CLEVELAND – Masai Ujiri has enjoyed a deservedly gilded existence in his four years as president of the Toronto Raptors. His ledger is full of franchise firsts, heights never previously reached.
On court, off court, nearly everything he’s touched has turned to gold, which is why the Raptors are in the midst of their franchise-record fourth-straight playoff appearance, trying to figure out how to knock LeBron James off his Eastern Conference throne.
Ujiri’s built an organization that dreams of such things.
The Raptors were kicking around the idea of getting their own NBA Development League franchise for nearly a decade but it never happened until Ujiri got Raptors 905 off the ground in a matter of months and they won a title in their second season with Bruno Caboclo, his swing-for-the-fences draft pick from 2014, scoring 31 points in the championship-deciding game and Jerry Stackhouse, his hand-picked head coach ending up as one of the hottest new coaching prospects in basketball.
Their practice facility? A starry-eyed project for years, but a reality under Ujiri.
You can go on down the list. DeMar DeRozan contract. Serge Ibaka trade. Turning Greivis Vasquez into Norm Powell. Signing Kyle Lowry to a four-year deal worth ‘only’ $48 million.
But as the Toronto Raptors gear up for a pivotal Game 2 of their second-round series against the Cavaliers, having had their dreams of an upset handed back to them in pieces after being shellacked – again – on the road, two of Ujiri’s weaker moments – when viewed with the benefit of hindsight — are now under scrutiny.
Outside of DeRozan, Ujiri’s two largest financial commitments have been to Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, whose deals were worth $60-million and $64-million, respectively. Not bad for starters on 50-win teams, arguably.
But here’s the rub: As of Game 2 on Wednesday night they may not be starters anymore.
According to sources, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey — desperate to find a way to score enough to keep up with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are averaging 113.4-points points a game through five playoff starts — is giving strong consideration to sitting both Carroll and Valanciunas for Game 2.
In their place would go Powell and rookie Jakob Poeltl. Powell’s role would be to reprise the added ball-handling and shooting that the second-year guard provided the Raptors when he started Games 4-6 against the Milwaukee Bucks while the Austrian rookie would be expected to give Toronto some additional quickness to help on the Cavs pick-and-roll attacks while still maintaining some size to battle the offensive rebounding pressure Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love bring.
It was almost startling to hear Casey speak about the need to inject some scoring – almost, even, at the expense of defence – as the Raptors gathered Tuesday, still sorting through the embers of a 116-105 loss in Game 1.
It’s like a coach who’s seen the future and recognized that his team and the way it’s configured is barely able to conform, but needs to try anyway.
“The league is changing,” said Casey at the Raptors practice Tuesday. “The league is changing. You have to change or you get stuck in the mud. It’s more of a scoring league now. You saw what San Antonio had done to them last night [in a 27-point loss to the Houston Rockets the Spurs gave up 22 threes on 50 attempts].
“We have to score points,” said Casey, whose club is averaging just 95.4 points a game in the post-season, worst among active teams and 11.4 points off their regular season average. “We have to manufacture points and not get our dobber down if the other team scores. If they score, boom, hey, next play. Not to say defence isn’t important, because it is. But we can’t get caught up in ‘we gotta stop them.’”
It’s a watershed moment, arguably, with Casey acknowledging that simply planning to win with your defence first can only take you so far. In that context, to put it bluntly, it’s not clear exactly where Valanciunas’s future lies as a starter on an NBA team with championship aspirations, given his limitations offensively and defensively in a wide-open, three-point heavy game.
When Ujiri signed the Lithuanian to his extension in the summer of 2015 it was viewed as fantastic value and getting 12 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game for $16 million a year for a 24-year-old seven-footer seemed like good deal.
But Ujiri’s ‘sin’ in this case is not perfectly anticipating that basketball would evolve at light speed even in the two full seasons since Valanciunas signed. The season before Valanciunas signed his deal, NBA teams averaged 22.4 three-point attempts a game with only one team taking more than 30. Pace of play averaged about 94 possession per game league-wide.
This season, teams averaged 27 threes a game – an increase of 20 per cent — and seven teams shot 30 threes per game or more, led by the Rockets who shot 40 while the pace is up to 96.4 possessions a game, trends that have held in the playoffs.
No team is further along on this curve than the Cavaliers, who are fully committed to spacing the floor around LeBron James with three-point shooting and are being rewarded as they are shooting 40.5 per cent from deep through five playoff games on an average of 33.6 threes a game.
It’s a format that Valanciunas can’t play in, defensively or offensively. The Raptors starting lineup was trounced in every measure against James and the Cavs, being outscored 94-63.
The challenge for Casey with Valanciunas is that he gets contested twos, not always in the paint – exactly the ones modern offences run away from screaming as they generally mean the ball isn’t moving, the shot percentages are low and the defence is in perfect rebounding position. The Raptors take more of these shots than most teams, but at least DeRozan has a track record of getting fouled in the attempt, which increases their value. For every other tough two? The defence wins because it’s not an open three.
Defensively? Playing Valanciunas and DeRozan together is meat on the bone for the Cavs, a configuration they’ll attack over and over again such as on this play where Valanciunas helps too late on the too easily-screened DeRozan, leaving Patterson stuck guarding two guys, leading to a Tristan Thompson dunk.
As for Carroll? He’s always been better in theory than practice as a Raptor and it’s been hard to properly assess his value at times given he has constantly suffered from a range of nagging injuries in addition to the knee surgery last year that pretty much ruined his season. Whether he’s lost a step or he was the beneficiary of a different system when playing with the Atlanta Hawks, Carroll’s value as defensive stopper isn’t always evident either.
On this off-the-ball action it’s likely Lowry could have helped out by at least bumping James off his cut, but Carroll ends up getting pushed 10 feet up the floor by a Kyrie Irving screen. When Casey talks about playing with more ‘force’ it’s plays like this he referring too, as Carroll needs to be way harder to screen than he was.
But Ujiri’s shortcoming may have been believing that Carroll could provide the same spacing from the three-point line as he did in Atlanta even though the Hawks ball movement was far superior to anything the Raptors have ever managed with much of the offence being run through DeRozan and Lowry.
But building a team necessarily means making bets and having to live with the consequences.
Most of Ujiri’s have paid off beautifully as the Raptors’ average of 51 wins a year over the past four seasons would suggest, not to mention a franchise-first Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year. But it’s becoming more clear that for all the Raptors’ strengths, they have flaws that are too readily exposed when they play a team like the Cavs, who have fully embraced playing smaller, putting the ball in James’ hands and hunting the current NBA’s holy trinity of offensive efficiency: open threes, attacks at the rim or free-throws.
They trounced the Raptors in every area in Game 1, picking up where they left off a year ago.
Nothing seems to have changed, but things change fast: With the season hanging in the balance two of Ujiri’s biggest player personal bets may suddenly find themselves on the outside of the Raptors’ playoff rotation with no way back in either now or in the near future, no matter the years or dollars left on their contracts.
Ujiri’s next move will be figuring out how to make the Raptors better while carrying two contracts that may not contribute to that anymore.