It was without a doubt a bad ending to the Toronto Raptors’ season, being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. Toronto, arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference, was the only other team people could see making it out of the East besides the Cavaliers, of course. They traded for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and it looked as if this Raptors squad could be a threat to Cleveland. And yet, even after trading for 2 terrific veterans, having Demar DeRozan play the best year of his career, and being one of two teams to be in the top ten in offensive and defensive efficiency, wasn’t enough to get you one win against your so-called rival.
After the Raptors lost to the Cavaliers in the playoffs for back to back seasons, Raptors President Masai Ujiri had a lot of big decisions to be made. The first one was simple. What direction should this team take? All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry and power forward Serge Ibaka were unrestricted free agents this summer and could move on to other teams if they chose to do so. Signing them seems like the simplest and best answer, but committing a 3 year, 100 million dollar deal to a 31-year-old injury prone point guard is a pretty big risk. But yes, Masai Ujiri brought both of them back on 3-year deals.
Masai Ujiri was then challenged with replacing former GM Jeff Weltman who is now the President of Basketball Operations for the Orlando Magic. Masai Ujiri decided to promote Bobby Webster to GM of the club. Then there was the coaching decision. Masai Ujiri called for a “culture change” after this season which usually means big changes are coming one way or another. However, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was not fired as a lot of fans speculated he would be. Maybe Ujiri is talking about the culture of the team and not the staff.
While Masai Ujiri didn’t make any big coaching changes, he made a lot of roster moves. It started in free agency when Masai Ujiri let stretch-four Patrick Patterson test free-agency. Patterson ended up in OKC. It continued when P.J. Tucker left to go to the Houston Rockets. After the free agency period, Ujiri went to work and made some big trades. Ujiri started by trading small forward Demarre Carroll along with the Raptors 2018 1st and 2nd round picks to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Justin Hamilton. This wasn’t an effort to improve the roster, but an effort to clear up some salary as Carroll will be getting paid around 30 million dollars in the next two seasons. Hamilton was waived shortly after this trade. Ujiri finished with a trade that sent Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for C.J. Miles, a sharpshooting small forward, which is something the Raptors need.
And even after all those trades and decisions to make Ujiri still might not be done. It has been reported that the Raptors have been trying to trade center Jonas Valanciunas which doesn’t make much sense, on the surface. While Jonas is a terrific post scorer, a good mid-range shooter and an excellent free throw shooter along with being a very solid rebounder, he lacks what the Raptors need. It seems that Toronto is trying the new NBA trend of going small. We saw it last year against the Milwaukee Bucks when Serge Ibaka started at center for games 4 through 6. Valanciunas is a throwback center. He is a back to the basket bruiser who can get you a double-double a night in 25 minutes. The problem is that he can’t hit the 3, something that Toronto struggles at. Toronto only takes around 24.3 pointers a game compared to teams they’re trying to beat like the Golden State Warriors, who shoot 31.4 threes a game. Ujiri has taken note of this and is trying to upgrade Toronto’s 3-point shooting, meaning Valanciunas could be moving elsewhere.
Based on the circumstances the Raptors faced going into this off-season, I give Toronto a B+. I would have given them an A if they had been able to re-sign P.J. Tucker, and also fire Dwane Casey. However, they did make a lot of good moves that put the Raptors in a better position this year, to make a run at a finals appearance. They drafted a very talented two-way player with OG Anunoby. They have young guys such as Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam that seem like they can be good players for the team next year. They have Norman Powell, who seems like he is poised for a breakout year now that Demarre Carroll is gone. They were also able to bring back Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. Lastly, they are changing their ISO-style offense into a more ball-movement, team oriented offense, which could cause trouble to teams like the Cavaliers. With the Eastern Conference being so weak, Toronto might be able to get 60 wins if they can stay healthy. Overall, I’m satisfied with Toronto’s off-season and I think Raptors fans can be excited to see what this new and improved Toronto team can accomplish.