Mon 29 Sep 2014
The Toronto Raptors weren’t supposed to win last season. They weren’t designed to fail, but they weren’t far off. In fairness they weren’t designed at all by general manager Masai Uriri, who was lured from Denver after the 2012-13 season concluded to replace former GM Bryan Colangelo. Working without a first round draft pick and much trade leverage, Ujiri still managed to dump Andrea Bargnani and his contract on the New York Knicks for a cadre of draft picks , but by and large his Raptors looked very much like the squad Colangelo had put together in hopes of making the playoffs the year before. Search any 2013-14 season preview roundup, though, and you’ll find Toronto’s name listed squarely amongst those that were expected to more or less sit out the season during the NBA’s Great Tanking Scourge of the Long Winter. The Raps may have featured a playoff-level payroll, nearly dishing out the luxury tax last year, but Toronto was supposed to battle with the 76ers, Celtics and Magic in the race for more and more ping-pong balls in the draft lottery. Rudy Gay’s value was at an all-time low, and he would be later dealt for a series of rotation parts that didn’t even provide immediate salary cap relief. Coach Dwane Casey was in the final year of a contract that Ujiri didn’t sign him to. Guard Kyle Lowry, the reason for that missed draft pick in 2013, was coming off of a year full of grousing and expected to be dealt to his third team in three years midseason. DeMar DeRozan, even at just 24 years of age, appeared to be working on a plateau. Then, the team just stopped losing. Stuck at 7-13 two days after the Rudy Gay deal, Casey and Lowry led the Raptors to a 41-21 finish, showcasing sound instincts on both ends of the floor in spite of some dodgy late-game play. Toronto not only made the playoffs, it won the second Atlantic Division title in the franchise’s history. It probably should have made the second-round, too, had Kyle Lowry’s much-rued potential game-winner not have been blocked by former Brooklyn Nets swingman (still weird) Paul Pierce in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs. All of this put Ujiri in a somewhat enviable position that seems quite familiar. If you’ll recall, Colangelo’s Raptors took off in his first full year with Toronto, making the playoffs in 2007 with a series of carry-over players and coaches that were supposed to be on the outs with the new regime on its way in. With a postseason berth in hand, Colangelo doubled-down on what he was given, including the coaching staff, while over-committing to what he brought in (Bargnani). Things didn’t really grow from there. Ujiri wasn’t wrong to bring back Casey, or to re-sign Lowry to a very reasonable deal, or to draft a project pick that was shamed on national TV as being “ two years away from being two years away .” He really didn’t have much room to move, what with a solid roster already in place, chemistry established, and no real free agent prospects to work with in the summer before several Raptors’ deals will come off the book. No, this wasn’t a bad offseason, and it won’t be a bad season. It’s just a too-familiar scenario, as we lead up to Masai’s great big chance to shake things up in the summer of 2015. After too many years in the wilderness, Raptor fans will take whatever they can get.
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