Raptors’ future doesn’t hinge on first-round playoff success

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri talks about how phenomenal coach Dwane Casey has been, and says he deserves to be the coach of the future regardless what happens in the playoffs.

A radical thought: What if the be all and end all of the Toronto Raptors doesn’t pivot on the next two weeks?

Imagine: The Raptors fail to advance past the Indiana Pacers in the first-round of the playoffs and the sky remains exactly where it is.

Consider: What the Raptors have accomplished as an organization and a team since they were collectively humiliated by the Washington Wizards in the first round a year ago counts for more than whatever happens in a single seven-game series beginning Saturday afternoon.

What if the Toronto Raptors, under the direction of president and general manager Masai Ujiri, are willing to do something so rare, so heretical, so risky that it almost never happens in professional sports, let alone the NBA?

What if the Raptors are willing to be patient? Truly and sincerely patient?

These are the kinds of thoughts Ujiri has been tumbling about all season, mostly unspoken, even as the team he retooled without touching its Lowry-DeRozan-Valancuinas-Casey core in the wake of last season’s collapse morphed into one of the rarest thing in team sports – something more than the sum of its parts.

On the eve of the Raptors’ third straight playoff appearance and having set franchise records for wins, road wins and home wins, and with every game at the ACC sold out for nearly two straight seasons, Ujiri sounds like he wants to look past whatever might happen in the next few weeks – good or bad – so as not to lose sight of bigger goals, both those achieved and those that lie ahead.

“[Winning a round] would be nice, but it’s not the end of the world, I guess that would be the way to put it,” said Ujiri in a conversation earlier this week about what the playoffs meant to him and the franchise. “It would be really cool for us. The players deserve it, the coach deserves it. Look at what they’ve put in the past two or three years, you root for them … It would be great for us, but with the progress we’re seeing I just don’t think it’s the end of the world.”

Process is an over-used word at times, but to Ujiri it means not being so fixated on short-term results – which can be random and driven by luck, he’ll be happy to tell you – that you overlook more lasting achievements, like building a foundation and shaping a culture.

A year ago Ujiri made waves when he chose not to give head coach Dwane Casey a definitive endorsement in the days after the Raptors were eliminated. On the eve of the playoffs a year later Ujiri sounds like he’s all but got a new contract waiting for Casey to sign, regardless of what happens against the Pacers.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Ujiri said on Wednesday. “Whether it’s been reading games, adjustments, just growth overall. To be honest everyone makes such a big deal, if we don’t go past the first round what’s going to happen? Coach Casey deserves to be the coach, one hundred per cent and I stand by that. He deserves to be our coach in the future because he’s put in the work to bring winning to our program.”

Again it’s Ujiri thinking big picture. He had a conversation with Casey weeks ago assuring him that he wasn’t coaching for his job down the stretch and that a new contract didn’t hinge on him winning a playoff round. The result is a coach feeling confident he can rest players when needed without being judged for every win or loss.

It’s the word ‘program’ that might be the most significant when assessing where the Raptors are and where they’re going.

It’s more often associated with college basketball where the coach and the overall environment are constants and players arrive ready to buy in to what is already in place.

In professional sports it’s a level of consistency that’s almost never achieved because there are more forces pulling organizations apart rather that bring them together.

The best example of all are the San Antonio Spurs, who have made the playoffs for 19 straight years and won five championships over that span. But the Spurs had the benefit of winning a championship in the earliest days of Tim Duncan’s career. It bought head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford time to allow the likes of long-shot picks like Tony Parker or Manu Ginobilli to develop and evolve, eventually turning into potential Hall-of-Fame players in their own right.

As that cast has aged the Spurs have benefitted from having a clear identity and the ability to pick-and-choose available players for their character traits and their willingness to accept roles – buy into the program — and take a long-term view of their own development.

In that context what happened this season off the floor might have Ujiri more excited than 50-plus wins and the franchise’s first-ever No.2 seed.

Opening BioSteel Centre, the Raptors state-of-the-art practice facility – barely two years from planning to completion – was a huge achievement, as was launching Raptors 905, the NBA Development League team in Mississauga.

Nothing could speak to a long-term outlook and a culture where talent development is primary better than those two milestones.

“Those practice facilities are built once every 20 or 30 years,” says Ujiri. “What we’ve done now, we’re just starting. That facility is for the next 20 years. We have have a D-League team 20 minutes away, right there in our backyard … We are so lucky to have that. To me that’s a bright future for our organization. I know it comes down to wins and losses, that’s what everybody sees, but there’s a bigger picture.”

For Ujiri, just as significant as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan cementing their status an All-Stars was the progress made by the likes of Lucas Nogeira, the enigmatic Brazilian big man acquired in the same trade that brought Lou Williams from Atlanta in the summer of 2014 or Bruno Caboclo, the lanky Brazilian teenager take 20th in the 2014 draft.

There are still no guarantees either will contribute to a winning NBA team in the near future, but Ujiri is willing to invest time and resources, convinced that they will eventually.

“You have to be patient and I think we’ve shown that,” he said. “We believe in them and with patience we believe they can continue to grow. When you see the talent you have to let them grow.

“I know the kind of player Bebe is, I know the skill he has,” he says. “I’ve scouted him since he was 16 or 17. Will he be healthy enough to play? Is he tough enough? Will he push through?

“Well, it’s something we have to help him push through,” says Ujiri. “Do we have the patience? Can we maneuvre it so he can? You to have patience to develop these guys.’

It’s a state of mind that applies across the roster. In some ways Lowry and DeRozan are perfect examples. DeRozan didn’t have his breakout season until his fifth year in the NBA and he just had another breakthrough in year seven. Lowry has transformed himself professionally, personally and athletically since he arrived in Toronto as 26-year-old with a questionable reputation, having his best year in his 10th NBA season.

“Look at JV,” says Ujiri, of Jonas Valancuinas, the Raptors fourth-year centre who has set career marks in points and rebounds while earning praise for his improved defensive coverage. “He’s is 23 years old. Come on. He’s doing things now he’s never done, how is he going to be when he’s 25?”

These are hard arguments to make when your team is scuffling along and finishing in the draft lottery year after year. Talk of culture and foundation and future sound like the desperate promises. But winning buys credibility in the NBA and if you can combine winning and development it’s like buying income properties with cash: you’re making money while everyone else is making mortgage payments.

It informs Ujiri’s approach to the draft as well. The Raptors have four first-round picks coming this season and next, including what is likely to be a top-10 pick the Knicks owe them to complete the Andrea Bargnani trade. It is a rare chance to add elite talent to a 56-win team.

The rest of them will likely be in the bottom third of the draft, but Ujiri’s view is that virtually every draft pick should become an NBA player given the proper development plan and barring injury or character issues.

The Spurs have made a science of drafting players in the lower end of the first-round of the second round and letting them develop in Europe and then bringing them over when they have room on the roster. It’s helped them keep adding to their Duncan-Ginobili-Parker core.

And for proof of what kind of gems are out there for a smart, patient team, look no further than rookie Norman Powell, taken 46th overall last summer – knocked as a tweener with a suspect shot — and now a starter on the wing, guarding two positions and shooting 46 per cent from deep in 24 games as a starter.

Powell barely played in his first three months, but between D-League stints and extra work with the team’s development coaches he felt there was a plan in place, one that had a longer-term horizon.

“You can just feel it,” he said. “They’re planning for now but they’re also planning for the future with how they went about drafting guys and developing guys and our playing style. It’s about going forward, and building for the future. It’s never about the present, it’s about what we can do to get better in the long run.”

The Raptors are in the playoffs for the third straight season following a year unmatched by any other in their history. It could be the breakthrough moment that fans have been waiting for, patiently, for 21 years.

But in a season where the popular view has been ‘nothing matters except the playoffs’ whatever happens in the next few weeks might be the least important part of the story.

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