SB: Started from the bottom
Old 04-16-2014, 01:19 PM   #1 (permalink)
is the baby faced assassin

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SB: Started from the bottom


Next to the Raptors' new, Grammy-winning global ambassador, Toronto mayor Rob Ford -- post-crack video, pre-crack admission -- clapped his hands.

Silver was there to officially announce that Toronto would host the All-Star Game in 2016. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke spoke of the front office's responsibility to improve the club's standing by then, to take advantage of the moment when all the NBA's eyes would be on Toronto. The team's 20th anniversary was coming up, and Drake would be involved in what the team was calling a rebranding process. No one was talking playoffs.

No one, that is, except the players. But that was the same old preseason story.

"I'm tired of going home early, watching everybody else play, watching my friends play," swingman DeMar DeRozan said that day. "It's sickening to me. I get tired of it. Me personally, I work my ass off so we can play in that moment, be a team in that eight, seven, six, whatever spot it is to have an opportunity to play. That's my goal and I'm sure everybody on this team feels the same way."

It turned out DeRozan could've aimed higher. The Raptors are the Eastern Conference's big surprise, and they'll be the third or fourth seed when the postseason begins. How they got there was nothing short of extraordinary, especially in this city where expectations and bold plans have never lived up to the hype.
To understand what this Raptors team has accomplished and what it means to the city of Toronto, you first have to understand some of their history. In 2001, the Raptors came as close as a Vince Carter turnaround jumper from reaching the conference finals. General manager Glen Grunwald subsequently spent $250 million to keep Carter, Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams and Antonio Davis in town while adding 38-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon.

They were supposed to be the East's new powerhouse, but Toronto barely squeaked into the playoffs the next season and lost in the first round. It took four years to get back there, with Grunwald's successor Rob Babcock trading Carter for spare parts and squandering a lottery pick on Rafael Araujo after inheriting Chris Bosh.

Bryan Colangelo was next in the GM line and he managed to hit some solid singles leading the Raptors back to the playoffs. The problem with Colangelo was that he was always swinging for the fences. Jermaine O'Neal and Hedo Turkoglu took turns as the proverbial missing piece of the puzzle and Bosh left to win titles in Miami.

Colangelo's final act before Ujiri took over last summer was acquiring Rudy Gay and his maximum contract. Fans were fed up with big splashes, empty promises and the five-year playoff drought. Yet they never stopped showing up to the Air Canada Centre.

"They've been very patient," Toronto head coach Dwane Casey said. "I would compare them a lot like the Golden State fans. Before they became good, they were patient. They sold out every game. They were passionate. And that's the fans here in Toronto."

Ujiri's first big move was parting ways with Andrea Bargnani, the defense and rebounding-averse 7-footer Colangelo drafted first overall in 2006. Many fans were surprised he didn't tear down the whole roster, and most would have been fine with that. They didn't need to be sold on the deep draft class headlined by Andrew Wiggins, the best pro prospect to ever come out of Toronto.

But Ujiri wasn't about quick fixes. He promised that he would evaluate everything and he challenged the players and the coaching staff to show what they could accomplish.

"At the beginning of the year, he made clear his vision and goals of the team," Casey said. "There's no hidden agenda with Masai. Everyone knew. All the players knew, the coaches knew what was in front of us and what our goals were and what our charge was."

Despite talk of DeRozan, Gay and Kyle Lowry's offseason improvement, the start of the season felt frighteningly familiar. DeRozan and Gay shot a combined 17-for-62 on Nov. 11 in Houston, the Raptors' fourth loss in five games. The Toronto Star's headline read, "Raptors should trade Kyle Lowry now, stop this treadmill ride before we puke."

DeRozan wore frustration on his face after a string of defeats at home in early December, and the National Post wondered if he should be shipped away. If the team was trying to convince management to keep it together, it was doing a poor job
Toronto was 6-12 when Ujiri made his next big move. Gay was en route to Staples Center for a game against the Lakers when he heard the news. Reserve big men Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray were already at the arena. After an emotional goodbye, they left and joined Gay on a flight to Sacramento. Casey told the remaining Raptors that this was the business of basketball and they had to prove themselves to the organization and the league.

At the press conference the next day, Ujiri talked about fit and financial flexibility. There were barely any questions about the incoming players -- Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes. Ujiri was engaged in other trade discussions, and over the next few days, reports indicated that New York Knicks owner James Dolan backed out of a Lowry deal.

"I think when the trade happened, we really looked at each other and said either we got to take advantage of this or we're going to be terrible," DeRozan said. "We're going to be back to ground zero, honestly. We're going to start all the way back over, and we're going to be that same team where teams come in here and just know it's going to be a win.

"I think a sense of pride came in effect when it happened because anything could have happened," DeRozan continued. "We could have been terrible. But everybody in that locker room wanted to win. As soon as the new guys got implemented, they were on the same track with everybody else, and we just ran with it."

Less than two weeks after the shakeup, the Raptors fell behind by 19 in the first half in Dallas. It was more of the same old story. But the new group went on a 27-6 run to make a game of it. On the final possession of overtime, Lowry, DeRozan and big man Amir Johnson fell on each other trying to secure a rebound as time ran out. Teammates old and new ran over and helped each of them up, unlikely owners of a one-point victory. The bond was already building.

Started from the bottom.: Now the Raptors are here, the East's top challenger to the Heat and Pacers -
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