Storyline: Raptors Front Office

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1 month ago via TSN

When Ujiri was finally able to take some time and evaluate what went wrong and how to best move forward, he looked beyond personnel. He spent most of May reviewing the team’s day-to-day procedures – how they practised, trained, travelled and interacted with one another – and asked himself: Can we do this better? “The culture change is about the whole organization,” Casey, who worked closely with Ujiri to reinvent the team’s philosophy over the summer, said last week. “It’s not about offense and defense. Believe me, when he mentioned that, it was about all of us. Everything we do. From scouting, training, how we go about our day in the front office, it’s included in that.”

It’s not often that DeMar DeRozan seals a victory for his head coach by missing a game-tying shot, but that’s what happened Sunday, Feb. 18th, at the NBA All-Star Game. Dwane Casey, courtesy of Toronto holding the East’s best record, coached Team LeBron to victory, mere weeks after winning his 300th career game with the Raptors. “It was fitting,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said in an interview with SB Nation. “With all the things he’d done for the franchise, for him to be able to have a moment on a national stage, in L.A. and at the all-star game, and the team wins. He deserves it.”

Last season, after enduring another sweep, this time at the hands of the Cavaliers, Masai Ujiri infamously announced the Raptors needed a “culture reset.” It read like the final nail in the coffin for Casey’s tenure in Toronto. Bobby Webster has an alternative explanation. “We felt like we were better than a 4-0 sweep,” Webster said. “It was really just Masai’s challenge to all of us. Let’s take a look at what we’ve done, and let’s be proud of how we’ve gotten here, but if we really wanna be a championship contending team, we need to make some changes.”

In the days following that low point, the Raptors’ internal braintrust burned the midnight oil to put Ujiri’s “culture reset” into action. When Webster and Ujiri asked Casey what he saw, they were, in Webster’s words, “exactly on the same page.” The league was passing the Raptors’ plodding, isolation style by. And so the mandate was born: more ball movement, more spacing, more running, and an increased focus on developing their young talent. “[Culture reset] suggests that change is coming. But that doesn’t mean you have to change personnel,” Webster said. “People can change.”

Related: the 31-14 Raptors they are just 2-4 in games decided by three points or less. Would some more knock down three-point shooting around DeRozan help come clutch time? With the trade deadline coming into view it would seem that the Raptors would be wise to comb the rosters of teams that are likely punting on the playoffs in a search for additional shooting if they’re going to shoot as much as they do from three. But it’s not a turnkey solution and the organizational philosophy seems to be to look beyond a short-term fix in favour of longer-term, internal development.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry knew this season would be different the day after the Toronto Raptors’ latest ignominious postseason departure — a second-round sweep to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers that prompted team president Masai Ujiri to say the organization needed a “culture reset.” The Raptors’ All-Star duo and potential buddy-cop movie tandem didn’t exactly know what that meant nor to what extent. “He said we needed a culture change, and I didn’t know if I was a part of that culture change or not,” Lowry, who was entering free agency last summer, told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to be here, but you never know. You’re kind of like, ‘[Expletive]!’

Make no mistake, though—this is all by design, part of the “culture reset” that GM Masai Ujiri insisted upon after the Raptors were clubbed by the Cavs in a four-game second-round sweep in last year’s playoffs, and that Coach Dwane Casey has implemented, seemingly seamlessly; after a middling start, Toronto has roared toward the top of the East standings. All the attention has been on the Celtics, but the Raptors are just a game behind them in the loss column, in second place in the East with a very favorable schedule in front of them. And they’ve done it with an emphasis on ball movement and threes that has improved what was already a pretty potent offense.

Change, in other words, would need to come from within. Enter Nick Nurse, a 50-year-old assistant coach who was charged with shaking up the offense. After a recent practice, Nurse was explaining the general importance of passing the basketball when he motioned to Jonas Valanciunas, the team’s starting center. Valanciunas, Nurse said, was no longer tethered to the low post. “This guy loves it,” Nurse said. “He’s touching the ball a lot more.” He added: “I think for a lot of the roster, it’s a lot of fun. It might not be as much fun for the guys who aren’t quite used to it yet.”

LeBron James has ruled the East for seven straight springs – and will still be favored to make it eight, regardless of how the Irving saga ends. Kyle Lowry expressed the helplessness of the conference’s other 14 teams while the Cavaliers were in the midst of their second-round sweep of Toronto when he stated, “nobody is closing the gap on him.” DeMar DeRozan said after the series that the Raptors would’ve won – if they had James. Ujiri is approaching the challenge from another perspective. “Our job is to beat him,” Ujiri recently told The Vertical. “You have to figure it out. If not, then go play in some other league or something. Go play in Greece. Our jobs, and the jobs of the players, [are] to figure out how to beat those guys. If not, you might as well give them the championship before it starts. I understand how good he is and I understand how good those teams are, but those things end. At some point, somewhere, somehow, we as leaders of our group, we have to figure out a way and motivate our players and give them the confidence to go out there and compete.”

“To me, sports is all about expectations. You play to win. Nobody should be afraid of it. If you are expected to win, win. It’s that simple. The people that believe in it, that are expected to win, we must win,” Ujiri told The Vertical. “I think we gave ourselves a two-, three-year window, but I think a couple of teams decided to go the other way. I know people say the East is bad, but every NBA team is good. Even the teams that are rebuilding, that’s a game every night. We lost a bunch of games last year to teams that supposedly you’re supposed to beat. Everybody thinks that the East is going to be weaker. I think it’s because of the teams rebuilding.”

Do you worry about Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri departing for the New York Knicks? DeRozan: I don’t worry about that. I think [he stays]. I look at it like, if I’m New York who is the next best guy you could go after? It’s Masai. Why wouldn’t they want to target him? I don’t look at it like it’s a bad thing. Masai has that reputation because he is great at what he does. That organization wants to be great so they can feel like they can compete. So, what is the first thing you do? You go look for the next great person.

Dolan’s interest in Toronto executive Masai Ujiri is real, not to mention the preferred choice of the folks inside the NBA’s league offices who want nothing more than this Knicks machine to run smoothly one day. There’s already a built-in connection as well: Tim Leiweke, the former CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment group who hired Ujiri as Toronto’s general manager in 2013, is serving as a Knicks consultant. He’s the CEO of the sports and entertainment consulting firm, the Oak View Group, as well as a partner of Irving Azoff, the longtime friend of Dolan’s who played a significant role in bringing Jackson to the Knicks.

And when I told Don Nelson – my roommate in Boston – that he was going to take over, he said “I’m not ready to coach.” I told him, “Nellie, you’re the coach. So let’s go for it.” He grew with the team and became obviously a Hall of Fame coach. That’s the reward, when you make decisions like that and they turn out well. That’s the pleasure I get now in an advisory capacity with Toronto. I tell the team when I speak to them before the season, my greatest joy is seeing others succeed.

With Toronto already boasting one of the best records in the league, Ujiri stressed he and his staff would not settle for a bad deal. If the right trade doesn’t present itself, the Raptors will not force anything just for the sake of making a move. “We find ourselves in a special place, which is second in the East,” Ujiri said. “There is a window with Kyle Lowry, DeMar [DeRozan] and DeMarre [Carroll] with those kind of guys in their prime and we will take advantage. But we’re not making bad deals. It doesn’t help business, it doesn’t help your future. Trust me, if a deal is not made just know there was nothing on the table for us that would really enhance our team.”

Masai Ujiri gets contract extension

The Toronto Raptors announced Friday they have signed President Masai Ujiri to a multi-year contract extension and promoted Jeff Weltman to general manager and Bobby Webster to assistant general manager/vice-president basketball strategy. Ujiri will continue to oversee basketball operations as president of the club. “I am grateful to the Board and Mr. Tanenbaum for the opportunity to continue our progress to build the Raptors into one of the top franchises in the NBA,” said Ujiri. “I’m also excited that Jeff and Bobby are being rewarded for their hard work and valuable contributions to our program. My family thanks the NBA, Raptors players and coaches, staff, Raptors fans, the city of Toronto and Canada for this opportunity. Toronto is home for us.”
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May 20, 2018 | 6:58 pm EDT Update