Right now the Toronto Raptors sit atop the Atlantic Division and appear ready to coast into the playoffs with home court advantage in the first round.
DeMar DeRozan was Toronto’s first All-Star since Chris Bosh left for Miami and Jonas Valanciunas was invited to take part in the Rising Stars game in New Orleans.
A lot of smart basketball have argued that Kyle Lowry should have joined DeRozan as an all-star in New Orleans.
Terrence Ross has shown great growth this season which was highlighted by scoring 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers and cementing himself as Toronto’s starting small forward since Rudy Gay was traded to the Sacramento Kings.
The present and future look great in Toronto but it might be fool’s gold.
This current Raptors’ team is far too similar to the team that caught fire during the 2006-07 season during Bryan Colangelo’s first full season running the Raptors. Adding Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker from Europe while trading for T..J Ford resulted in the team having great chemistry and Bosh enjoyed one of his best seasons in the NBA.
In a year where the Atlantic Division earned the nickname the Titanic Division the Raptors were able to limp to the division crown before getting ousted in the first round.
The problem Colangelo had was that due to some immediate success – he was named Executive of the Year and Sam Mitchell was named Coach of the Year – his hands were tied in regards to getting the coach he wanted to run the team and he couldn’t turn over the roster like he truly wanted.
Because of one season where the team had moderate success, Colangelo was always trying to stop the leak in a dam and he was never truly able to construct a roster that he wanted.
When Bosh bolted for South Beach the dam burst and Colengelo was removed from his position within a few seasons.
The irony is that despite a great start remaking the Raptors, Ujiri now finds himself in a similar situation to Colangelo.
Dwane Casey is entering the final year of his contract and was viewed as a lame duck coach heading into this season. But now, due to Toronto rising to one of the top defensive teams in the NBA combined with the team sitting atop their division, it would be tough to not give Casey a contract extension. But is Casey truly the coach Ujiri wants moving forward? The jury is still out.
The current coaching situation in Toronto is a lot like what Colangelo went through with Mitchell in that it may not being the ideal pairing but shifting things now on the fly will cause ripples with fans, media, and, most importantly, with the players currently on the roster.
Lowry is in the final year of his contract and he’s positing career numbers of 16.8 points per game and 7.6 assists. On top of that, he has lost the chip on his shoulder that has caused him to butt heads with coaches throughout his NBA career.
Fans and the media have caught a case of amnesia in forgetting how rough things were for Lowry in Toronto last season. He was slowed by injuries and his problems with Casey were well documented.
This season may have been improved over last season due to an important chat Lowry had with Raptors chairman Larry Tanenbaum, team president Tim Leiweke, Ujiri and his senior advisor, Wayne Embry, a Hall of Famer on the cusp of this season. Since that meeting Lowry has been a more confident player and once Gay was traded this became Lowry’s team and he has been even more of a vocal leader on and off the court.
But, as great as Lowry has been playing, what player on Toronto’s roster could you see starting on a team playing in the NBA Finals? Maybe Lowry? Valanciunas might get there, but he’s no lock.
With that being said, there should be no untouchables on Toronto’s roster as they head into the trade deadline this Thursday and even moving forward this summer. If a player like Kevin Love is made available by the Minnesota Timberwolves it makes sense to offer Valanciunas, DeRozan and a first round pick.
Or, if Boston is genuine about moving Rajon Rondo, why not offer up a first round pick, Terrence Ross and some other pieces?
The idea of blowing up the roster to have Rondo and Love playing together next season – even if it’s only for one season – would have to be tantalizing for Ujiri.
As fun as this season has been for fans, it’s clear Ujiri still has his work cut out for him over the next few months. While he has been praised for moving the cumbersome contracts of Andrea Bargnani and Gay, it’s clear his toughest job of molding the Raptors into a legit contended for an NBA Championship still lies ahead of him.
Part of what will make the necessary moves tricky is that he will need to convince the fans and media that the moves he makes – like trading fan favourites Amir Johnson or DeRozan – will help the team move towards that goal.
It will be interesting to see if Ujiri plays it easy and keeps the status quo – something that doomed Colangelo – or if he’s willing to see this season is fool’s gold and that more big moves are needed.