about the deal publicly.
The fact that Leonard is taking an active leadership role bodes well for his general confidence within the group and for the Raptors in general as they try to retain him this summer.
It’s perhaps of little surprise that first-year head coach Nick Nurse wouldn’t mind a little more time to work with, but that’s a function of coaching more than any concern that the season opener (Oct. 17th) is coming on too soon.
“I think when there was another week we always felt like we didn’t have enough time. And now that there’s not we still feel like we don’t have enough time,” said Nurse after the Raptors practice at their training facility on Thanksgiving Monday. “It’s just kind of general pre-season feelings. I feel good about where we are. We’ve had to go out there and play a couple times. I know they’re pre-season games. We haven’t even put in some out-of-bounds plays, and believe it or not they figure out how to get the ball from out of bounds to inbounds and things like that. We’re OK. We’re working hard at putting some things back in here this last week. We’ll be ready to play.”
The closest thing they’ll have to a full-dress rehearsal will likely come against the Nets at the Bell Centre Wednesday in Montreal. The Raptors fifth and final pre-season game is Thursday in New Orleans and given it’s the second night of a back-to-back and follows a long, late flight, Nurse said he didn’t anticipate his veteran core playing extended minutes, so the Nets game will be his last chance to see how things fit before things start to count.
To this point training camp has gone roughly to script, the primary exception being second-year wing OG Anunoby having to leave the team on the eve of their first exhibition game due to a family emergency. He was back at practice on Monday and looked great, according to Nurse. Seeing where he fits in among a versatile wing rotation that includes Leonard, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam will be a focus.
“Those three, four, five spots are really what we’re rotating around,” said Nurse. “We’ve already kind of established that Kyle [Lowry] and Delon Wright, Fred and Delon, Delon and Fred, those guys can both play one, two together. So I think, for instance, if Kawhi and OG are on the floor together, hopefully they’re going to be interchangeable at the three, four. [It] shouldn’t really matter much, right, who’s playing play four on offence, who’s playing four on defence. It shouldn’t matter much and they should be [interchangeable] depending on what happens.”
“Of course I think about it,” Wright said. “I’m not going to put too much thought into it. I’m just going to try to play the season as if I wasn’t a free agent, which is trying to still prove myself. I feel like that stuff will take care of itself at the end of the year.”
The situations are very different. No NBA player is paid poorly, but VanVleet made $1.8-million total over his first two years, a value he returned many times over to his team last season. He was not that far removed from having to win a training camp battle to make the team — inadvertently, Wright helped him win that battle by suffering a shoulder injury in the summer of 2016 that opened up a need at point guard for the Raptors. The contract represented gaining a solid foothold in the league for VanVleet. As a first-round pick, Wright will have made more than $7-million over his first four years in the league once this season is done. While Wright speaks of wanting to prove himself in the NBA, the onus has never been on him to do that more than VanVleet faced early in his Raptors career.
There are different ways to prove yourself.
“The good thing about it for me, and the same for Delon, too, is that it’s not based on numbers,” VanVleet said. “My numbers aren’t anything you would marvel at, other than a good 3-point percentage. You just go out there and be solid, try to make winning plays. The great thing about our organization is that they value that stuff. Obviously there are analytics and people value stats a little bit, but those guys in the front office know the game and can value and respect the little things as well.”
The rub? With Wright, the Raptors are focusing on a big thing as much as anything else.
The Toronto Raptors are coming off a franchise-best season in 2017-18 and expectations have been risen for the upcoming NBA season. Especially after trading for one o the best two-way players in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard.
The move to bring Leonard gives the Raptors arguably the best player in the entire Eastern Conference. Add Leonard to a team that won the most games in the Eastern Conference last year and the chances that Toronto repeats as Eastern Conference royalty doubles.
The Raptors also replaced head coach Dwane Casey with first-time NBA head coach, but two-time G-League Champion head coach Nick Nurse.
2018 Win Total: 54.5
If you feel good about all of Toronto’s pieces meshing together, go ahead and bet the over—there’s enough talent above the border for 60 wins. Of course, a turbulent offseason ensured that things won’t be so simple. Ex-franchise player DeMar DeRozan was flipped to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, a significant upgrade in theory but a move that comes with plenty of questions about Leonard’s health and motivation. Promoted assistant Nick Nurse brings creativity to the head coaching role, but has no experience being the man in charge. Kyle Lowry has long been underappreciated as a star on one of the East’s best teams, but as an undersized guard in his age-32 season, one wonders how much longer he can keep it up.
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