The Foreign Contender

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The emergence of the Toronto Raptors as an NBA power has created a new generation of basketball fans throughout the country. And the noticable improvements to the team’s culture should keep the fan base growing for the near future.

With a 40-19 record the Toronto Raptors have again been able to find success during the 2015-2016 season. The team currently holds the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference, with a comfortable 4.5 game lead over the 3rd place Boston Celtics. They are certainly the biggest threat to overthrow the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title. And while it was assumed that the team would perform well this season, they’ve managed to exceed nearly everyone’s expectations.

Following consecutive 1st round exits in the playoffs, the team entered the 2015 offseason with some important decisions to make regarding their future. Jonas Valanciunas and Terrance Ross were entering the final seasons of their rookie contracts; both with lucrative extensions being their goals. Some of the Raptor’s core rotation players had the potential of hitting the free agent market too, such as Lou Williams and Amir Johnson. Needless to say, big decisions needed to be made. Masai Ujiri was preparing for the most important offseason in his Toronto tenure.

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Ujiri has mentioned that he believes there is little value in being a middling team – if you are not going to realistically compete for a championship, collecting assets to assist in the future is more beneficial than being relatively competitive for consecutive seasons. His reason being: the most important catalyst to a championship run is having a superstar, and the likelihood of getting a star in the draft is much higher than attracting one in free agency. This is especially true for a team like Toronto, which historically hasn’t had much success appealing to high-caliber free agents.

When guard Greivis Vasquez, who still had a year left on his contract, was traded the night before the 2015 draft for a 2017 1st round pick, the offseason goals of the Raptors remained unclear. Though Vasquez has his flaws, with only $6.5 million due to him the upcoming season it’s hard to not say after a relatively successful season that he wasn’t worth the cap hit. However, Ujiri decided he wanted to get something of value for him rather than negotiate a contract the following offseason. An interesting move for a team looking to improve for the upcoming season.

More changes to the roster seemed inevitable as rumours of Toronto not having interest in resigning Lou Williams or Amir Johnson circulated around the league. Combine that with the news that prized free agent LaMarcus Aldridge had excluded the Raptor’s from his final destination list, and there were some questions surfacing around the franchises goals. Yes they were bringing back their core of talent, however realistic options for improvement were limited.

How good could a team lead by Lowry and DeRozan really be?

Is a run at a title realistic with this core?

And is it worth mortgaging their future in order to assist in this run?

All questions that Masai and fans alike had been asking themselves for months. The team needed something to show which direction it was headed in, and that move came on the first day of free agency.

The Raptor’s made a major splash in the free agent pool by signing coveted free agent wing DeMarre Carroll to a 4 year, $60 million deal. They followed this move up by adding free agents Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola during the next week of free agency. Finally, the team was beginning to take shape.

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Though Carroll was really the only high profile player among the new additions, the others all however seemed to share one critical quality – high character. While character can be difficult to quantify it was clear that Ujiri had a goal in mind while he began sifting through the free agent class. He wanted a very specific brand of player.

He wasn’t looking to simply add talent, as he had just finished rectifying the Rudy Gay disaster which followed that strategy. Rather, he was hoping to add players with the ability to identify roles, that have a reliable work ethic, and a desire for team success above individual success – all qualities that are seemingly a prerequisite for winning in this league today.

By gathering players that followed this trend Masai had begun to create his ideal team, a group of players that prioritize winning above anything else and understand the value of hard work. Rather than sacrificing major cap space, future picks, or young prospects in order to gain a few extra wins, Ujiri instead decided to change the very culture of the organization. He saw an aspect of the team that needed improvement, and knew it would take the addition of the right type of players to change it.

Few general managers would have the perspective to realize that lack of talent wasn’t the entire problem with the team. That with the right supporting cast, this team could re-purpose a lot of the talent it already had. And it has seemingly worked.

Exclude the contributions of DeMarre Carroll, who has missed nearly 40 games this season, and in a vacuum the talent level of the team’s additions is very similar to that of the team’s departures. With Joseph,  Biyombo, and Scola compared to Williams, Vasquez, and Johnson, one could argue the Raptors maybe even lost some talent. However, the team has managed to improve its record by 3 games from where it was last season.

This is not coincidental.

When you have players who understand the value of roles, who work just as hard with the ball in their hands as out, and combine that with players who have a high level of talent, you can achieve a lot.

The perception of the Raptors has completely changed over the last few years. They are no longer just another team in the East. You could say it has to do with the improvements of Demar Derozan’s game, or the emergence of Kyle Lowry as a top point guard in the league. But to me, the biggest addition has been the smallest additions.

Masai really has this team trending in the right direction, and it doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

 

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