The Raptors Reborn

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Heading into Sunday evening on Dec. 8, 2013, all the news was supposed to centre on the comeback of future Hall-of-Famer, Kobe Bryant—out since April with a torn Achilles. With the Toronto Raptors languishing at 6-12—another putrid season unfolding before a dedicated, but increasingly-jaded fanbase—Kobe’s return was the primary reason for tuning in, both in California and in Canada.

General Manager Masai Ujiri, had other plans, however.

Photo: USA Today Sports

A few hours before tip-off, rumours began to circulate regarding a blockbuster deal involving the Raptors’ leading scorer, Rudy Gay (more on him in a bit), and some other, smaller pieces. And it didn’t take long for those rumours to be confirmed. Gay was moving to Sacramento, along with deep rotation fodder Aaron Gray and Quincy Acy. In return, the Raptors picked up players that could be collectively molded into something resembling an NBA-caliber bench: Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes.

At the time, however, the six other players involved in the deal were non-factors. The move was, and is, first and foremost about shedding Gay’s contract and his horrific $19-million player option for next season. Everything else was an afterthought. And on the surface of it, to those who were unfamiliar with the product that the Raptors were putting out through the first 18 games of the season, the trade of the most talented player on the roster (in theory, if not in practice) seemed like the start of a major teardown. The Raptors, as many believed, were now Riggin’ for Wiggins.

But if you’d actually suffered through Raptors games prior to the trade, you would’ve understood that trading Gay was addition by subtraction. Before the Gay trade, the Raptors were a hot mess on offense. No ball movement, no spacing—all iso-ball, all the time. Dwane Casey could be blamed for much of that (the plays coming out of time-outs were dreadful during that stretch) but a lot of the problems were a result of Gay’s toxic combination of high usage and high inefficiency. Gay was shooting the ball more times per game than LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden, all while shooting under 40 per cent from the field.

With Gay and DeMar DeRozan (yes, DeMar was also guilty of it early in the season) shooting contested 20-foot jumpers, the entire team was low on confidence and motivation. And really, it was understandable. If you were Kyle Lowry or Jonas Valanciunas at that stage in the season, would you bust your ass on defense and move without the ball if you were barely involved in the offense? Probably not.

But what a difference a month—and a trade—makes.

 

Photo: Heel Sports/Creative Commons

With Gay in California the Raptors look like a completely different team. In fact, they’re playing their best basketball in years. Since December 8, the Raptors have gone 9-3, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the mighty Spurs. During that time they’ve had very impressive on-the-road wins over both the Mavericks and Thunder, as well as perhaps the best team in the NBA at this moment, the Indiana Pacers, who they outmuscled 95-82 on New Year’s Day.

At 6-12 prior to Gay being traded, the Raptors are now 15-15, with a 2.5 game lead atop the Atlantic Division (minor caveat: the Atlantic Division is god-awful). As things stand, the Raptors would have a home playoff series as the number four seed.

But really, it isn’t just that the Raptors are winning, it’s how they’re winning right now that is most impressive. The days of no-movement iso-ball feel like a long time ago. The team is sharing the rock, cutting without the ball, driving to the basket and opening up shots in the corners. During their first 18 games of the season, the Raptors had only three games where they racked up 20 or more assists as a team. In the past 12 games, however, they’ve had 20 or more assists in all but three games.

Individually the Raptors seem to be improving across the board.

 

Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas have both looked great, benefiting from an increased role in the offense. Both men are, and always were, very solid at rolling and finishing at the rim. Now, without Rudy, the Raptors are running a lot more pick-n-rolls, and the big men are flourishing. Orchestrating the two-man game has been point guard, Kyle Lowry. Lowry was the subject of trade rumours almost immediately after Gay was moved, but has responded by playing the best ball of his career. In the win over Indiana, Lowry was beastly, dropping 14 assists and taking two huge charges from Luis Scola and Roy Hibbert. May I remind you that Lowry is only six feet tall.

And then there’s the play of Terrence Ross. The second-year man became an afterthought with Gay in town (one of the many reasons why we were against the trade with Memphis to begin with), although he’s coming into his own since his departure. Ross has taken advantage of more minutes, as well as the better overall ball movement. He’s spotting up in the corners and knocking down 3s at a fantastic clip. Ross has shot 46 per cent from 3 during the past 12 games, and has become a real floor-spacer. Just as importantly, he looks like he’s improving as a defender. In the game against Indiana, he he did a terrific job shutting down a legitimate superstar, Paul George.

 

Photo: Still image from Toronto Raptors/YouTube

While the offense has suddenly begun purring, it’s defense that the Raptors have hung their hat on. Defense was always Casey’s main strength as a head coach, and even while the team looked atrocious offensively early on this year, they’ve been consistent to that end. The Raptors currently rank eighth in defensive efficiency, restricting teams to 100.3 points per 100 possessions. Couple that with their vast improvement on offense and you’ve got yourself a solid playoff team. That’s not been said about Toronto in quite some time.

But—and yes there’s always a ‘but’ with the Raptors—is this really a good time for the Raptors to suddenly become a competitive playoff team?

As much as the fan-base was appalled with the team’s play through the first quarter of the season, a large segment was licking their lips at the prospect of blowing things up and grabbing a game-changing draft pick in what should be the most stacked draft since 2003, where the likes of Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker and of course, Canadian phenom, Andrew Wiggins, are up for grabs.

Finishing in the NBA’s no-man’s land—which is really anywhere from sixth to tenth in the conference—can be the worst possible outcome for a franchise. You take a thumping in the first round of the playoffs, and are only able to draft in the mid-teens, which, unless you absolutely luck out, won’t result in any franchise-changing talent heading your way.

While many fans thought the team would improve without Gay (although probably not this much), they also believed that the trade was going to be the first of many, that Ujiri had seen enough and would set the course to full-on tank mode. But with the Raptors playing the way they have, that hasn’t happened yet and, of course, probably won’t.

 

Photo: Still image from video/CBC

Every fan would love to land an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker—Ujiri probably feels the same way—but blowing up a team playing this well would send a terrible message to the young, ever-improving players on the team, as well as to a fanbase that, while it understands the importance of drafting and the overall big picture, has also been starved of anything resembling success for far too long.

It isn’t even that the Raptors have been an NBA punchline for the past few years—like the Knicks or Nets—but that they haven’t even been relevant enough to be a punchline. The sample size is small, and fans are trying not to get too carried away, but people are starting to turn their heads and notice the Raptors. Considering the current state of the Eastern Conference, the Raptors have a legitimate chance of winning a playoff series this season. The Wizards aren’t scaring anyone, and neither are the Hawks without Al Horford.

The awful state of the Eastern Conference speaks to another reason why Ujiri has likely abandoned the tank. At this stage, even if Ujiri wanted to carry out a teardown, tanking for a top-five pick would be really hard. With so many horrible teams in the NBA this season, including New York, Brooklyn, Sacramento, Utah, Lakers, Chicago, Orlando, Milwaukee, Philadelphia—a few of which are shamelessly tanking—being able to out-stink those teams would require a monumental freefall. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote in a recent column, “this is a deep draft, but you don’t tank for a no.7 pick.”

The point isn’t that tanking doesn’t work as a strategy, but that tanking, for a few reasons, isn’t a viable strategy for the Raptors at this moment in time. If they had started earlier, then maybe. But not now.

And really, for those of us enjoying watching the Raptors play their best ball in years, that’s a good thing. The Raptors won’t be winning any playoff series against the likes of Miami and Indiana anytime soon, but that’s not the point. The Raptors are relevant right now. If you’re a long-suffering Raptors fan, sit back and enjoy.

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