It’s one of the toughest doubles to pull off in pro sports: development and winning. The two rarely, if ever, go together. However, since the Raptors’ trade of Rudy Gay to Sacramento, Toronto seems to be doing both and maybe Masai Ujiri and particularly Dwane Casey are due some credit.
Ujiri has always maintained this year is about evaluation and development of players, particularly the younger members of the team. It was said here back when the 2012–13 Executive of the Year took the position to rebuild the Raptors, he would be patient. So for Raptors fans everywhere (and particularly those in social-media circles circulating and waiting for the next move), a word of advice: Just let the team find its own level. Sit, wait and enjoy the ride. Just be patient.
In the meantime the team continues to develop players, particularly with increased expectations and roles for Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. They’ve also fostered a style of play that has them sporting a 7-3 record since the trade, hitting the 20-assist plateau eight times in those 10 contests after breaking that barrier only a couple times before the team was retooled.
Ross is registering 20-point games while still seeking consistency, and Valanciunas is getting valuable fourth quarter minutes and has recorded more double doubles already this season than he did in his rookie campaign a year ago. And DeMar DeRozan, who as he puts it “just wants to win,” is learning about playing winning basketball in close games.
Of course there are veterans behind this improved play as Kyle Lowry continues to play well and push himself into all-star type discussions, and 12-year veteran John Salmons has been the quiet experienced leader every team needs.
The team cohesion couldn’t come at a better time, as the schedule just might be turning in the Raptors’ favour. Toronto is one of only three teams in the East to have a winning record on the road and will play its next nine games against Eastern Conference opponents.
It’s not in his nature to say “Look at me” but perhaps Casey deserves some credit for the recent success. His philosophical principles about how the game should be played are unwavering. He values veteran talent yet understands it is a process as he tries to walk the fine line of allowing his younger players to develop under the umbrella of accountability.
The irrational cries from fans about rotations have disappeared. It is clear now that the coach was searching for a combination that would work, but the pieces just didn’t fit. Since the trade, though, it’s a different story. It’s only been 10 games, but the early returns are nothing but positive.
As the head coach said in New York last week, “There is a lot of season to be played and I have seen things change in a month.”
So while everyone combs over statistics to see if there is true consistency being developed by this team, maybe there’s a qualitative aspect to be examined as well. Casey has helped to manage distractions, particularly the transition of new players and the trade rumours surrounding Lowry. The point guard is in a contract year and is playing for pay this season. Between he and the coaching staff (and Casey did speak with his team in Los Angeles on the night of the trade about this being the group going forward), everyone has maintained focus.
Distractions that make players unhappy permeate the locker room. One player becomes disgruntled and then takes another with him, and then divisions start to occur as players take sides. For the time being in Toronto, none of that is apparent, and success on the court has helped squelch it even further.
So what’s next? Could these Raptors possibly be a playoff team? In the East, the answer is a resounding yes. “Tank nation” won’t be happy about that but in addition to changing the perception of the franchise around the league with opponents, front offices and officials, the developmental plan should not be abandoned either.
What would a first-round playoff appearance do for the advancement of Ross, Valanciunas and DeRozan? Heck, let’s put the cart before the horse for a bit: If a first-round playoff win is in the cards and the three aforementioned players get a chance to play the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat in the conference semi-final, there are sure to be valuable lessons gained.
But as much as people want to know what the next move is, remember, being patient is prudent. Yes Lowry’s value is high but is this the time to move him and possibly take a step back? Or do you ride him, even ’til the end of the season, while he continues to play at a high level and then talk re-signing him? If the price is too steep and you think you may have gotten all you can from him, he may walk and then Ujiri has money to spend.
What about the coach? At some point, Ujiri will have to make a decision. But for now, Raptor fans need to be easy-going and just watch and see what transpires because for now at least, Toronto is pulling off a rare NBA double.