In the running to the 2013/14 season, the Toronto Raptors usually posted a losing record, coming in on a five-season streak of sub-.500 records. But, then, in mid-2013, Masai Ujiri was named the executive vice president and general manager of the NBA’s only team based outside of the USA. With his background in scouting and focus on defense, the Raptors quickly turned their fortunes around, winning the Atlantic Division in five of the six seasons en route to becoming NBA champions this summer.
A major part of the success was Ujiri’s controversial decision to trade franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan, a first-round pick, and Jakob Poeltl for defensive superstar Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs. It was seen as a huge gamble for the team that just sacked the NBA Coach of the Year, Dwayne Casey, but it paid off with the ultimate prize.
In the free agency, however, both of these key players of Toronto’s championship campaign left for Los Angeles teams, leaving massive holes in the roster. Many outlets have already written off the Raptors for a championship repeat, but can Toronto still find success in 2019/20?
Trust the system and process of Ujiri
After losing two integral players in the summer following a championship win, many teams would seriously consider tearing up the team and going into a rebuild having earned the good faith of the fan base. The Raptors, however, see their team as one that can continue to develop and even find success without Leonard and Green.
Following the ‘rags to riches’ story of the Raptors over the last half-decade, Masai Ujiri’s process of team building has been praised greatly. The team has a new track record of finding talents to develop into top-class players, like Cameroonian forward Pascal Siakam, and placing an emphasis on the defensive side of the ball, with two-way players like Marc Gasol being crucial to their game plans.
This summer, much of Toronto’s focus was on re-signing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, as you would expect, but both moves failed to come to fruition. However, with limited cap space and time in the free agency, Toronto still managed to bring in two nice pieces to once again bolster on defense, with Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson joining the Raptors.
Toronto also added a potential secret weapon over the summer with Matt Thomas signing from Spain’s Liga ACB. Going undrafted by the NBA in 2017, Thomas has made a name for himself through the Summer League and European competition as an almighty shooter, making 48.5 percent of his 3-point attempts over two seasons in Liga ACB, according to the NBA.
Can the Raptors hope for success?
With Leonard and Green departing, most outlets have landed on a C+ to B grade for the Raptors this offseason. Very few of the experts see Toronto repeating, but there are many tips that will bring Toronto fans hope coming into the new season. The Raptors are picked to win over 45.5 of their games, make it to the playoffs, and have been given some favor by the NBA picks to win the Atlantic Division again, despite being at odds of +500.
Head coach Nick Nurse proved himself to have a high basketball IQ last season, and with plenty of defensively-savvy players at his disposal, the Raptors will still be a very tough team to beat. They may not have a superstar X-factor in Kawhi Leonard, but the team is strong as it is, let alone later in the season when some of their many projects start to emerge into their true potential.
If the Raptors were dark horses to win the championship last season, they’ve all but been written off this season. But perhaps going underestimated will work in Toronto’s favor once again. If the Raptors can build momentum in the regular season, they could once be a contender from the Eastern Conference.