Basketball

Raptors Make Biggest Trade in Franchise History

Source: Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

Source: Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

They say that nice guys finish last. It seems that Masai Ujiri has decided to embrace that adage this offseason.

Just two months after firing the NBA Coach of the Year and fan favourite Dwane Casey, Ujiri and Co. were not satisfied with bringing back the same core of players that have fallen short in the playoffs the past two seasons. By "core", I'm talking about the all-star back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. If this team wanted to reach an NBA Final for the first time in franchise history, one or both of these men would have to be moved.

Unless you have insomnia, are parent to a newborn, or work incredibly weird hours, chances are that on July 18th, 2018 (dubbed "the most boring day in sports") you woke up to the news that the Raptors and Spurs agreed in principle on a trade sending Kawhi Leonard to Toronto and DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. At first, I was unsure about the deal, only because the remaining details had not been released yet. How much extra was Toronto about to give up? Would I have seen OG or Siakam's last games in a Raptors uniform? How many picks would be given back? Would we have to eat that brutal Patty Mills contract? Once all my questions were answered, it was clear who won this trade.

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In case you are unaware of the full trade, here it is.

Raptors Receive: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, $5 million USD

Spurs Receive: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, 2019 Protected 1st Round Pick (1-20)

When rumours first began to swirl regarding a potential "Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors" deal, pundits on social media were stating that it would take DeMar, OG, and MULTIPLE unprotected 1st round picks, PLUS picking up Patty Mills' contract. I thought it was ludacris to expect this type of haul for a "rental player" especially one that hasn't seen the floor in a year. The Spurs were about to be pigeon-holed, and I was public in stating that the Raptors would draw a line in the same, and find a way to keep OG for sure, and hopefully Siakam. When news broke that they were able to keep both, PLUS only give up one heavily protected 1st round pick in 2019, PLUS obtain another good player in Danny Green, PLUS get back $5 million dollars to help with tax relief...I couldn't have been happier.

Source: SI

Source: SI

We all knew the cost of acquiring a top end talent would be either DeMar or Kyle going the other way in a deal. Until it becomes a reality, you don't realize how much it will sting to see one of them gone, and the death of the incredible "bromance" that they shared on the court. I can't recall any two Toronto athletes having the same chemistry and relationship that DeMar and Kyle shared together. It's something that I will miss for sure. The always entertaining post-game interviews, the segments that they would do together, the laughter that they shared.

It's going to be interesting to see how Lowry reacts to this. Masai has stated in a press conference on Friday afternoon that he hadn't spoken with Lowry yet and that "I'm sure it will be really hard on him." Someone pointed out to me that Lowry had been through this before with the Rudy Gay trade. Rudy was (and still is) one of Lowry's best friends, and he is the godfather to Kyle's son. To have seen him traded away would have been gut-wrenching for Lowry, but he learned to develop a new relationship with DeMar. Hopefully he can take that same approach this time around, because the Raptors need him now more than ever.

It's Okay To Be Sad And Excited At The Same Time

I have this notion that Raptors fans feel like they have to pick a side. They are either sad that DeMar is gone and criticize Masai Ujiri for trading away the most loyal player the Raptors have ever had, or they are exciting and feel no empathy for DeMar and his family. Why do we have to live in a world of absolutes? This trade and the circumstances surrounding it is one that the NBA hasn't seen in a very long time, so there's no "right way" to feel. Saying this, I'll provide you with my perspective on the situation, and hopefully it can provide you the reader with a different lens to view it through.

DeMar was the heart and soul of this Raptors team the moment Chris Bosh walked out that door. His iconic "Don't worry, I got us..." tweet lives on in Raptors lore. He lived up to his tweet. He embraced the city. He was proud to rep not just the 6ix, but an entire nation. He helped make the Raptors relevant again. Kids were playing basketball in the streets, wearing their DeRozan Raptors jersey with pride. He never took a free agent meeting with any other team other than Toronto. He had a desire to retire a Raptor. It's emotional and difficult to see a player like that be traded for a player that may not want to return in a year. For all you have done for the Raptors, Toronto and the country of Canada, we thank you DeMar.

On the other hand, it is rare that a top-5 player in the NBA is available in trade talks. When that happens, you need to do whatever it takes to try and secure a player of that calibre. To obtain a player such as Kawhi, the trade package will have to sting. Losing DeMar was the stinger, but it was necessary. This deal on paper is a massive win for the Raptors. They give up arguably their best player, but receive an even better player in the deal. Not to mention they got Danny Green as well, who is a reliable 3-and-D player who will be a welcome addition into the starting lineup. One aspect of this trade that is not really being talked about is the impact that this trade will have on OG Anunoby. OG's ceiling is Kawhi Leonard, as the two play a very similar type of play-style. OG can learn a lot from Kawhi, even if it's for just a year. This will work wonders for the growth and development of OG as a player, and provides him with a greater chance of reaching his ceiling than ever before. 

I am sad, but I am excited. It's okay to feel both, there's nothing wrong with that. Raptors fans got the change they were looking for. Let's just put our trust in Masai that he knows what he is doing. Speaking of Masai...

This Is Truly Masai's Team Now...

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Over the course of his tenure as Raptors GM and Team President, Masai has made some moves to take this team from a bottom feeder to perennial contender. His first massive move was trading away Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks, which then turned into Jakob Poeltl, which then helped to turn into Kawhi Leonard. He traded away Rudy Gay, and the return package helped Toronto get to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They have made the playoffs for 4 straight years. They made it to an Eastern Conference Finals in 2016. Saying all of this, the last two years feel like the Raptors have fallen short, and Masai decided to finally change the nucleus of this team...one that was formed by former GM Bryan Colangelo.

Masai fired a coach that he inherited. He made his first coaching hire ever as an NBA GM. He then traded away one of the "dynamic duo" in DeRozan. Lowry and DeRozan were a part of the Raptors prior to Masai's arrival. In essence, Masai's moves focused on adding around the core three of Lowry, DeRozan and Coach Casey. Now, with a rookie head coach in Nick Nurse, and the addition of Kawhi Leonard, Masai has now truly made his mark on this team. He has pushed all in with pocket Kings. Hopefully for Raptors fans everywhere, someone else doesn't have pocket Aces.

Raptors Face Battles On And Off The Court Against Wizards

Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

Source: Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press

The Raptors, lead by all star backcourt DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, carry a 3-2 series lead into Washington as they take on the Wizards tonight at 7pm EST. Closing out this series in six games will be no easy task however. The home team has won every single game in this series, and the Raptors haven't seemed themselves in the Capital One Arena this series. Just ask Kelly Oubre Jr. what he thinks about it, in particular the play of Delon Wright.

The next game is a different story. We’re back at home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home. You can kind of chalk it up as the same story.
— Kelly Oubre Jr.

Delon seemed to chuckle at it and offer his take.

Yeah I saw it. That’s just his opinion. I didn’t play as good as I did at home there but he made it sound like I was just a total bust. We’ll see [in] Game 6
— Delon Wright

One would logically assume that the banter would end there and the two would dual it out on the court, but Oubre Jr. had to get the last word in. Here is what he responded with today.

Let me take a moment to address this. Kelly Oubre Jr., you should stick to doing what you do best...riding the pine. You're not in any position to talk smack like this. You're an inconsistent bench player on the eighth seed in the East. We will see what happens when Delon comes out and murders you on the court.

4th Quarter Blues?

Source: SLAM Online

Source: SLAM Online

DeRozan and Lowry are the key cogs to this team. Even with their newly revamped offense, those two need to be at the top of their games if they want to have continued success in the playoffs. In Game 5, the backcourt duo combined for just 4 points in the 4th quarter. Thankfully, Delon Wright stepped up with some key plays and 11 points in the quarter to propel the Raptors to victory. DeRozan and Lowry played well for most of Game 5, but they need to show up in the 4th quarter to pull away from opponents and close the door like they have done all season long. This is just one knock on an otherwise impressive playoff showing for the duo, considering recent history. I expect them to keep shattering expectations and carry the Raptors for a deep playoff run.

Other Notes

It appears as though the Raptors will have a key bench piece back in Fred VanVleet. News broke moments ago that FVV would be cleared to play for today's game.

This is a massive addition to a Raptors squad that has really missed their second unit floor general. Wright has put up impressive numbers in Fred's absence, but Fred's ability to space the floor and play fourth quarter minutes was a noticable absence in games one through five. VanVleet leads the Raptors in total 4th quarter minutes played this season, and is 20th in the NBA in this category. Hopefully the VanVleet that returns tonight is more of a version of what we are used to seeing as supposed to the Game 2 VanVleet that we saw in this series for a whopping two minutes.

While the Raptors gain a key player back into their rotation, the Wizards lose one. Otto Porter Jr. has been ruled out for the remainder of the series with what appears to be a left leg injury.

That's a big loss for this Wizards team. They now need to find a way to supplement his averages of 32 minutes played, 48.8% shooting and 41.7% rate from distance. My guess is the red hot Mike Smith will fill in for most of this role, as he is shooting an astronomical 67.6% from the field, 63.6% from 3 point land and averaging just under 12 points in 22 minutes per game. If he is able to fill in and continue to put up those numbers for the Wizards, the Raptors will be in trouble.

Game 6 is coming up soon! Let's see if the Raptors will be playing Game 1 of the second round or Game 7 of the first round on Sunday.

Where Do The Raptors Go From Here?

Source: Raptors Republic

Source: Raptors Republic

Never has there been an offseason as important or unclear as this one upcoming for the Raptors.

The Raptors find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can't seem to get past the massive hump that is LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, and the greatest that I have personally ever seen play the game. As long as that guy is breathing on the court, the East is his playground.

*Note: If you have not watched Masai Ujiri's End of Year Press Conference, you can watch it in its entirety here.*

It's clear that change is coming with this team. The words that came right from Masai's mouth were "We need a culture reset." When Masai says something, you can take it to the bank, because you know #InMasaiWeTrust.  There are a few things that stuck out to me after listening to Masai's press conference, which will be tied in to every topic discussed. Let's begin with the often energetic and enthusiastic coach, Dwane Casey.

We need a culture reset.
— Masai Ujiri

Dwane Casey

Dwane Casey has arguably been the best thing to ever happen to the Raptors. After coming off of a championship run with the Dallas Mavericks as their assistant coach, Casey faced the daunting task of turning a failing Raptors squad around into perennial contenders. After going below .500 in his first two years, he's gone above .500 in the last four, with 48, 49, 56 and 51 wins respectfully. When fans were calling for a rebuild during the 48 win season, Casey was able to get the most our of his players and have them play at a level that was unexpected and welcome in the Toronto basketball landscape.

Even though there's a long list of pros regarding Casey, there are accompanied by cons as well. His iso-ball style of gameplay is no longer effective, with Masai even making mention that this style of play will not work going forward. Couple that with his questionable starting lineup decisions, and he's created a #FireCasey section of the fanbase that arises every time a poor decision is made.

I'm not going to sit here and make excuses for Casey. I love him as a human being and I think he's a players coach and all around good guy. He says the right things and supports his guys no matter what. In the same breath, he makes me want to pull my hair out of my head when he starts DeMarre Carroll over Norman Powell, or when he never properly utilizes weapons such as Jonas Valanciunas or even James Johnson.

Personally, it wouldn't surprise me if the Raptors decided to fire Casey or keep him. There's valid arguments for both, but if I had to make a decision at this very moment, I think I would be more inclined to let Casey go and let another voice such as Rex Kalamian or Jerry Stackhouse take over the room.

It's hard to really read into where Masai's head is at regarding Dwane Casey. He didn't tip his hand much regarding the 60 year old coach, but it seems as though he will have an opportunity to get back in his chair and continue with this team next year. But make no mistake, his seat will be very, very hot.

I just want a ring.
— Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry

The hot debate topic surrounding the Raptors might not be around Coach Casey, but rather his all star starting point guard Kyle Lowry. Today, Lowry officially opted out of his final year in his contract, becoming a free agent. This comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody, unless you are my mom and thought the move meant that he was leaving Toronto for good (I know you're reading this mom, I'm sorry but I had to).

Lowry has been nothing short of a revelation for the Raptors, and this past season was by far his best of his career. Posting career highs in points per game (22.4), field goal percentage (46.4%), three point percentage (41.2%), and even defensive rebounds per game (5.0), Lowry has shown that he can be a complete player and a top tier point guard in the game.

One thing Lowry can't combat though is age. Lowry is on the wrong side of thirty (31), and signing him to a max contract would mean that you have him until the age of 36. While that may be a good contract for the first two to three years, the last two years may come back to haunt the team. The question now becomes this: is that a risk you are willing to take?

The Raptors have good young point guards in local boy Cory Joseph and 2015 1st round draft pick Delon Wright (who I absolutely love). There is no way to completely fill the void left by Kyle Lowry if he or the Raptors choose to part ways, but the Raptors did play well enough without Kyle, going 14-7 once he sustained his wrist injury. Not to mention that the Raptors played some of their best ball against Cleveland during the final two games, also known as the games that Lowry was out of the lineup.

If the Raptors choose to not sign Lowry, its because they have chosen to spend his max dollars elsewhere. If Lowry chooses not to come back, I wish him the best of luck. I believe that if an agreement if not reached between Lowry and the Raptors, fans should expect to see him with the Spurs. If Lowry is serious about a ring, his best chance other than Toronto would be the Spurs. Sorry 76ers, Lowry doesn't have time on his side to "trust the process".

It’s not realistic.
— Masai Ujiri on retaining all free agents

The Other Guys...

Lost in the shuffle and conversation surrounding Casey and Lowry is what to do with the other free agents the Raptors have coming off the books. Serge Ibaka, PJ Tucker and Patrick Patterson all hit the open market as UFA's this summer. When the Raptors traded for Ibaka, they also retained his bird rights, which gives the cap situation a bit more flexibility.

Here's where fans and analysts alike can get creative with their offseason plans. Obviously all decisions will be affected based off of Lowry's decision, but I would like to see Ibaka and Tucker back, and Patterson gone. Masai obviously traded for them for a reason, and I believe that he wouldn't have made those trades if he has no intention of keeping them around after this year. Ujiri made it clear that it is impossible to retain all four pending free agents, and I see Patterson as the odd man out. He is a good serviceable stretch four off the bench that can hit shots from deep, but he has shown that he can't be relied on in the playoffs and has a fragile mentality and confidence issues.

There are a lot of players I would love to see the Raptors target. If the Raptor's don't retain Lowry, then they have more money to spend to fill holes on the team. Some players that I would like to see the Raptors target include:

  • Kyle Korver - Arguably one of the best shooters from deep to ever play the game, Korver is deadly from beyond the ark, and if he can come at a reasonable price tag it will fit the new play style of shooting threes.
  • Danilo Gallinari - He won't come cheap, but if the Raptors decide to go small ball and have Serge at center and move JV, then this would be target number one. He has the versatility to play small forward and power forward, and seems to have unlimited range on the court. Again, fitting into the new found three point offence.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic - See a trend here? Looking for small/power forwards that can hit the three well. Bojan fits that bill, and can be a guy to come off the bench and log some solid minutes for that second unit. He has shown an ability to lead a second unit during the Washington vs. Boston series.
  • Joe Ingles - Read above, and just replace Bojan Bogdanovic with Joe Ingles.
  • Vince Carter - Didn't think I would leave out my boy VC right? I've been advocating for his return to the six for a few seasons now. If anybody could get VC to sign a veteran's minimum to come off the bench for the Raptors next season, its Masai.
100 per cent
— Masai Ujiri on ability to spend into the tax threshold

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Raptors right now. Decisions are coming, and the only thing that is certain is that this team will not look the same one way or another. It's an exciting time to be a Raptors fan. Let's just sit back and watch Masai & Co. get to work

Toronto, PLEASE Don't Turn Into New York

Source: Cogeco

Source: Cogeco

Dear Toronto sports fans,

As a city, we are collectively in a situation that has never been experienced before. We are finally beginning to breed success with all three major sports teams. The beloved Maple Leafs finally appear to have a promising future ahead with all star rookies and arguably the league's brightest coaching staff and front office. The Blue Jays have made it to two consecutive ALCS series, lead by an American League MVP and a fantastic starting rotation. The Raptors have made it to the postseason for the fourth year in a row, and Ujiri has single handily turned around a franchise that was the laughing stock of the NBA (excluding the Kings, they will always be trash). Hell, even TFC has managed to capture the hearts of all sports fans across this wonderful city.

Rolling Stone recently wrote an article explaining why Toronto looks to become the next sports mecca in North America, which can be viewed here. Reading this article made me think of other sports cities and meccas across North America. Cities such as Boston and Los Angeles come to mind, but arguably the highest profile of them all is New York. When New York teams are successful, sports media can't get enough coverage of them, players flock to the city practically begging to play for their teams and fans will lay roses at the feet of anything and anyone associated with sport success. We are currently in an era where New York sports have taken a turn for the worse. Let's take the Knicks for example. Media still cover them, but every piece that comes from them seems to revolve around negativity. Players and their agents claim to be avoiding the sinking ship and its captain James Dolan. Which leads me to the fans...they will not hesitate to pick up the roses they laid on the ground and use the thorns to stab everyone they deem to be "a disgrace to the city", which on a failing New York sports team is literally everyone.

The city of New York is used to seeing championships. The fans expect nothing less than championship calibre teams year after year. As quickly as they praise athletes is as quickly as they shun them. I see the same behaviour in Toronto whenever a team is on a losing streak or doesn't start the year off quite like it hoped (we are all looking at you Blue Jays). Toronto sports fans can't be like this, and I am here to explain why.

1) We are Canadians. It is literally unpatriotic to be rude or impolite to anybody, especially our sports teams. I have never heard anyone say they love people from New York more than people from Toronto, so let's not go down to their level.
2) They have seen a lot of championships in the past few decades. Toronto fans haven't stood in a parade route for almost 25 years. I get it, I'm hungry for a championship too, but let's take success where we can.
3) People will begin to view Toronto and Canada in a different light if they see us running players and executives out of town. While an extreme example, Vancouver has left its reputation tarnished forever with these riots from losing the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.
4) Speaking of negative perceptions, Toronto needs to act like it's been there before. Throwing beer cans on the field during the playoffs and being labelled as "the most despised fan base in baseball" doesn't help distinguish us as the polite Canadians that we are... 
5) There's a difference between critical analysis and plain stupidity. It's okay to have an opinion and have healthy debate, but saying outlandish things such as suggesting trading former AL MVP Donaldson because he is hurt doesn't give us true fans a good profile.

People in general seem to like and respect Toronto. For some sports, Toronto represents not only a city, but a nation. We as Toronto sports fans need to understand this, accept it and embrace it. Let's enjoy the ride, and let's enjoy the processes and changes that come along with it. When the mighty Toronto teams fall, and they inevitably will, we need to hold our heads high and know that this generation of Toronto sports has firmly placed our city as a premier North American sports city.