It's hard to pinpoint the most surprising aspect of the Toronto Raptors' 2013-14 season.
Is it the fact that the team is leading the charge for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, which would give them home-court advantage during the early stages of the postseason?
After all, the SCHOENE projection, via ESPN's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required), had the Raptors winning only 37 games and finishing in a tie for seventh place in the East. They've already surpassed that number and still have quite a few games to go.
Is it Kyle Lowry still being on the roster?
When general manager Masai Ujiri was hired, it was commonly accepted that major changes were upcoming. Few players were viewed as untouchable, and surely more big-name players than just Rudy Gay would end up on the move.
Regardless of your answer, it's clear that the season as a whole has fallen into the realm of surprises.
But is that going to change the front office's strategy down the road?
Why Was Ujiri Hired?
"Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri has accepted a five-year, $15 million contract to run the basketball operations of the Toronto Raptors, league sources told Yahoo! Sports," reported Adrian Wojnarowski back in May 2013.
While that may be a minuscule contract for an NBA player, it's a massive one for an executive. What do you think the intention of that deal was?
Fortunately, you don't have to guess.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke released a statement after the hiring was made official, as relayed by Sports Illustrated's Ben
We feel very lucky to have Masai in our organization. He is a proven judge of talent and we look for him to be a big part of creating a winning atmosphere, leading us to the playoffs and, ultimately, delivering NBA championships for Toronto.
I would also like to publicly thank the Kroenkes in Denver for being such a class organization that they would allow Masai to pursue his dream. They put him first in all of our discussions.
MLSE is the organization that oversees the Raptors, among other Toronto-based sports franchises, so this is about as official as a statement can get. And as Leiweke made quite clear, the goal isn't just to make the playoffs.
It's to win a championship.
Ujiri made moves during his brief stay with the Denver Nuggets that seemed to point exactly in that direction. He made the best of a bad situation with Carmelo Anthony and ended up receiving a package of promising players that ultimately developed into a contending team.
With the exception of Ty Lawson, whom he inked to a reasonable extension, every single rotation member of the 2012-13 Nuggets squad was brought on board by Ujiri, and it's hard to imagine them failing to improve if he'd stayed with the organization and had time to make a successful pitch to Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos and George Karl.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, the general expectation was that Ujiri would hit the detonation button, blowing up the roster and keeping only a precious few commodities as he shaped a team that would appease his vision.
Lowry was as good as gone. Gay definitely wasn't going to last. DeMar DeRozan hadn't improved enough to figure into the future plans, and Jonas Valanciunas might be the only player who was completely safe.
Ujiri wasn't brought aboard to make minor tweaks and clean up a few loose ends. He was hired for such an exorbitant sum so that he could bring a championship to the Canadian franchise.
The Changing Value of the Core
Only one thing could change the seemingly inevitable blow-it-up strategy—unforeseen development from the core.
And that's exactly what happened.
As soon as Gay was traded to the Sacramento Kings, both DeRozan and Lowry made massive strides. They became fringe All-Stars (both should've made the team), and their contributions have consistently carried the squad that currently has a puncher's shot of holding down the fort at No. 3 in the Eastern Conference.
Just take a look at their numbers pre- and post-Gay:
Although DeRozan's three-point percentage has plummeted, he's still been part of a backcourt that has improved leaps and bounds since the removal of an inefficient wing player. Both players have excelled with the ball in their hands more—as I broke down here—and their distributing has allowed the Raptors as a whole to thrive.
Add in some developments from Terrence Ross and confidence across the rest of the squad and you're looking at a fringe contender in the weak East. Games like this don't hurt either:
With a 38-29 record heading into their March 21 showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Raptors control the No. 3 spot in their conference. The Chicago Bulls are making it a race, and the Brooklyn Nets can't be counted out yet, but the very fact that this team is in such a situation is promising in and of itself.
So much for tanking.
The success is unexpected, but has it changed Ujiri's plan?
Is it Still Best to Blow Things Up?
As Bulls.com's Sam Smith wrote shortly before the All-Star break, the Raptors were fringe contenders with their sights set on bigger and better things:
This is maybe the most amazing situation behind the scenes. As terrific as Kyle Lowry has played and close to being an All-Star, they still are considering trading him and trying to miss the playoffs. Yes, it’s nuts. But there’s a core in management and ownership that believes the future is in the draft and perhaps Canadian Andrew Wiggins.
They’ve been playing like a top two or three team in the East since the Rudy Gay trade. It would seem a slap in the face to their loyal fan base with a playoff run likely. Yet, it seems undecided. They could even make a run to the conference finals if they involve Jonas Valanciunas more. Unless, of course, they choose to try to miss the playoffs.
The Lowry trade never came to fruition, and neither did the tanking. But that doesn't mean the view of the management and ownership has changed whatsoever.
Again, this is an organization that wants to become a true contender, not just a fringe one with an outside shot of an upset in the first couple of rounds. And with the current roster, that's just not going to happen.
In order to keep the core together heading into the 2014-15 season, the Raptors are going to have to re-sign Lowry this offseason, and he's likely to demand quite a bit of money. In fact, it's hard to see him signing for anything less than $8 million or $9 million per year, so let's just assume that he's coming in at $8.5 million in 2014-15.
Right off the bat, the Raptors are on the books for about $51.2 million, per ShamSports.com's contract figures, and that's with them refusing to shell out any more than the $1 million guaranteed in John Salmon's deal.
Between the qualifying offers for Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson (which weren't counted in the above figure) and rookie salaries, there isn't room to make any major free-agent deals before brushing up against the luxury-tax threshold. So the Raptors are relying on internal improvement and a pick likely to fall in the late teens or early 20s to boost their ceiling from playoff squad to true contenders.
That's not going to happen.
Ross and Jonas Valanciunas could both make leaps and bounds, but it's important to remember this is only a third seed by virtue of a historically weak conference. Even those improvements, as well as sizable ones from other players, wouldn't guarantee status as a true contender.
Will Masai Ujiri blow things up this offseason?
For that reason alone, Ujiri's vision should not change. He should still be striving to make a few blockbuster deals and drastically improve the fortunes of this franchise, ideally through landing one of the elite prospects in the current draft class and gaining even more picks in the future.
Don't expect Toronto to sit still this summer. This surprising season may have allowed optimism to invade the Air Canada Centre, but it hasn't changed the overarching vision of the front office.