The Toronto Raptors were a team last season that struggled to guard, finishing in the bottom third of the league defensively. This Raptor team lacked some sort of energy, lacked that grit, that toughness that Dwane Casey originally brought, and had envisioned for this team.Times have changed.
Masai Ujiri was hired as the new team president and general manager of basketball operations, and what he’s done so far this off-season has hinted at the change of culture ahead for this Raptors squad.
The culture change starts with the coach, and whilst Dwane was guaranteed to coach the upcoming season, he will be allowed to coach the style of play he has wanted since his arrival – defense, backed with toughness and grit. This was his focus in his first year here and should be going forward, as there is some truth to the famous ‘defense wins championships‘ saying. The 4 final playoff teams last season coincidentally were the top 4 defensive teams in the league, so there’s that. It’s time to get defensive.
Coach Casey mentioned recently that he and former general manager Bryan Colangelo did not agree on style of play, which thus forced Casey to use offensive minded players and try to hide their weaknesses, *cough* Andrea Bargnani *cough*.
With Ujiri’s arrival, his moves have showed, or at the very least hinted, that he is acquiring players best suit for Casey’s style of play. Ujiri even mentioned in his media scrum when Steve Novak was acquired, that when he was in Denver, his job was to bring in the players that best suit George Karl‘s style of play – athletic, get out and run, offensive minded. Ujiri mentioned that his job was to get tough, gritty, hard mentality type players for Casey. So far, that’s been happening.
“We tried that, it doesn’t fit,” Casey said of the free-flowing offence. “You have to have a certain personnel to do that and we have to find a pace that fits us.
“I’m never going to be a guy who wants to walk it up every possession and grind it out that way. But if we do have to get in the halfcourt set we have to be physical.”
The number one move that gained attraction and praise, was when Ujiri dealt Bargnani to the New York Knicks for Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, Marcus Camby, a 2016 1st round draft pick, a 2014 2nd rounder, and a 2017 2nd rounder. The move itself meant the Raptors were prepared to rid of Andrea, and move on from the situation that hurt the team last season. In return, the Raptors were able to acquire Steve Novak, who might be a huge step in terms of this team’s progression offensively. While Novak doesn’t necessarily fit the bill of tough, gritty, or anything defensive for that matter, the team lacked outside shooting and spacing, and Novak is one of the best in the entire league. This will allow more room for guys like Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas to operate. Oh yeah, did I mentioned they were able to get rid of Bargnani? Good riddance.
Masai was also able to get out and sign a number of players here in this busy off-season, and whilst the team did not play a part in Dwight Howard‘s decisions, or didn’t get a hit signing like Andre Iguodala, they were able to sign former Indiana Pacers forward, Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough certainly fits the bill of what Casey wants, toughness, grit, and extremely hard workers. Psycho-T (he hates being called that), isn’t the most “efficient” defensive player – averaging approximately 2 fouls in 16 minutes – he’s a guy that definitely won’t back down from the opposing teams, and will get in trouble for the team to turn up. He might not be a player that will be here, or be a part of what Ujiri is building for the future, but he accelerates the process (gee, where have we heard this?) of creating this brand new identity.
Masai also tried to sign a big point guard, known for his defensive abilities, Julyan Stone (which fell through due to failing a physical), to back up Lowry. When that didn’t workout, Ujiri went out to sign Dwight Buycks, who played in Europe the past season, known for his solid scoring ability, play-making, and pesky defense. Additionally, Ujiri signed D.J. Augustin, who isn’t necessarily known for defense, but he’s a guy that can hold his own on that end of the court, and adds the floor/perimeter spacing this team lacked a season ago.
In conclusion, the early moves and deals Ujiri have created for this team has hinted he is going to find players that fit what Casey wants to do on the basketball court. This is how you fill out a bench. Dealing Bargnani, bringing in floor spacers like Novak, Augustin, and tough, gritty guys like Hansbrough, Buycks have shown Ujiri’s willingness to work with his coach. There is still a roster spot left on this team, so expect more of the same. Whatever Ujiri and Casey are working to do, it definitely looks like it’s heading in the direction – a good direction – we saw when Casey first stepped in as the head man.