Grange on Raptors: Ujiri must pick his path

The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers represent two different styles of putting together a playoff team. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The focus of the basketball world will be riveted on Miami tonight, where the defending champion Heat are playing for their legacy against the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference final.

Those invested in the Toronto Raptors finding their way from semi-permanent basketball oblivion should be watching too.

Playing it out for a chance to go to the NBA Finals are the two extremes of how a winning team can be put together in the NBA.

The question in Toronto, having only once, fleetingly, come close to the being an elite NBA team – Game 7, Vince Carter, 2001 – is when or how will the Raptors ever get to that level and what path they’ll choose as they embark on their latest attempt to ascend from their perpetual base camp.

It is that question – or more accurately the answer to that question– that very likely cost Bryan Colangelo his chance to see through the rebuilding project he had underway the past three seasons.

In his version of events the Raptors were a young team on the cusp of something with Rudy Gay, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry merely time and some additional pieces away from being an elite team.

Wrong answer.

Incoming MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke and general manager Masai Ujiri – scheduled to introduce themselves at a press conference in Toronto Tuesday — saw a team that may or may not have a shot at the playoffs, but one with a low ceiling.

Leiweke calls it being a 7-11 team – good enough to make the playoffs but not advance; bad enough to miss the playoffs but not have the benefit of a top pick. It’s a recipe for mediocrity, and Leiweke sounds like he wants no part of it.

Sounds good, but what to do? And what can be learned from the teams the Raptors will need to climb over at some point?

The Heat represent everything the Raptors are not, have never been and never will be. They represent sunshine, no state taxes, sex appeal and Pat Riley. They have consistently been able to attract superstar talent, whether it’s Alonzo Mourning or Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James or … who is that other guy? Right, Chris Bosh.

It is figuring out how to combat the inherent advantages markets like Los Angeles, Miami and New York represent that needs to be Toronto’s obsession.

Do the Pacers represent the way?

Indianapolis is one of the NBA’s flyover markets – cities that stars don’t want to play in or can easily be tempted to leave if they happen to get drafted there. They represent the absolute opposite extreme from Miami.

Last season the Heat became the first team since the NBA introduced the salary cap in the 1984-85 season to win an NBA championship with three top-five picks from the same draft class, thanks to James and Bosh falling over themselves to get out of Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach in the summer of 2010.

The Pacers, meanwhile, became the first team since the 1983 San Antonio Spurs to make it to the NBA’s final four without the benefit of a player taken in the top eight in the draft of any year. Their two best players in the series, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, were taken 10th and 17th respectively. Their other starters, Lance Stephenson, George Hill and David West were taken 10th, 26th and 18th.

If you’re from Toronto, and know what the city has to offer, it’s tough to accept being lumped in with Milwaukee and Cleveland and Memphis and Indianapolis or Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver or Detroit.

But as the Raptors look to reinvent themselves yet another time, having failed heading into their 18th season to settle on a vision and a philosophy that works, what Ujiri and perhaps more importantly Leiweke sees when they watch Game 7 Monday night is a burning issue for the short- and long-term visions of the franchise.

Do they see Toronto as a glamour market waiting to be discovered?

Or do they accept their fate as one of the NBA’s “other” markets which will have to go about the dodgy business of building a winning team the long way around?

Or, more appropriately, will they recognize what they truly are: one of the NBA’s secondary markets, to be sure, but one with advantages that far outstrip niggly issues like higher taxes, cold weather or customs lineups?

For Raptors fans the most encouraging development in this year’s playoffs is evidence that teams like Memphis or Golden State or Denver or Indiana – all promising teams without a classic franchise player taken in the top-five of the draft – can move themselves into the conversation as contenders without having tanked in search of landing the next Kevin Durant in the draft.

Even more encouraging would by the recognition that the Raptors have one advantage that a lot of so-called secondary markets don’t – and that’s the ability and apparent willingness, according to Leiweke, be a tax team.

What that means is that should Ujiri be able to assemble a team that can find a way to compete it has a chance to be sustainable and won’t necessarily require being sold off for parts to avoid luxury tax penalties. That with the bones of a winning team in place money can be spent to keep players and attract new ones.

It’s an option teams like Memphis or Indiana and other markets not among the league’s glamour set don’t necessarily have, but one that should be very real here. There is hope, in other words.

Ujiri won’t actually be watching tonight’s game as he’ll be on a flight from Denver in time to arrive in Toronto for his introductory press conference on Tuesday.

But the outcome doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it’s being played between two franchises from such polar ends of the spectrum.

What Ujiri and his new boss see in a Game 7 between two NBA extremes bears watching, and where they see Toronto falling on the continuum between the Heat and the Pacers will be telling.

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