(Liam Fox is a Grade 11 student at Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby and is doing a co-op placement with Durham College’s Journalism – Mass Media program.)
The Toronto Raptors are coming off their most successful season as a franchise, winning their first NBA championship and making a name for themselves internationally.
Since then, the roster has had undergone significant changes – testing the abilities of the front office.
After superstar Kawhi Leonard and key piece Danny Green left Toronto many believed that the Raptors would be a non-contender in the Eastern Conference. They are currently one of the top teams in basketball with a record of 15-6.
One of the most impressive parts about their start has been they have played much of the season minus their starting point guard and all-star, Kyle Lowry, and backup centre, Serge Ibaka, who have just returned to active duty.
Another reason for their strong start has been the performance of the new players brought in by the front office. They didn’t go out and sign superstars, instead they brought in role players.
History suggests the Raptors don’t have the same appeal to superstars as American teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, and New York Knicks.
How about Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and Leonard all leaving Toronto.
Big name free agents to sign with the Raptors?
How about ‘superstars’ like Jose Calderon, Bismack Biyombo and DeMarre Carroll?
So they need to find other ways of accumulating talent. That’s where credit must go to the front office.
The Raptors – under Masai Ujiri – have made some smart, strategic trades.
Ujiri joined the Raptors in 2013 and has had a 65 per cent winning percentage as the president of basketball operations.
His trading record has been excellent.
Shortly after joining Toronto, Ujiri traded Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani (in separate deals). He got a first round pick for Bargnani that eventually turned into Jakob Poeltl and got Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and most importantly Grevis Vasquez from Sacramento for Gay.
Why was Vasquez an important acquisition? He was later traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for picks that became current players Norman Powell and OG Anunoby.
Ujiri also masterminded the team’s most important trade in franchise history, prior to the start of last season.
He traded franchise player DeMar DeRozan and Poeltl for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
In the middle of their championship season, the Raptors also traded fan favourite Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and CJ Miles to Memphis for veteran centre Marc Gasol.
The rest – as they say – is history. These three pieces were pivotal to Toronto winning the championship with Leonard dominating the entire playoffs, hitting ‘the shot’ against Philadelphia and winning the finals MVP.
Even though Leonard left the Raptors after one year, he led the Raptors to their first championship. Ujiri knew a change was needed after many disappointing post-season losses in previous years.
It would not have happened if it was not for Ujiri, along with Bobby Webster, the Raptors general manager, and Dan Tolzman, the assistant general manager.
Another way the Raptors get talent is through crafty drafting.
The Raptors have only one current player selected as a lottery pick – top-13 in the first round. That pick is Stanley Johnson, selected eighth overall by Detroit in 2015, who sees limited playing time in Toronto.
The Raptors have used their late draft picks extremely well.
The Raptors best player, and potential superstar, Pascal Siakam was drafted 27th in the 2016 NBA draft. Siakam is now the best player from that draft class (unless you want to lobby hard for Ben Simmons) and 26 teams passed on him, but the Raptors saw his potential.
Siakam has improved immensely each year. From averaging 4.2 PPG, 3.4 REB, and 0.3 APG in his rookie season to 25.6 PPG, 8.4 REB, and 4 APG so far this season. He won the NBA’s most improved player (MIP) award last year and is being considered for other honours this year such as being named to the all-star team, an All-NBA team member and as improbable as it may sound – winning MIP again.
Another pool of pivotal players on the Raptors were drafted late including OG Anunoby (23) and Norman Powell (46).
The team’s management and scouting staff isn’t successful solely via trades and the draft. They have done an superb job scouting and acquiring undrafted players.
Fred VanVleet is the poster child of undrafted talent.
After being overlooked in 2016, VanVleet became a key part of the 2017 “bench mob” and is now Toronto’s point guard of the future averaging 18.6 PPG, 7.5 APG, and 1.7 steals this season.
Names like Terence Davis and Chris Boucher were also passed over in the draft and picked up by the Raptors.
Another key to the Raptors recent success is coaching.
Nick Nurse leads a coaching staff including Adrian Griffin, Sergio Scariolo, Nate Bjorkgren, Jim Sann, Eric Khoury and Patrick Mutombo.
In 2017 Dwayne Casey was fired from being the head coach of the Raptors after winning coach of the year. Nurse was promoted from being an assistant coach and won the championship in his first year as head coach.
With many teams, the head coach runs the entire show but with the Raptors every coach is involved and it allows for more ideas and better player development.
The Raptors have had four straight 50 win seasons and are on pace to keep up their success.
Yes, the players have to play.
But Ujiri and the entire front office have performed.