NBA observers thought the Toronto Raptors joined the tanking crowd when the team traded their star Rudy Gay in December; however, the club bounced back from the loss of a team stalwart to become the third seed in the eastern conference. Sometimes trades result in addition by subtraction. What appeared to be a salary dump, which may be what was intended, actually helped ball movement on a team suffering from a Gay-centric offense. The young team has thrived with more freedom.
The last few years for the team have been marked by mediocrity. Bryan Colangelo assumed the reigns as team president and general manager in 2006. Although the team enjoyed initial success in 2007 based on Colangelo’s moves, he laid the groundwork for future problems by bombing on the selection of Andre Bargnani with the first pick in the 2006 draft. The hope was that the seven-foot athletic Italian with all around skills would develop into an NBA force. Instead of a more athletic version of Dirk Nowitski, the team acquired what amounted to a poor imitation. While a serviceable player, Bargnani’s play never justified the first pick in the draft. In an effort to save his job after the team turned south with the loss of Chris Bosh to the Miami Heat, Colangelo traded for Gay in early 2013 in order to jump start the squad. Unfortunately, the trade to acquire Gay did not improve the team and the Raptors finished 34-48 last season.
Colangelo took a reassignment by the team and later resigned in the summer of 2013. To replace Colangelo, the Toronto club made an offer to Masai Ujiri, the Denver Nuggets general manager and reigning NBA executive of the year. Based on results over the last half of this past regular season, hiring the new GM was a stroke of genius. Perhaps Ujiri got lucky after the Gay trade, but sometimes being lucky is even better than being smart, at least in the short term. Regardless of whether the results occurred by design or by luck, the Toronto Raptors have bounced back to become one of the better teams in the eastern conference.
Kyle Lowry, who was dangled as trade bait by Ujiri early in the season, responded to the Gay trade by assuming control of the team on the floor. Not having to consistently feed Rudy Gay gave Lowry more freedom to operate and he responded. Further, the lack of touches needed for Gay also enhanced the play of DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross, two young and talented wing players. DeRozan even made the eastern conference all-star team. As to the players obtained in the Gay trade, the results have been better than expected. Greivis Vasquez has been a good back-up point guard, Patrick Patterson has added all-around play from the forward spot and sturdy Chuck Hayes has been a stabilizing influence in the paint and in the locker room.
Although the Toronto Raptors lost their first game in the series with the Brooklyn Nets, the strong play by the relatively inexperienced team shows they have the potential to bounce back. Even if the team fails to win the series with the Nets, the future is bright for NBA basketball in Toronto. The smart, or lucky, Masai Ujiri has a plan for the Raptors to remain in contention for the years to come.
Commentary by William Costolo