Raptors report volume one

You write what you know and I like to believe I know a little bit about Toronto Raptors basketball. I’ve supported the team from the beginning, through mostly bitter ends. Nevertheless, I’m usually optimistic when it comes to the team’s direction. Some say I’m delusional, but our franchise always tries and I appreciate that.

The Raptors report is a personal homage to my favourite team. With new ownership and management in place, a new era of Raptors basketball is upon us. I figure this is an ideal time to launch the column. I don’t have time to look up advance metrics like the pros. What you’ll read is from an armchair perspective, powered by hours of Internet radio, podcasts and a trusty Twitter list.

If you haven’t paid attention to what’s traditionally (and sadly) become the most exciting time in the Toronto Raptors’ season – the offseason – here it is in my nutshell. I wrote this debut Raptors report as the past month unfolded, so if sections seem dated, don’t sweat it, I’ll bring it all together by the end.

Raptors report

Being a Raptors fan has never been easy. In 18 years we’ve only witnessed one trip to the second round of the playoffs and that was in a five-game series over the Knicks twelve long – often excruciating – seasons ago. We’ve never experienced a four-out-of-seven win in the spring; it’s pretty sad.

If you recollect the few years surrounding that mini run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals (it always seems more impressive when you phrase it that way), you remember how magical the feeling was for the Dino’s to actually contend.

Vinsanity was in full effect after his epic Slam Dunk championship in 2000. Vince Carter was without a doubt the most exciting player in the league. VC torched the Knicks in that lone series triumph in 2001, and then the Raps slugged it out with the only true challenge to Vince’s highlight reel, Alan Iverson and the eventual Eastern Conference champion 76ers.

VC and AI’s dueling 50-point games and the devastating, yet nail-biting Game 7 clincher for the  Sixers’ gave Raptors fans their only true taste of post-season excitement. The energy throughout the city was electric and the American media took Toronto’s young franchise seriously for the first – and only – time. It’s so disappointing the Toronto Raptors haven’t earned that level of respect since.

What we have now

In spite of the Raptors’ depressing results since Chris Bosh bailed – and that was at least one year before he joined The Cheatles – I see promise in the existing lineup.

The core

Overlooking his price tag, Rudy Gay is legit. He’s athletic, clutch and we can only hope corrective eye surgery will improve his percentages. Vision is pretty important for someone who’s supposed to be a featured scorer. If he remains on the team when training camp begins, the Raptors are his to lose. We need a new Vince, is Rudy it? I personally hope we get the opportunity to see.

Even though many would like to light a fire under DeMar DeRozan’s ass, he’s improved in each of his four seasons. DeMar needs to play with more passion and find a way to extend his range, but a playoff run may be all that’s required to take his intensity and skill to the next level. Winning has a way of doing that.

I feel the opposite about Kyle Lowry, whose swagger could become lethal if the newly-retained Coach Casey can find a way to temper his emotion. His frantic style has overshadowed his talent for too long. 2013-14 will be a make-or-break year for Kyle, as the team’s results will lie heavily on his shoulders.

Jonas Valanciunas is our blue chipper and a future all-star – book it. Amir Johnson is a stud role player; last season’s team MVP without a doubt. You know these two are going hard every night, which will certainly test the pain threshold of opposing front courts. They’re our APA of the NBA.

There’s the core. In terms of efficiency rating, they were a top-five starting five from the Gay trade on; the only non-playoff team to be even remotely ranked as high. If I was in charge – and giving respect to the departed Bryan Colangelo – I would leave all of the above untouched and use the offseason to bolster the bench. It’s an ironic path considering at the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign most thought the reserves would be the team’s strength. I guess that’s why Bryan’s out of a job.

The bench

Supposedly Terrance Ross is the only unquestionable talent among the reserves, but I’m not sold… outside his hops of course. Too often Terrance looks as awkward and lethargic as Rob Ford in a yoga class, and NOBODY wants to see that.

The Fresh Quince has a lot to prove before he can be considered a rotation player.  As does Landry Fields, who I still have faith in despite sitting on the crapper since Carmelo Anthony mowed his lawn in New York.

The rest can hit the road; in this order
(will update their Raptors status as they go… hopefully)

  • Andrea Bargniani (Traded… woohoo! To the Knicks… boo! See below)
  • Linas Kleiza (Amnestied… finally)
  • Sebastian Telfair (Free as a bird)
  • John Lucas III (Renounced and then picked up by the Jazz)
  • Mickael Pietrus (Free as a bird)
  • Alan Anderson (Signed two years with the Nets)
  • Aaron Gray (Probably not going anywhere… which is cool)

Regardless of my optimism, BC’s quick, yet inevitable resignation as team president probably signals the end of the vision he wholeheartedly believed in since Bosh abandoned the franchise. I’m not sure I agree, but Bryan’s plan will most likely be dismantled rather than fine-tuned. Regardless of some gambles gone wrong, I think he was on the right track. It’s obvious the newest hot shot on the block, MLSE president Tim Leiweke, didn’t think so. In Bryan’s end, Tim’s full-autonomy opinion is all that mattered.

In retrospect, after being fired as GM, who the fuck thought BC was going to stick around as president of NON-basketball operations? Me, I admit it. I still have a soft spot for BC. He’s a cool character who’s not afraid to make moves or correct mistakes. I admire someone who can make shit happen and truly thought he’d stick it out with his former assistant stepping in as president of basketball operations.

But, he didn’t. And it didn’t take Masai Ujiri long to clean out his old boss’ front office. Maybe we should we expect the same in the locker room? We’ll find out for sure over the next couple months.

Masai Ujiri

(No) Draft night

With zero picks, draft night was quiet for the Raps; or so it seemed. The persistent rumour was Masai REALLY wanted in, but who knows, the social chatter could have been GM game play or just straight-up bullshit like much of what we read and hear in the media throughout the offseason.

Going in as a Raptors fan, all I was interested in was the face to be attached to the first-round pick (12th overall) given up for Kyle Lowry last offseason. That profile belongs to a pretty handsome and witty fella, Steven Adams. Unfortunately for OKC – who acquired the pick from Houston in the VERY questionable James Harden trade – the analysis says the Kiwi Phenom will be a better interview than post player for the next long while.

So say what you will about Kyle, the Raps did well with this deal. The 2013 NBA draft, though exciting to watch – especially with a Canadian taken No.1 – was super thin as advertised. I read many Raptors fan complaints about the team being left out and to an extent I felt the same way. The draft is so much more engaging when your franchise factors into the guessing game. However, if all that comes of the process is a Steven Adams-level talent, a little boredom is a decent price to pay for side swiping the development of ANOTHER failed prospect.

The ultimate magic trick

With the 2012-13 Executive of the Year award in hand, we knew Masai Ujiri was good, but good enough to vanish Il Mago on the eve of free agency?! Not quite. The NBA held up an Andrea Bargniani trade to the Knicks – for what we’ll never know – until after the midnight deadline. The delay required the teams to use 2013-14 salaries, which forced the Knicks to send not one, but two veteran pylons to the Raptors to make the deal work (Please don’t get me started on the tens of millions of dollars the Raptors have paid acquired veterans NOT to play). Nevertheless, the enigma of enigmas has finally been vanished from the ACC. Raptors Nation rejoice!

After February’s trade deadline Andrea was the most untradeable player not named Amar’e Stoudemire in the league (And now they’re going to play together… thank karma the Knicks are only my second favourite team… ugh). Nobody wanted to touch the flat-footed Italian with a flat shot and a flat personality. The amnesty provision seemed the only feasible way to rid the Raps of his negative energy.

Incredibly, Masai pulled a massive rabbit out of his hat by acquiring a much needed sharp shooter in Steve Novak, a first-round pick in 2016 and two additional second-round selections. The aforementioned veteran pylons – Marcus Camby and Quinton Richardson – were included in the deal, but probably won’t be on the team come training camp.

It’s bitter sweet to see the franchise’s only No.1 overall pick on his way out, casting a massive shadow of disappointment behind him. Andrea seems like an okay guy, and if you watched as many games as I did, you saw glimpses of brilliance. When he was on – a couple times inside Madison Square Garden coincidentally – Bargs’ scoring ability was a thing of beauty and his one-on-one post defense became surprising effective. Nevertheless, his rotations and help defense will always be horrendous and when he’s off, his stroke is disgustingly ugly; all signs of extreme laziness on and off the court… or way too much Primo pasta.

Dwight Buycks

Free Agency

Since the Raptors have their nose squished up against the NBA’s luxury tax window (okay, questioning my Colangelo support just a bit), there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for the team to delve deep into the free agent market. They’re not in play for marquee names; however, as mentioned above, they really don’t need to be. The core is tight, and with a stretch forward (Steve Novak) crossed off their wish list, Masai Ujiri’s on the hunt for some toughness to satisfy his coach’s ‘Pound the Rock’ philosophy. A back-up point guard to temper the paranoia many feel with Kyle Lowry as the sole option is also high priority.

Here comes The Hack

If there’s any doubt the Raptors are going hardcore next year, get your head out of the sand because The Hack is headed north. Jack Armstrong’s nemesis is guaranteed to become one of his favourite Raptors when Tyler Hansbrough storms into the ACC on a very non-Colengelo-like contract (aka a reasonably priced two-year deal). In one swift move the team amped their toughness tenfold. At the same time they’ve introduced a winner and ultimate competitor to the mix. Check out this college rap sheet:

  • 2009 NCAA Champion with the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels
  • Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year in 2008
  • First-team All-American and All-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in each of his four seasons
  • UNC all-time leader in points, rebounds, made field goals and made free throws
  • All-time leading scorer in ACC history
  • ACC Player of the Year in 2008
  • ACC Rookie of the Year in 2005

You cannot complain about having someone with this type of winning pedigree on your squad, no matter how crazy he looks on the court. Add the fact he’s coming from a Pacer team that just experienced the intensity of the Eastern Conference Finals and Masai has managed to score toughness, leadership and a youthful veteran presence with his first free agent signing for the franchise. As I’ve heard Jack say many times, Tyler Hansbrough is a guy you hate to play against but love on your team. Toronto’s going to go psycho for this guy; pun intended.

Securing the point

After renouncing the one dimensional and way-too-streaky John Lucas III, a second hole was created on the depth chart at the point. Masai looked to fill it with one of his Nuggets prospects, Julyan Stone, a 6’6” pass-first guard, who can play defense but struggles with his shot; everything Lucas isn’t. Unfortunately, some lingering knee and hip issues sideswiped the signing so Ujiri kept with Raptors tradition by reaching oversees for a replacement.

At first the signing of Dwight Buycks seemed pretty insignificant, as the third point guard in the rotation can often be in a healthy season. However, Buycks – who was the MVP of the French Pro A league last year – showed some serious game in the Orlando Summer League playing for Oklahoma City and then in two games with the Raptors in Vegas averaging 23 points and seven assists. The way he attacks the rim is super impressive, as is his quickness. Sometimes young guys who receive minutes on lesser teams in Europe or the D-League gain more confidence than they would riding the pine in the NBA. This seems to be the case for the breakout point guard of the 2013 Summer League.

If it isn’t, Urjiri may have stolen another gem from the Pacers, inking D.J. Augustin to a meager one-year contract. Kevin Durant’s wingman at the University of Texas – where he won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard in 2008 – will probably go into training camp as the first PG off the bench. D.J.’s coming off a not-so-great campaign in Indiana, but was pretty solid in Charlotte when he was named to the All-Rookie Second Team. This is a classic case of hoping a change in scenery will jump start the career of a young baller who hasn’t lived up to expectations. Despite some physical limitations, Augustin has shown he can play in the NBA, so the signing is well worth the minimal risk. If D.J. doesn’t pan out, he’s already on an expiring contract. You have to like Masai’s style so far.

How the point guard position plays out could determine the entire team’s success next season. That type of pressure doesn’t bode well for what we know of Kyle Lowry, but the true beauty of the Buycks and Augustin signings is he shouldn’t be threatened by either. The potential of one or both surpassing the incumbent exists, but the threat isn’t imminent. It’s most important Kyle identifies himself as the number one. He definitely plays better when that’s clear. This ideal situation should squash the insecurities that plagued Kyle all last season – initially at least.

Shooter’s insurance

Summer League was a fairly positive experience for the Raptors, apart from Terrance Ross. Terrance did nothing to dispel the concerns many have with his transition into the NBA so far. He should have schooled punks left and right, instead he floated around like a butterfly and continued to struggle with his threes. Ross has plenty of time to blossom and may receive plenty of playing time to prove himself – he currently sits number two on the depth chart at shooting guard. For now however, his play through a disappointing rookie season and two Summer Leagues makes me want to smash my head into the wall every time I hear the name Andre Drummond (some more BC questioning here).

A fairly long intro for Masai’s most recent free agent signing, but Terrance Ross’ weak play is the only logical explanation for the signing of a guy who could quite accurately be described as a poor man’s Andrea Bargnani. Austin Daye is a soft 6’11’’ stretch five (or four or three or two… who really knows?), sold as a dead-eye shooter, but hasn’t shot well since entering the league out of Canada’s unofficial NCAA school, Gonzaga.

Maybe Tim Leiweke mandated a Canadian connection and this is the best Masai could come up with? I know, it’s a reach, but I have a tough time wrapping my head around this one. I thought the Raps just rid themselves of one of these guys, for one of these guys (Steve Novak) and now they have another? In the end it’s another minimal risk move – two years / $2 million, the second year’s a team option – but it has to derive from concerns over Ross’ sketchy scoring touch and probably the struggles of Landry Fields as well. Regardless, it’s puzzling Masai would fill a spot with someone with so many all-too-familiar holes.

raptors-report_jonas

Vegas baby

Summer League put the Raptors on the radar with Jonas’ MVP run and Dwight Buycks breakout showing. Quincy Acy also displayed solid progress in his mid-range game. Quince could easily leapfrog Novak, Fields and the newest bean pole who can’t shoot, defend or rebound (okay, I’ll get over it), if he continues to improve at this rate.

As a basketball junkie it was incredibly cool to watch semi-competitive ball in July. It was a bonus the Raptors held their own right through the inaugural tournament. That is until JV was shelved after the Round of 16 and the possibility of the Raptors actually taking home a trophy was denied. Nevertheless, you could tell Jonas was bored and there’s no sense making a push for a prize that essentially has no value; especially with a lot of international ball still to come for the Big Lithuanian this summer.

The men in charge

Dwayne Casey salvaged his job for at least one more season, but the rest of his staff were given pink slips. The common thread for their replacements is Player Development; seemingly a wise direction for such a young team. To make a little more sense of the Austin Daye signing, Dan Feldman of PistonPowered.com felt Daye’s struggles stemmed from a lack of confidence. You could say the same about 80% of the current Raptors roster. A staff focused on Player Development is certainly geared toward remedying this, and if they can, we could see guys like DeMar Derozen, Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields finally reach their potential.

Soon after it was confirmed he would return, someone on Sportsnet 590 asked Coach Casey what the team’s number one need was this offseason. His response was veteran leadership. He didn’t get it. Masai focused on youth with all his acquisitions. Novak and Handsborough provide some fringe playoff experience, but for the most part he’s dealing with as many kids as last year. Regardless, he sounds dedicated to his defense-first philosophy, which worked well in his first season in charge.  It would be interesting to know why he abandoned it last year.  Is that a Colangelo creeping up in the conversation again? Shhhhh.

Dwayne’s a good, approachable guy and through that he’s gained a lot of respect. Now it’s time to land his team in the playoffs. If he can manage that, Coach Casey will earn the ultimate respect through an extension.

Rapping it up

Through the his first couple months, it appears the new GM is content with staying the course his predecessor set out on. Only Masai Ujiri and Jeff Weltman know exactly what opportunities were presented to the team since he took over, but I’m happy he didn’t choose to join the Riggin’ for Wiggins sweepstakes (yet).

After watching the highlight reel above, it’s definitely something to keep in mind if the Raptors season goes south as early as it did last season.  However, we’ve heard from Coach Casey over and over again; “We need to establish a winning culture,” and I totally agree. Not only do the extremely loyal fans of this city deserve success, but the reputation of the Toronto Raptors needs success.

It’s not the cold winter, high taxes or immigration issues that deter marquee free agents from signing with the Raptors – or leaving like they ALL have done. It’s the inevitability of another losing season that’s turned elite basketball players away from this super-cool city. Until the Raptors can construct a team capable of long-term success, good players in their prime won’t sign or stay.

Placing the fate of the franchise in some lottery balls is not the solution. Even if the Raptors stripped the team down to Charlie V’s and Rodney Stuckey’s – and won the right to draft Andrew Wiggins - who could guarantee enough of the right pieces would evolve around him to be retained after his rookie contract? Nobody. And nobody’s more aware of that than Raptors fans.

Why not start building a playoff contender now so the Raptors can flip the switch and be the franchise to steal Canada’s greatest-ever talent when he becomes the NBA’s top free agent prize? He already said he’d love to play in Toronto, let’s make the decision easy for him when the opportunity arises.

As it stands, there’s  just over $13 million in salary commitments going into the summer of 2015. The Raptors have two seasons to see if this core can make it happen. If it doesn’t, they’ll have another few seasons to retool for the loaded 2014 draft class’ first free agent opportunity.

Despite all the shit talk – that is justified because of this franchise’s dismal track record – the Toronto Raptors are in a good position to break out of their playoffless slump. It’ll be interesting to see if this team can come together like Bryan Collangelo was so convinced it could do and even more intriguing to see what Masai Ujiri will do if they don’t. Either way, you know I’ll be watching.

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