When the season ended, earlier than hoped once again, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri sat with his soon-to-be-elevated GM Bobby Webster and the rest of their staff to talk about pulling the team apart. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were both free agents. Would now be the time to break up the Raptors and go young?
“We spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Ujiri said. “A lot of time.”
He did not keep those thoughts secret from Lowry and Ibaka. “I told them,” Ujiri said. “I kept their agents in the loop, so they knew all of the different things we could do. I always try to be straight with all of these guys, and tell them exactly how it is. They knew that we had options to go younger.”
By July, when they committed to re-signing Lowry and Ibaka, the Raptors had decided to explore another way of squeezing a longer playoff run out of this roster.
“We figured we have to take advantage of this time and the players we have now,” said Ujiri. “And see what momentum we can build.”
There is something about touching the ball -- there’s energy because you’re involved. So sometimes you need to pass the ball for the sake of passing it.
Could they find upside in an established rotation that was built to win now? Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey believed they could. The secret was to watch the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics. The teams that moved the ball were making the most of their talent.
“One thing we have to do is become a better ball-moving team, a better passing team,” Casey said. “Sometimes we’ve got to pass the ball for the sake of passing -- just to get the ball from side to side.”
Time to ‘trust the pass’
For much of last season the Raptors ranked near the top of the NBA offensively, Casey noted. Then, as their defense tightened after the All-Star break, their offense struggled. An emphasis on sharing the ball could help bring the two ends of the court together.
“There are so many byproducts when you don’t pass the ball,” Casey said. “Guys are not as engaged defensively when they don’t touch the ball. There is something about touching the ball -- there’s energy because you’re involved. So sometimes you need to pass the ball for the sake of passing it.
“A guy like Serge, if he’s touching the ball, he feels part of everything on the offensive end, and then he goes down to the defensive end and he is engaged.”
The problem, as Ujiri and Casey both see it, is one-on-one play. Toronto finished last in assists at 18.5 per game -- roughly 60 percent of the Warriors’ league-leading output (30.4) -- in part because the point guard, Lowry, has taken on so much responsibility for carrying his team.
“Kyle is one of the smartest players in the league -- he understands what is a good shot, he understands our shot spectrum,” Casey said. “At the same time, he is such a competitor that a guy like him will try to take it on his own.
“By adding Serge, Jakob Poeltl or Jonas Valanciunas to space out and take a shot, there is going to be more space for Kyle to get it inside and kick it out. We need him and DeMar [DeRozan] both to take the pressure off themselves with the pass and trust the pass. And it is not a head-knocking thing. Kyle understands.”
DeRozan, Lowry must make others better
Leading scorers DeRozan (27.3 ppg last season) and Lowry (22.4) have expressed competitiveness rather than selfishness. Amid numerous roster changes -- DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson all departed, to be replaced by C.J. Miles and several younger Raptors working their way into the rotation -- Toronto’s next step is dependent on its All-Stars bringing out the best in teammates at a higher rate.
DeRozan’s passing has improved noticeably, while Lowry averaged 7.0 assists last season – all of which is to say that an overhaul of their games isn’t necessary. Making the extra pass will ultimately bring out the best in DeRozan and Lowry.
“We have to learn to trust others too,” Ujiri said. “You trust them that the ball will come back to you in some kind of way. That’s what trust does.”
The isolation style that ruled the NBA two decades ago can still be important at times, Ujiri noted. “But it has to really go your way. You can’t have an injury. You can’t have any setbacks in any way.”
Ujiri could see that DeRozan and Lowry were having to work too hard to create their own shots in the playoffs. “When the shots aren’t falling,” Casey said, “that’s when you’ve really got to concentrate on your passing, on making the extra pass, trusting the pass.”
“Our two guys are talented,” Ujiri said. “We need guys around them to really help them. That’s what we’ve talked about with the reset and trying to play a different way.”
Stars welcome mentoring role
Months after finishing as the NBA’s No. 5 scorer, DeRozan could be found working out with younger teammates and Raptors prospects at their Summer League practices in Las Vegas. It was one of many signs that he and Lowry are invested in pulling the team together.
“If you’re part of the organization, you’re part of the organization,” DeRozan said. “That’s how I look at it. I try to help out by any way possible, and it starts with things like this. Be with the team, be with the young guys, that’s what it’s all about.”
The Raptors aren’t suited to score like the Warriors, who are outfitted with 3-point shooters. But they can follow Golden State’s example by sharing the ball in pursuit of open shots and unpredictability in their offense.
“That is the next element for us to really be successful,” DeRozan said. “We have shown that we can score with the best of them, if we come down on isos or whatever it may be. But now, to take it to the next level, we have got to be able to move the ball, swing the ball, and that will add different elements to our game.”
The issue will be to stick with this new point of view, even if the Raptors lose games along the way. Under pressure, will they revert to their old ways? “We have to figure out a way to get out of one-on-one basketball and not play that as much,” Ujiri insisted.
Based on Ujiri’s consideration of breaking up the roster, it will be in the best interest of everyone to commit to the new ball-sharing formula. There promises to be a now-or-never approach to this season in Toronto.
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