One by one they moved and in the return the Toronto Raptors were left with little more than memories.
The coming season represents the final departure from the 2019 Championship team. There was a spirited defence in 2019-20 that was short-circuited by the pandemic. Last season was the last gasp -- a once-great team lost in Tampa, the pending departure of Kyle Lowry hanging over everything.
This year? Everything is new, even if there remains a few holdovers from the parade to show everyone else what a winning culture looks like.
The problem is that as the title team was disassembled, piece by piece, the Raptors got nothing in return. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol all departed in free agency leaving the Raptors roster spots, but no assets to fill them with.
Which is why Precious Achiuwa -- and to a lesser extent Goran Dragic -- are such interesting storylines as the training camp phase of pre-season winds down and the Raptors get ready for exhibition games beginning Monday against the Philadelphia 76ers at Scotiabank Arena.
With Lowry’s heart set on finishing his career in Miami and the Heat eager to add the veteran guard for what they hope will be a championship run, this past summer Raptors general manager Bobby Webster had the barest bit of leverage to use. The Heat couldn’t pay Lowry what he wanted as a free agent. The only way they could find the salary cap space to give Lowry the three-year deal for $90 million he insisted on was to work with the Raptors on a sign-and-trade -- Toronto would re-sign their franchise icon and flip him to Miami into the cap space created by moving Achiuwa and Dragic.
It’s Achiuwa who is the pivotal piece. At 35, Dragic has some game left but he’s more likely to be traded for another asset than finish the season in Toronto, though stranger things have happened.
But the 22-year-old Achiuwa could be a Raptors fixture. An athletic six-foot-nine big who can guard multiple positions and has flashed more than a little ability to play an all-round game on offence, his versatility fits right in with what the post-Lowry Raptors are trying to establish.
There’s been no shortage of enthusiasm for his potential in the early days of his tenure.
“Well, he's physical, he's big and strong. He's got a lot of talent. looked good out there,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “…He's very, very talented. He just needs a lot of reps and some time.”
Not to say he’s a project or someone whose contributions might come years down the road. The Raptors believe he’s got a package of skills and abilities that can help them right away. He’ll figure prominently in whatever passes for Nurse’s rotation in the exhibition game on Monday and there’s a belief his ceiling may be higher than what was projected for him when he was drafted 20th by the Heat after one season at Memphis.
“I didn’t know he could snap a rebound and go coast to coast until I saw him do it in the first Summer League game and I was like, 'woah,'” said Nurse. “Then we threw one over to the wing and he just blew right to the basket by his guy and pounded it on somebody [and I thought] ‘Okay, this guy can drive the ball a little bit,' which is good, we like that.
“…I think there’s not a whole lot he can’t do. We have some one-on-one tournaments [in training camp] and he’s winning those frequently, so he’s got a little bit of scoring in him, too.”
Achiuwa is ready for all of that. Last season he appeared in 61 games for the Heat and -- predictably for a rookie joining a team coming off an NBA Finals appearance -- saw his opportunities fluctuate. In January he averaged 16 minutes a game for 15 games and put up 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds on 64.9 per cent shooting as the Heat’s lineup was shredded by COVID-19 and injuries. But by April and May he was down to just nine minutes a night as the Heat pushed for the post-season.
But he got enough of a taste that he’s come into his second team and his second season expecting more.
“I’d like to say I’m confident. I’m a confident person. I don’t put a ceiling on what I could accomplish,” Achiuwa said following the Raptors practice at OVO Centre. “I believe if I put my mind on something, I could learn it if I put in the time, if I work hard to achieving that goal. For me, everything comes down to hard work and how bad I want it and how much I’m willing to put into it. I don’t want to put myself into a box or say this is my ceiling or I can’t go past this. It’s all about time and work.”
In the meantime, as his game gets sharpened up, he can rely on what was his calling card coming out of college: the ability to be a blunt-force instrument.
The Raptors could use some of that, too.
“I’ve kind of always been that way in terms of being the aggressor,” he said. “I’ve always played hard. I’ve always wanted to bring the force to the opponent first rather than taking the first hit. That’s how I’ve played since high school, college as well. That’s part of me. I don’t think, ‘I’m gonna play hard.’ It’s just second nature at this point.”
Says Nurse: “…He's a really personable guy, easy to talk to and very coachable, but he plays with a little bit of snarl on his face on the floor, which we also like."
If Achiuwa does end up being a significant piece of the Raptors' post-championship puzzle, he’ll represent Lowry’s final contribution to the franchise he helped lift to a title. But Achiuwa will be completing his own circle, too. He first got on the prospect radar as a precocious 13-year-old at Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa camps in his native Nigeria.
“Oh, I mean, it’s a crazy journey,” Achiuwa said. “Back then I wasn’t really thinking much about anything. I was just a little kid and just wanting to play basketball. It just happened that I was fortunate to attend his camp. I was the youngest at the camp, probably the youngest kid they’ve had at that level. I just wanted to play basketball, you know … and now I’m on the team with him, it’s just crazy. You can’t really map it out.”
With the Raptors putting their championship firmly in the rear-view mirror, the hope is Achiuwa can help them map out their future.