30 Teams in 30 Days: Raptors optimistic that big overhaul elevates them in East
After losing last season in semifinals, Toronto takes gamble in new coach and DeRozan-Leonard trade
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today’s team: Toronto Raptors
Who’s new: Nick Nurse, Kawhi Leonard (trade), Danny Green (trade), Greg Monroe (free agency)
Who’s gone: Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan (trade), Jakob Poeltl (trade)
The lowdown: Blessed with good health and energized by a bench that made significant strides, the Raptors soared to the top of the heap during the regular season and recorded the best record in franchise history. Their All-Star starting backcourt of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry never looked better together, and DeRozan, who improved as a 3-point shooter, made All-NBA. But the success of the Raptors was tied to the supporting help; the rotation went 10-deep, giving Casey plenty of options depending on the nightly matchup. For his efforts in diversifying the offense, Casey would win Coach of the Year. However, once again the playoffs, and LeBron James in particular, proved to be the Raptors’ unraveling, with grave results this time. Getting bounced in a sweep led to massive changes. Casey was fired and the front office decided to break up the backcourt, with DeRozan shipped to the Spurs for Leonard in what was the summer’s biggest swap. The shakeup didn’t exactly weaken the Raptors much if at all on paper, however, and the Raptors exited the offseason with justifiable hope for better results next spring.
For a few turbulent weeks, Masai Ujiri must’ve felt like a punching bag for the first time in his charmed NBA career. The former Executive of the Year, widely hailed as one of the brightest front office minds in the game, was questioned by critics, heard doubts in Toronto and got the cold shoulder from the most popular player in town.
Make that ex-player: DeRozan was sent, kicking and screaming, to San Antonio, when all he wanted to do was spend the rest of his career in Toronto.
You can blame it on LeBron, who stole Toronto’s soul in the playoffs with big performances and a game-winner that all but forced Ujiri to press the red button.
Rather than wait until after next season, with LeBron headed out of the East, before making any wholesale changes, the general manager decided to be proactive. Yes, he could’ve kept the Raptors intact with good reason; after all, they did nearly win 60 games and there’s no shame in losing a series to LeBron, who wouldn’t be around to spook them anymore anyway.
But Casey was fired in a move that surprised the league only because his work in 2017-18 was largely stellar. He drew the respect of his peers and was admired in Toronto and also checked his ego by refining his system to become more player-friendly. Casey’s downfall was directly tied to the playoffs series with Cleveland. The Raptors blew a big Game 1 lead and then didn’t show up in Game 4 where they lost by 35.
The game before, LeBron sank a buzzer-beating, winning one-hander when the Raptors didn’t double on the play, which wasn’t a good look.
Game 3 also spelled doom for DeRozan, who was benched in the fourth quarter after shooting three-for-12 with eight points. It was unusual to see a team’s leading scorer yanked in a playoff game and maybe that entered into Ujiri’s think-tank.
Nonetheless, DeRozan would likely still be in Toronto today if not for the Kawhi-fueled drama in San Antonio, which led to the star being shopped for the highest price. It was an opportunity that Ujiri couldn’t pass up, even with no assurance that Leonard would be anything more than a one-year rental.
Leonard missed virtually all of last season with a quad strain that confounded the Spurs and led to a level of distrust between the player (or his “people” according to coach Gregg Popovich) and the Spurs’ medical staff. The quiet star never said a word, although his actions spoke for him; Kawhi didn’t bother sitting on the bench for the Spurs’ playoff games and mainly elected to stay in New York rehabbing.
Also, word is Leonard preferred to play for the hometown Lakers or Clippers and becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, raising the possibility that Toronto is just a stopover.
None of this spooked Ujiri, who made the trade anyway, risking the disappointment of Lowry and the anger of DeRozan, who is mentioned with Vince Carter as the best player in franchise history. From a popularity standpoint, this wasn’t the best move, especially factoring in Kawhi’s pending free agency. Yet strictly on talent, there’s no comparison. Leonard is one of the game’s finest two-way players and still in his prime.
He outplayed LeBron in a championship series, improved his shooting range and is without peer as a lockdown defender in today’s NBA. Also, until last season, he was as low-maintenance as it gets in professional sports.
Most likely, the Raptors will get the best of Kawhi, because there’s every reason for him to play well here in his walk year. And if that’s the case, the Raptors will be in the mix for the East title.
The deal also sent Poeltl to the Spurs and Green to the Raptors. After being a mild disappointment, Poeltl began to gain confidence last season and the seven-footer was vital off the bench. Green will instantly help the Raptors’ ball-spacing with his three-point shooting, and as a bonus, Green is aggressive defensively.
Nurse assumes the coaching job, and this was a curious decision, considering he was Casey’s lead assistant. Nurse won’t need to change much, considering Casey’s system won 59 games, and the best news is the new coach doesn’t need to worry about LeBron.
These were potential franchise-changing moves made by Ujiri no matter what happens. If they work, Toronto is playing for a title next summer. If they don’t, Toronto will be ready to rebuild.
Coming Next: Houston Rockets
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