NEW YORK — While the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors were once again battling for NBA supremacy this past June, the Toronto Raptors' on-court brain trust—coach Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry—got together in Oakland, California, to come up with a new plan.
Not that the old plan wasn't working. It just wasn't sustainable in the new basketball landscape dominated by fast-paced offense, three-point shooting and multiple weapons being brought to bear on increasingly hapless and helpless defenses across the league.
"It was time for a change," a person familiar with the dialogue at the meeting told Bleacher Report. "We couldn't just keep doing the same old crap."
The "same old crap" was relying on Lowry and DeRozan to take turns carrying the offensive load in a futile effort to lead them to the promised land. The ensuing shift in playing style, along with organizational continuity from top to bottom and a surprisingly lethal bench, has the Raptors (53-18) sitting at No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with a five-game lead over the Boston Celtics and an 11.5-game lead over the Cavaliers.
"We're a more mature team," Casey said during a recent swing through New York to play the Knicks and Nets. "We're a better team. I think we're more prepared for this year's playoffs. But I can't project what's going to happen. I wish I had a crystal ball. If I did, I wouldn't be standing here. I promise you. I'd be on Wall Street, down the road a bit."
Scoring wasn't the problem; the Raptors were investing their energy there. Toronto was fifth in the league in offensive rating in 2015-16 and sixth in '16-17. But a not-so-funny thing kept happening before they got to the finish line.
They kept running into LeBron James and the Cavs. And losing.
"We took them to six games in the conference finals a couple of years ago, and we got swept [in the conference semifinals] last year," DeRozan said. "Things like that still sit in the back of our minds and give us motivation. I think we took all the measures we needed to take before the season as far as the way we need to play, because it's going to be more difficult to game plan for us."
At the time of the meeting between Lowry, DeRozan and Casey at a Bay Area restaurant this past June, Lowry was an impending free agent. A year earlier, the Raptors had re-signed DeRozan to a five-year, $139 million deal. A year before that, they'd re-signed Jonas Valanciunas to a four-year, $64 million deal.
After back-to-back first-round losses to the Nets and Washington Wizards in 2014 and '15, respectively, and back-to-back losses to Cleveland, it was time for team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster to decide whether to retain Lowry and thus double-down on a roster that seemed equipped to take the Raptors only so far.
"It wasn't like we were a million miles away," Casey told B/R. "We knew with the continuity, we were close. And we were banking on the change in the style of play and the defensive changes. We've made as many defensive changes as offensive changes. So we were banking on that. You wish you could go in and sweep every series. But you're playing against arguably the best player that's ever played in the NBA, and that's been our Achilles' heel. And we're trying to find a way to get over that hump."
Before Ujiri went ahead with re-signing Lowry to a three-year, $100 million contract, he dispatched Casey to the Bay Area to get his stars to buy into a stylistic shift that both the coach and the president believed was necessary to push past their nemesis just south of the border.
There were two key, interrelated components of this plan. First, Casey believed the Raptors needed to play less isolation and mid-range basketball and join the NBA's pace-and-space, three-point shooting revolution. Toronto was 15th in three-point attempts per 100 possessions in '15-16 and 20th in '16-17. It was near the bottom both years in pace and dead last both years in percentage of assisted two-point field goals.
"The big thing was just us getting away from isolation basketball, trusting every single player on the team and playing a style to where we wouldn't be predictable," DeRozan told B/R. "That was the major part. We all agreed with that. It was taking a toll on me and Kyle to do that every night. Some nights, it was me going out there shooting 25-plus times. A lot of that takes a toll. So we needed to find another way to not be predictable and make everybody better on our team. We were all for it."
But agreeing to such a drastic change over food and fine wine in June is one thing. Executing it on the floor would be quite another story. And this is where the second part of Ujiri's plan—organizational consistency—came into play, and why it was the real genius behind it.
When Ujiri returned to the Raptors in 2013 after winning Executive of the Year as the Denver Nuggets' GM, he inherited Casey as his coach. Things haven't always been rosy between them—"We agree to disagree sometimes," Casey told B/R—but they have stuck together.
"He re-signed me to two deals," Casey said with a smile, "so I'm his now."
That steady leadership, which is quite contrary to what happens in many other NBA cities, laid the foundation for Ujiri to keep the core together and massage the rest of the roster—while Casey worked on the details. Once Lowry was re-signed, Ujiri had a coach who'd been at the helm for six seasons; an All-Star shooting guard who'd been there for eight seasons; an All-Star point guard for five; and Valanciunas, arguably the glue of the whole group, for five seasons, as well.
"It's a good feeling when you come into the practice or the game, knowing that it's going to be fun and we're going to play together," Valanciunas said. "You're not finding any enemies from the inside. You're just fighting the other team; that's it. Some teams are having problems; they're fighting themselves. It's a good feeling knowing that your teammates got your back and the coaches know what they're doing."
Key to making everything work was the fact that those with the biggest stake in this remaking not only had longevity with the franchise, but also a future with it.
"People always look outside when they're making changes. They never look inside," a person familiar with the Raptors' strategy told B/R. "We looked at Kyle, DeMar and Casey, and they're all talented. How can they get better? What better way than rewarding them? This is not a trial. It's not like Kyle is on a one-year deal. Everybody was comfortable to change. Everyone has security."
Well, not everyone. In the Raptors' case, the re-signing of Lowry—and Serge Ibaka to a three-year, $65 million deal—necessitated losing veteran role players DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson. It was time to let the young players spread their wings and play a more prominent role off the bench. The result has been a level of energy and productivity that no one could have imagined.
Statistically, the Raptors have the NBA's most productive bench, outscoring opponents by 10.0 points per 100 possessions. Incredibly, Toronto's all-bench lineup of CJ Miles, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet is outscoring opponents by a whopping 23.2 points per 100 possessions, best of any bench unit in the league.
"Our bench has been everything," DeRozan said. "Allowing the starters to be able to sit out the fourth quarter and not play, there have been multiple games where that happened. That bench is the reason we're a 50-win team."
Then again, the Raptors were a 50-plus-win team the past two years, and what did it get them? A reputation for being a squad that wins in the regular season and flames out in the playoffs. It's a narrative that grinds Casey's gears.
"There's a lot of teams that flamed out, and they were in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos while we were still playing," Casey said. "So that's what I question a lot of times: the narrative that the Toronto Raptors, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, they flame out in the playoffs. Well, one year it's conference finals, the other year it's semifinals against Cleveland. So if that's flaming out, give me the opportunity to walk through that door every year."
If that door opens again, the Raptors will walk through it with a resume that looks a lot more like that of a modern-day championship contender. Though they're near the league's bottom third in three-point accuracy, the Raptors have climbed to fifth in three-point attempts per 100 possessions. They've gone from the bottom third to 13th in pace, and from last to 17th in assisted two-point field goals.
"We knew there were going to be some rough spots, and there still are, in terms of rhythm, timing, understanding and feel," Casey said. "But for the most part this year, our assists are up, DeMar's assists are up, the minutes are down and they've trusted this whole scenario. So far, it's paying off for us."
There's one more fallacy about the Raptors' plan that should be noted. This isn't a case of being all-in for this year, and if it doesn't work, it's time to hit the reset button. With the key players under contract for at least three more years, Ujiri believes the Raptors have a reasonable window to get this right. On paper and on the floor, this version of the Raptors looks more capable than ever—perhaps the best team of the Casey-Lowry-DeRozan era.
Leaning against the wall in the lobby of Equinox Fitness Club in Manhattan after practice last week, Lowry, for one, refused to take the bait.
"We'll see what happens," Lowry said. "Ask me again at the end of the season."
Statistics are accurate as of games played Monday, March 20, and are courtesy of NBA.com.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.