Coming into this NBA season, most avid basketball fans were well aware that the 2014 Draft could potentially be a game changer for some lucky franchise(s). Andrew Wiggins was hyped to be the next LeBron, on magazine covers depicted with Kansas Jayhawk legends Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning. Wiggins would be the number one pick this summer, and the Duke-bound Chicago native, Jabari Parker, would be drafted right up there with him. #RigginforWiggins became the popular tag to describe the inevitable tanking that could take place league-wide. Surely the Toronto Raptors would jump into the race. Except something weird happened, they won the Atlantic Division, and are now on the cusp of knocking off the Brooklyn Nets and advancing to the second round. This is no one-year wonder, this Raptors are built to last.
The off season started with some luck for Canada’s NBA representative. Masai Ujiri, 2013’s NBA Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets, was a Free Agent. Luckily for the Raptors, Ujiri had history with the franchise, as he had served as Toronto’s Director of Global Scouting, and eventually Assistant General Manager in 2008. He returned to the Raptors to take their vacant General Manager position for 5 years, $15 million. Masai was fortunate to inherit some good young talent, but had a team that was incomplete. The first order of business was ridding the franchise of Andrea Bargnani, who never lived up to the expectations that come with being selected first overall, and had been the subject of trade rumors for several years. With two years, $23 million left on the oft-injured Center’s contract, who could partner up with Ujiri for a deal? How about a team with whom he had trading history, the New York Knicks. Ujiri pulled off a good trade dealing Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks while with Denver, given the circumstances (Melo’s inevitable departure through Free Agency, hurting Denver’s leverage). Trading Bargnani for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, and Quentin Richardson doesn’t sound like anything special, but amazingly Ujiri was able to steal a first round pick and two second round picks from the Knicks, which could be a great asset in the future. Just two months later, Knicks GM Glen Grunwald was relieved of his duties.
The Raptors started the season in mediocre fashion, sitting at 7-12, and it was time to go into full-on tank mode, right? The team traded top scorer Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy, and Aaron Gray to Sacramento for John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes on December 9. Everyone penciled the team in for the lottery, except something weird happened: they started winning. The Raps won 10 of their next 13 games, hitting the All Star Break at a respectable 28-24. They were represented by DeMar DeRozan at the All-Star game, as he was perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the trade. It has become glaringly obvious that Gay is a terribly inefficient ball hog, as his Grizzlies upset the #1 seeded Spurs in 2011 without him, and his absence has allowed these young Raptors to flourish. The last significant move Ujiri made was really the one he didn’t make. Kyle Lowry was subject to trade rumors all season, with most assuming it was all but official that Ujiri would once again deal with the Knicks, and send Lowry to NY. Surely the Raptors couldn’t hold on to a playoff spot anyway, so why not cash in your chips while you can and pick up more assets? Well rumor has it that Knicks owner James Dolan nixed a possible deal for another first rounder, so Lowry remained a Raptor. The team held on to win the Atlantic Division, and they now find themselves one game from shocking most of the basketball world.
By trading Bargnani to acquire a first round pick, Ujiri helped secure the chance to obtain young talent in the future. By trading Gay, he opened up valuable shots and playing time for their young players now, and fortified their bench with Vasquez and Patterson. Terrance Ross, young and erratic but talented and explosive (had a 50 point game this year) and DeRozan present a nightmare match up for these old Nets with their athleticism and ability to score. In these playoffs Lowry has looked like Isaiah Thomas 2.0, hyper competitive with a couple of screws loose. He has played hurt and still torched the Nets, and if the Raptors can retain him this off season they will boast an impressive core of Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Valanciunas, and Vasquez plus salary cap space freed up by trades like Bargnani’s and Gay’s. We’ll find out in the coming days if the Raptors can knock off the Nets and advance, and it’s not likely they will advance past the Miami Heat in the next round even if they do. Fearless as they may be, I think their collective lack of experience will hurt them eventually. Whatever happens with this team, I think they’ve shown that under this General Manager, they’re here to stay.
Enjoy a .gif of Kyle Lowry embarrassing Deron WIlliams late in Game 5.