The Toronto Raptors enter the 2017-18 season with a fairly prodigious task: to change without making real change.
When team president Masai Ujiri met with the media following a second-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, his message was blunt, stating that the franchise needed a “culture reset,” words that have hung over the club all summer long.
Ujiri went on to talk about the need to catch up to the modern-day style of play, which essentially boils down to swifter ball movement, a faster-pace and an emphasis on creating more three-point opportunities. He backed head coach Dwane Casey, under whom the Raptors had, in part due to their personnel on the roster, operated a fairly archaic offensive system that saw them rank dead last in passing. Then he re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, keeping the core of his team intact.
But despite the continuity on the bench and on the floor, the Raptors know they’ll need to evolve and adapt in order to compete and avoid digression.
“The general theme is style of play,” general manager Bobby Webster said Thursday morning on Sportsnet 590 The Fan, when asked what changes the team is addressing heading into this season, “Obviously three-point shooting is part of that, but also ball movement and understanding what defences are trying to make your offence do.”
Apart from the way the game is played across the league, this past off-season has brought a ton of changes to the landscape of the NBA and the Eastern Conference, as well.
Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, transforming his former team, the Indiana Pacers, from one with perennial playoff hopes to what is now full-out rebuild mode. Chicago dealt Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and, like Indiana, have gone from a playoff team to one suddenly hitting the reset button. The Miami Heat added a talented and versatile set of big men in Kelly Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo, and are reportedly among a handful of teams with a chance to sign Dwyane Wade (though Cleveland is believed to be the favourite).
The Charlotte Hornets added Dwight Howard and talented rookie scoring machine Malik Monk to a roster that flirted with home-court advantage until imploding in the second-half of last season. The Philadelphia 76ers are banking big on a pair of reigning first-overall picks, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, while adding playoff-experienced veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson to a roster that could compete for a post-season as early as this season.
The Raptors? Their only significant roster move was essentially swapping out DeMarre Carroll for C.J. Miles—a noticeable upgrade, to be sure, but not one that would, in a vacuum, necessarily result in a real uptick in wins or better their playoff chances considerably.
And so, they’re banking on internal change.
How dramatic those changes are, and how readily apparent they are to those who have followed the team during their recent run securing home-court advantage for each of the past four seasons, remains to be seen.
“We’re not expecting players to change overnight,” said Webster who, at 32, became the youngest GM in the NBA when he was promoted earlier this summer. “But a move in that direction is what were looking for—not just our players but everyone in the organization, coaches on down.”
While an emphasis on playmaking and ball movement will force players like DeMar DeRozan to expand their games, this season’s success will also hinge on the Raptors’ glut of young players who have spent time over the past two seasons back-and-forth with the Raptors 905 and the big club, with mostly positive results to show for it.
“Our young players are going to get a chance this year. That was by design, we’re going to see what guys will be able to do.”
Delon Wright will take over Cory Joseph’s duties at backup point guard, while second-year big man Jakob Poeltl will look to continue to build off what was a quietly-impressive second half of last season. Pascal Siakam, who was a starter at the beginning of 2016-17, will get a chance to earn minutes, as well as the enigmatic Bruno Caboclo, who has an opportunity to seize a spot as a reserve wing off the bench. Even Norman Powell, who has already been on the floor—and in the starting lineup—during crucial playoff matches, will be relied upon more than ever for consistent production.
One of the bigger changes Webster sees making a difference this season is the play of Serge Ibaka, whom he expects will benefit from more time working with the coaching staff throughout training camp. Ibaka was thrust into a starting role immediately after being acquired from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Terrence Ross last season, and was only beginning to get acclimated to his new team by the time the playoffs ended.
“We haven’t been big on mid-season trades because it’s hard to incorporate somebody new,” Webster said. “Now with a full off-season with him understanding the things we want to do, I think we’ll get the best out of Serge Ibaka because of that.”
The Raptors are in a good position to finish in the top four once again. They have the talent and the experience. But with an emphasis on a new approach to winning, and leaning on a young, mostly-unproven bench to take a collective step forward, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the team heading into training camp.
Not taking huge risks this summer and expecting changes across the organization—on and off the floor—might have been the biggest risk of them all.