BOSTON—The Toronto Raptors’ bold Dec. 9 Rudy Gay trade to the Sacramento Kings sparked a dramatic change of course for the NBA team north of the border. Symbolically, it represented a full commitment to the team’s youth movement, both in terms of leadership and style.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was lauded for extracting the last two years of Gay's five-year, $82 million salary cap burden. But just as importantly, Head Coach Dwane Casey finally had freedom to install a more balanced offense.
And now the Raptors find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and even Toronto Maple Leaf fans are taking note.
Wait, what? How on Earth did we get here?
“What the trade did,” Casey said, “was that it developed a different pecking order. Before, we were an ‘iso’ team. Rudy Gay is a great one-on-one player. When he left, the move forced the younger players to better define their roles.
“Rudy meant lot to the development of this team. But we’re different now. Terrence Ross and DeMar (DeRozan) are impressive attacking off the pick and roll; DeMar’s post-up game is terrific, and he’s shown he can be a quarterback out of that position. Kyle’s our energy hub, and his play out of the pick and roll has been huge for us; his three-point shooting (.383, among the league leaders ) has been contagious for our team.”
In an interview in Boston when Casey took over as Head Coach three years ago, he insisted that he would be adamant about establishing a defensive mindset, a result of his apprenticeship under Rick Carlisle in Dallas. That vision has finally taken shape.
This season, according the website "NBA Team Rankings", the Raptors are seventh in the league defensively, allowing 97.7 points per game. Deeper, they are first in the league in points permitted in the fourth quarter, at 22.1.
The Raps' turnaround after the Gay trade on offense is indisputable. Before the trade, according to team reports, the Raptors had 20 assists or more in three games; after the trade, they recorded 20-plus assists in 41 of 51 contests. When the Raptors have 20-plus assists, their record is 31-14, a winning percentage which ranks with the best in the league.
Nowhere has the trade had more of an impact than in the development of the six-foot-seven forward DeRozan. In t he 2012-13 offseason, DeRozan signed a four-year, $38 million contract, which now looks like a coup for Ujiri.
In addition to seeking increased productivity on the floor from DeRozan (22.7 ppg), the Raptors needed leadership in the absence of Gay.
“Rudy Gay took me under his wing,” said a still-admiring DeRozan minutes after the Raptors had won the first of the home-and-home series against the Celtics, 99-90 last Wednesday. “He gave me a lot of insight.
“You know, when he was traded, the first thing he told me was, ‘This is your team now. It’s time to take advantage.’ Coming from a person like that, it means a lot."
Running-mate Kyle Lowry has channeled his aggression admirably. Rumored to nearly have been traded to New York before the deadline, he’s instead been a stabilizing force, a player who many believed also could also have been an All-Star, among the league leaders in scoring at 17.6 ppg and sixth in assists at 7.8.
More important than all of that, DeRozan and Lowry's chemistry is healthy.
“Kyle’s my man, off the court and on it, and that helps our chemistry,” DeRozan said. “We feed off of that and use it to our advantage.”
If the Compton-born DeRozan is lyrically soft-spoken, Lowry is a Philadelphia city player, rough-hewn, edgy, tough and proudly autonomous. It was reported that Lowry requested a trade from the Houston Rockets and that he has problems with the renowned players’ coach Kevin McHale. But Lowry adamantly denied it to this writer in January, saying that any disagreement was blown out of proportion, that he regretted the way he handled things there and intimating that their problems could have been resolved. But there’s little doubt that Lowry is contented here.
“It’s amazing how well you can play when you know people on your team support you--if you play great or if you make a mistake,” he said.
He added, “After the trade, we had to settle in. Guys came in from then on and just accepted their roles. And that made us a team, an overall team, it completed the team.”
Casey agreed, “Amir has been consistent, like an old shoe, always there defensively, rebounding, screening, running the floor---he’s like a silent leader. Jonas has played some of his best ball of late (including 19 double-doubles this season); Jonas is seeing the floor better, and he’s much improved fundamentally."
But until the non-starters had their best game in weeks against Boston Friday, Casey has recently been worried about bench production.
The trade of Gay was designed partially to augment the bench (in addition to subtracting the salary burden). But despite third guard Greivis Vasquez’ strong, often overlooked contribution and productive but limited minutes from Chuck Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough, bench productivity has been a problem, especially because of Patrick Patterson’s injury-enforced absence and John Salmons's sudden, apparent aging. In addition, Steve Novak has been injured and played less minutes than last season, when he was three-point sniper for New York. DeRozan is third in the league in minutes played (38.4), trailing only superstars Carmelo Anthony (38.8) and likely MVP, Kevin Durant (38.6). Lowry is tenth at 36.6.
“The lack of production is putting pressure on the starters,” Casey said. “Pat does a lot of things and his being out hurts. We’ll try to get them some rest, but when it’s the right time.
“Right now, we’re still scratching and fighting for a lot of different things.”
The Raptors now are trying to win the Atlantic, and insure a favorable playoff matchup. And remarkably a strong candidate for coach of the year with likely favorite Jeff Hornacek of Phoenix, Casey’s ability to utilize his bench and handling his young team may prove his greatest challenge in the postseason.
“I’ve been saying all year that we’re a young team, a work in progress,” Casey said. “We may make mistakes, but we compete hard, and if we do make mistakes, it’s not for a lack of fight or a lack of togetherness.”
The spark will be DeRozan. DeRozan had endured speculation that he might leave Toronto before re-signing. Chris Bosh had left in 2010, and before his departure, the team had been forced to comply with Vince Carter’s trade demands.
“People may have expected me to leave, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” DeRozan said. “I’m me. I’m my own man.”
Said one scout, “DeMar has come a long way. I scouted him when he was at Southern California, but I thought (then-coach) Tim Floyd’s system was too regimented for him. Now, he has freedom.”
Another scout from the Eastern Conference drew comparisons to Paul George, Indiana’s star wing player. “DeMar has the offensive skills, there’s no doubt about that. But his on-the-ball defense still needs work.”
DeRozan is willing to accept the challenge, “We want to get (to the playoffs), but we don’t want to settle. We want to get in there and compete.”
With nine games left in the regular season, count the Raptors in as one of the teams in the East who will make life difficult for the acknowledged favorites, two-time defending champion Miami (where Toronto plays Monday) and the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors led the veteran Brooklyn Nets by two games heading into Sunday’s games.