||12-31-2013 11:42 AM
Grantland: The Raptors make over
The overhaul of the Toronto Raptors - Grantland
The Raptors had a lot of legitimate reasons for trading Rudy Gay — his bloated salary, his inefficient game, and the difficulty of planning the franchise's path without knowing whether Gay would exercise his mammoth $19.3 million player option for next season. But they also understood the possibility that flipping the team's offensive centerpiece for rotation flotsam could send the Raptors into chaos — and into a top-five spot in the most anticipated lottery since 2003.
It was not a coincidence that Toronto engaged the Knicks in Kyle Lowry trade talks just days after sending Gay to the reaching Kings.The immediacy of the Lowry talks also revealed two truths that will define the next six weeks of Raptordom:
1.*The market for Lowry, and whatever other veteran pieces the Raptors might wish to slough off, might not be as robust as the team had hoped. Tanking is painful on its own, and it's especially tough this season, with so many miserable teams at the bottom of the standings. Tanking can bring a double blow if the process includes selling off talent at a discount rate simply for the sake of getting worse without any guarantees in the end.
Real talent has value; knowingly wasting that value hurts and comes with a cost.
2.*The Gay trade might have made the Raptors better —*an outcome that was not hard to predict. At the time of the trade, Gay was poisoning Toronto with a toxic and nearly unprecedented combination of volume shooting and bricklaying.
Almost any team would get better by excising a player hogging possessions at Iversonian levels and shooting 38 percent.1The Raptors added four useful rotation players, three of whom filled in positions where the team had minimal NBA-level talent: backup big man and backup point guard.Not even the most cockeyed Raptor optimists could have expected this: Toronto is 7-3 since the trade, with road wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City and a point differential in that stretch that would rank just behind Portland's very strong overall mark. Two of the three post-Gay losses came against San Antonio, and the Raps didn't yet have the Kings' trade bounty for the first of those games. The Raps now sit atop the embarrassing Atlantic Division with a content group of players, a fun, whirring offense, and*the toughest schedule to date of any Eastern Conference team."You can sink and drown, or you can float," DeMar DeRozan explained to Grantland over the weekend in Toronto while discussing his reaction to the trade. "And we out here like Michael Phelps."Toronto has scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions since dealing Gay, nearly five points better than it managed with a Rudy-centric offense.2Toronto is flinging the ball from side to side, one pick-and-roll bleeding into the next on the opposite wing, bending opposing defenses until an opening emerges.
The Raptors are passing the ball 30 more times per game since the trade, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, and shooting about three more 3-pointers — an intended benefit of replacing Gay in the starting lineup with Terrence Ross. "The ball is just constantly moving," DeRozan says. "We don't care who scores, or who shoots the ball. Masai [Ujiri, the team's GM] made the best decision for us to win. You hate to see a close friend go, but he made a good decision. It's paying off now."Dwane Casey, the Raps head coach, chuckles at the idea that Toronto has dramatically changed its offense since the Gay trade.
"All the same sets," he says, smiling, though the equation has tilted a bit more toward the pick-and-roll.
3*That has been a boon for Lowry, enjoying his best sustained stretch since his peak in Houston, and for all of Toronto's big men — especially Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Johnson has long been a dynamic pick-and-roll finisher, and though Valanciunas is still in the early stages of learning to time his cuts to the rim, he's gotten better at ducking for little post-ups below Lowry/Johnson pick-and-rolls:
"The ball is moving," Casey tells Grantland. "Guys are playing together. Everyone is buying in. No disrespect to Rudy, but he's a different type of player."This run has put Ujiri and the front office in an awkward position. Only two weeks ago, they were prepared to deal Lowry for future assets and dive headfirst for a top-five pick. That process may have included testing the market for DeRozan, though the Raptors are clearly growing comfortable with the idea of DeRozan as a long-term core piece. But Toronto has been winning with the kind of spirited, fun ball this city has been craving for years. And as it has done that, the rest of the tank brigade has continued to flounder around it. Milwaukee has Larry Sanders back, but the rest of the frontcourt is in shambles, O.J. Mayo is somehow a bench player, and Khris Middleton is routinely leading the team in shot attempts. Philadelphia is 6-21 since a 3-0 start.
Orlando has shown spunk of late with Glen Davis back, but it's still just 10-20, a trade away from going down the drain. Utah has been better with Trey Burke, but it's still awful. The real possibility exists that neither flaming pile of basketball dung in New York City figures it out this season. Sacramento played the Spurs and Heat tough in a back-to-back, but its defense has stagnated, and it is just 3-6 since acquiring Gay.Then there are the swing teams — Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, Cleveland, and the Lakers, who look poised to implode with Pau Gasol ailing.
Some of these teams will do better than expected; some will do worse. This is a deep draft, but you don't tank for the no. 7 pick. You tank for the no. 5 pick or better, and at 13-15 with an elite backup point guard in Greivis Vasquez, it's unclear whether trading Lowry would be enough for the Raptors to tank into the ideal range.Add in the cost of tanking, and it's clear Ujiri and his team face a thorny choice. Getting worse isn't pain-free. It alienates a fan base that can only take so much, especially when there is nothing close to a guarantee that said losing would net Canadian proto-legend Andrew Wiggins.
4*It can build bad habits among unmotivated players. It can cause friction between the coaching staff and management, which is why Casey wisely stays out of the entire discussion. "Masai is the boss," Casey says. "I'm a company guy. I've gotta go with him.
I'm never going to talk about losing games on purpose. I won't even discuss it. [Management] doesn't bring it down here, but they have every right to talk about it. They have to think about the big picture. What I have to do is coach the guys we do have, and coach the heck out of them."