Instead of entering the 2014 offseason with big question marks, there's more certainty now despite the fact that the team was pretty close to being dismantled and rebuilt.
First-year Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has already witnessed a great deal of change this year, so perhaps the temptation to do more will subside as Toronto looks primed to host a first-round playoff series, something that was unimaginable just a few short months ago.
A big reason why the Raptors suddenly are where they are is the performance of point guard Kyle Lowry, a player who once appeared certain to be traded before the deadline.
Once Ujiri rid the Raptors of Rudy Gay's salary and inefficient chucking, the team caught fire behind the play of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and may have cancelled the rebuilding project altogether. Here's what Ujiri told Bruce Arthur of the National Post about how winning changed the team's path:
[We came] very, very close [to a different path]. I think it was clear for us that after the Rudy Gay trade we were going to see how this whole thing was going to play out … but one thing that really encouraged me was that Kyle, I think Kyle really grew up. We had some honest discussions, and some honest challenges.
One hundred percent, to me, there’s a lot of luck involved. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re geniuses. You try to plan, and I think we planned both ways, to see if our team fell apart or our team came together.
So yeah, could we have gone either way? I would say yes, for sure. But I know one thing: We said we were going to give these guys a platform, and we honestly did.
Lowry, who will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, has taken full advantage of the opportunity. Where it once seemed unlikely that he'd be returning to Toronto, his contagious effort and surprising leadership has made him the face of the new Raptors.
The organization hasn't been blind to Lowry's immense contributions this year. Raptors CEO Tim Leiweke acknowledged as much when he appeared on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and answered "yes" to the question of whether Toronto would re-sign Lowry, before following up with this:
There's a really special bond between [Raptors general manager] Masai [Ujiri] and Kyle. And there's a special bond...I mean, this town should be in love with this guy. He's been a great story.
While nothing is set in stone, as it appears right now, the Raptors will be ready to offer Lowry a new contract this offseason. Considering he's had the best year of his career and that there will be limited teams this offseason in need of a starting point guard, it would make sense for Lowry to stay put in Toronto. A lot of goodwill has been built there.
While re-signing Lowry is the first step, it's far from the only one that needs to be made this offseason.
Head coach Dwane Casey was in a similar situation to Lowry to start the season, as he entered on an expiring deal with no real talk of an extension. Basically, he looked like a lame-duck coach with a new boss.
Casey has been anything but that this year, though, as the Raptors now have a top-10 offense and defense in efficiency under his watch, according to Basketball-Reference.
Here's Erik Koreen of the National Post with his take on Casey:
His [Casey's] future will remain in doubt until the end of the year, because showing his hand before he has to is not part of Ujiri’s hush-hush style. That is his prerogative, and declaring his intentions toward Casey now hardly matters. Ujiri has to be sure he and his coach are properly aligned before committing to the long haul with him.
However, Casey’s steadiness has been thoroughly admirable during the course of his tenure in Toronto. For all of the talk about Lowry’s great contract year, Casey’s has been just as remarkable.
Casey's ability to get his young players to buy in defensively is a great sign, and that's typically the measure by which coaches are evaluated most closely, aside from postseason success. If Casey can add the latter to his profile this year, it's going to be awfully hard for Ujiri to justify heading in another direction.
For what it's worth, here's what Lowry told Koreen of the National Post about his coach:
“Me personally, I’m just an extension of him,” Lowry said on Wednesday. “I know what he wants. And he knows that I’m going to do what he wants.”
Once the coach and the extension of the coach are brought back this offseason, there will still be some other minor decisions for the Raptors to make. John Salmons ($7 million) and Tyler Hansbrough ($3.3 million) both have partial guarantees for $1 million. Salmons is almost certainly gone, but Hansbrough may stick.
Amir Johnson's final year ($7 million) is also not fully guaranteed, but he has $5 million of that salary guaranteed and he's quietly one of the most productive big men in the league. Johnson is a lock to have his deal picked up.
Patrick Patterson, Nando De Colo and Greivis Vasquez can all hit restricted free agency if they are provided qualifying offers. Each player has had their moments with the Raptors, and once Lowry is re-signed, there may not be a whole lot of cap room for Toronto to try and conserve for something else. It wouldn't be a surprise to see all three players receive their qualifying offers or negotiate cheap deals to come back to Toronto, although Vasquez and De Colo may be a bit repetitive as big backup guards.
The Raptors will also have their own first-round pick and two second-round choices to play with this offseason, so Ujiri will have some options.
While Toronto's postseason performance should provide more clues as to what Ujiri will decide to do this offseason, the next step of re-signing Lowry and Casey seems fairly certain to happen at this point. A postseason appearance for a franchise and city that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2007-2008 season is a big deal, especially since the Eastern Conference suddenly looks wide-open outside of the Miami Heat.
There's a lot of positive momentum working for Toronto right now. Establishing a winning culture and building off this season by retaining the key contributors sure seems like the wise thing to do.
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