Toronto Raptors Return Home for Important Stretch

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It seems like every season the Toronto Raptors hobble back from their west coast road trip a tired and beaten team.

Last season, the early Western Conference road trip was, arguably the nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. This season, they return home after a tough western road trip tired, but not beaten.

Even the most optimistic fan would have been happy with a 3-2 record on this trip, so 2-3 isn’t bad considering the quality of their opponents. But this trip came at such a crucial time in Toronto’s schedule because the next 10 to 15 games could decide the playoff fate of this team.

The Raptors will play at home for the last two games before the All-star break and play eight out of their next 10 at the ACC. Of those next ten games, six of them are against conference rivals that they will be battling for position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

It is important for Toronto to be healthy and ready for those games.

For the first time this season the team is looking a little worse for wear. Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan are fighting nagging injuries. Kyle Lowry has been bothered by a knee issue lately and the team is coming off a long road trip.

Late nights, time zone changes and lots of flying can take its toll on a team at this stage in the season, especially a young one, but the Raptors need to fight through this rough patch. The next 10 games will go a long way toward deciding if they are a playoff contenders or pretenders.

The asset the Raptors have going for them right now is depth. They are a far deeper team than they were a year ago and have used this asset to their advantage since the ‘Rudy Gay trade’. Dwane Casey has used a tight nine man rotation most nights and seems very confident with this group.

As the season continues he may have to dig deeper than was originally thought. We may see a lot more of Landry Fields, Steve Novak, Julyan Stone and Chuck Hayes may be needed to take some minutes away from overworked starters.

The coaching staff may have to make moves in the starting lineup, trading Amir for Patterson or Hansborough on a given night to help keep the legs on this team fresh and ready for battle. Young players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have only gone through a complete NBA season once and certainly not playing the amount of minutes they are currently playing.

Rest may be needed and players that haven’t been logging very many minutes may be called into duty.

On this road trip we saw a lot more of Novak than we have in a long while. I would expect this to be something we see more of as the season wears on. He came in ready to play and played valuable minutes during the trip. Having a strong veteran presence at the end of the bench (Novak, Fields, Hayes) may become an unexpected benefit.

The Raptors have given it everything they could over the first two chapters of this season and they are in a great position because of it, but they are going to have to use every weapon available to them to finish out the stretch.

On paper, the hardest part of the season may seem to be over, but the reality is, it only gets harder from here.

The Toronto Raptors Are In Good Hands

MLSE has made some noise by making some bold moves to bolster the on-field talent of Toronto FC. The acquisitions of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Dwayne De Rosario show that MLSE is willing to spend money to make Toronto a winning team in MLS.

These moves instantly make TFC a legit contender and a big time draw in the city.

But what does this have to do with the Raptors?

It’s simple: the man behind these big time, game-changing acquisitions is the same man who is in charge of the Raptors. Tim Leiweke, was brought in to make a splash and help lure big name talent North of the border. He is starting to live up to this task.

With the additions to TFC, Leiweke is showing that he is more than capable of making the big time moves necessary to win. Defoe is, arguably, the second biggest acquisition in the history of the MLS and one that was probably more difficult to get done than people think.

The biggest acquisition in MLS history is, of course, David Beckham (which was also orchestrated by Leiweke).

If Leiweke is able to make this kind of impact with TFC, then there is no telling what he can do with the Raptors.

I can’t help but recall the first press conference Leiweke ever had as president of MLSE. He made it very clear from the onset of his time as president that the Raptors and TFC were a big priority.

It was a small comment, but one I picked up on at the time: He said, “I don’t think it’s any secret the emerging question and the first action is going to be the Raptors…”

Of course, at the time, Leiweke was directly referring to the fate of then GM Bryan Colangelo, but make no mistake, since Leiweke has arrived, he has been very heavily involved and focused on the Toronto Raptors organization.

First he hired Masai Ujiri, the reigning executive of the year and a man who had to be sold on leaving a very good situation in Denver to come to Toronto.

Next, he helped orchestrate the bid and landing of the 2016 All-Star game for the city.

The next item on his agenda is likely the acquisition of a big name talent that will help make the team a serious contender for that ever so important 2016 season.

Now, Leiweke isn’t directly in charge of the day-to-day transactions the Raptors make. He is much more of an overseer. It was Leiweke who chose to bring in Ujiri to turn the fortunes of this franchise around and make those day to day decisions. So far Ujiri has done just that. But Leiweke’s influence around the league cannot be understated and his ability to land the big fish will likely play a key factor in the teams immediate future and the decisions that Ujiri makes.

Leiweke’s resume includes, most notably, a long stint in Los Angeles where he was president and CEO of AEG who own and operate the Kings, Galaxy and Lakers. There he learned how to land the ‘Big Fish” with the Lakers.

“I come from the NBA, I know a lot of people in the NBA, I’ve learned under the curve of Jerry Buss and Jerry West…” Lieweke boasted once he arrived in Toronto. “You do not find two better teachers than those two guys on how to build an organization that not only wins one championship, but becomes the dominant organization.”

With words like these, he has given hope to the Raptors fan-base that a long awaited return of playoff basketball is not far away, that this franchise is finally going to build a contender the right way and that the agony of watching top flight talent leave the city will be a thing of the past.

Since the trade of Rudy Gay and the change in strategy on the court the Raptors are already looking like a playoff bound team and one that is playing very exciting basketball. The turnaround has been fast and may be happening earlier than originally expected.

Much of the credit falls on Ujiri, the man Leiweke brought in.

Ujiri is one of the best minds in the game today. His ability to quickly turn around the fortunes of the Denver Nuggets despite losing Carmelo Anthony was a thing of beauty and he hasn’t looked anything but brilliant since taking over the Raptors.

Trading Bargnani for future picks and financial flexibility was a solid move with an eye to the future and the Rudy Gay trade has resulted in the team you see on the court right now, but also a wealth of additional assets.

Still, in a season where most teams are not putting their best team on the court, the Raptors need to be wary of getting too over-confident about the current on-court product. Yes, they have some good young pieces to build with, and yes they are winning a lot of games, but this is not currently a team that is going to do much more than challenge for a mid to low playoff spot in the long-term.

Leiweke knows this. He knows this is not a team bound for multiple championships at the moment. This is a team with some solid pieces, but lacking a true, legit star. Leiweke didn’t come here to just make the playoffs, he came here to compete for championships and I believe that is exactly what he is going to try to do. In order to get to that place he needs to land a ‘big fish’ for the Raptors.

The Raptors roster is currently a solid mix of young players and a number that could be very useful off the bench, but they lack a top-tier star. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that DeMar DeRozan has the potential to be a solid number 2 on a good team, but the Raptors need a number one. A star. A player that can take the game into their own hands. That’s where Leiweke and his influence around the league will come into play. If he can convince Jermain Defoe (still a very talented and useful player), to leave Europe to come to Toronto, then he can likely do the same with todays NBA stars.

In the next two years players like Durant, LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will all be available. Second tier guys like Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Lance Stephensen will also be available and could help deepen this team even further.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Raptors will have the ability to lure one of those big names North of the Border, but with Leiweke in charge and the money now available to them, these next few years will be the best opportunity that the Raptors will ever get to add a franchise cornerstone.

Add to that the pressure Leiweke has put on himself and the organization to compete by the 2016 All Star Game and you have a recipe for success. 2016 is very much the end goal for the Raptors. Leiweke and MLSE want to be a significant player in the NBA by that time and the hope is, obviously, that at least one or two Raptors will be taking part in that game.

With the success of the current roster, it is clear the Raptors organization has the pieces and the resources to make a move in the very near future. Tim Leiweke clearly believes in the future of this organization.

Talk of tanking is now firmly in the rearview (probably for the best) and the focus is now on how to use this successful year to build on.

With the combination of Ujiri’s ability to evaluate talent and Leiweke’s ability to recruit top-tier talent the Raptors have a dangerous duo running the show.

Also, do not underestimate the influence rap star Drake will have as well. Another Leiweke move that could have serious gains in the NBA where most players are big fans of the star. If coming to Toronto means getting to hang out with Drake on a regular basis, there are players that would very interested in that opportunity.

After all, it was a simple phone call by Drake to Defoe that helped tip the scales and bring Defoe Across the Atlantic. His influnence cannot be understated.

Leiweke has made it very clear that the organization is ready to do what is needed to make this franchise a dominant one.

Whatever path the Raptors are going to take to get themselves into the championship conversation it is clear Tim Leiweke and Ujiri will be the ones steering the ship. With the leadership at the top of the franchise firmly in place, fans should enjoy the journey from here to 2016.

Good things are in store for this franchise.

The Kyle Lowry Conundrum

The Raptors, a team expected to compete hard this season for the number one draft pick next June, have had their plans altered by some truly inspired play and now look primed for a potential Atlantic Division title run.

The catalyst for much of the recent optimism in Raptorland is the man leading the team: Kyle Lowry.

Lowry has become the player he was envisioned to be when, then GM Bryan Colangelo, traded a 1st round draft pick to Houston for him. He is scoring at an impressive rate and is getting all of his teammates involved. One of the perceived issues with his game over his Raptor tenure has been his inability to involve the players around him.

With Rudy Gay’s departure, Lowry has taken over as team leader and the team is sharing the ball very well. Lowry has developed a good chemistry with Jonas Valanciunas and has helped Terrence Ross take the next step in his development.

Lowry is looking like the player he was supposed to be last year.

The thing is he was almost dealt a few weeks ago and still might be on the block.

Surely, a deal that involves Lowry would cause immediate issues with team chemistry and be a clear signal that the 2014 NBA draft is more important to the franchise than the Atlantic Division title.

That’s not necessarily a mindset that most Raptor fans disagree with, but is it the right choice?

Lowry is a young player (only 27 years old), and seems to have great chemistry with what would presumably be the Raptors future core in Amir Johnson, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. He has shown significant improvement in the last year and would seems to be a player worth building around.

Since the Rudy Gay trade, Lowry has averaged 8.1 assists per game and looks like a totally different player of late.

Then again, he is a free agent this year and is not necessarily worth the money he may end up getting. He is a talented, but flawed player. He traditionally shoots the ball too often, doesn’t shoot a high percentage and hasn’t been as effective on the defensive end in a Raptor uniform.

So what do you do?

Sell high and hope the lottery ping-pong balls fall your way? Take a shot at signing a young player with higher upside than Lowry? Or, do you keep him, extend his contract and see where this young team takes you?

DeRozan is having his best year as a pro and seems to have turned a corner into a player that can lead a team and close out games. Ross is just scratching the surface of his potential and we haven’t seen the best out of Jonas Valanciunas yet. Does the franchise want to mess with the current success? Would trading Lowry even mess with that current success?

Keeping Lowry long-term allows the Raptors to continue growing together. It also eliminates the problem of not having a point guard moving forward. The Raptors would either have to acquire one through the draft or through free agency in the off-season unless they are banking on Greivis Vasquez being the point guard of the future.

Lowry may be their best option going forward.

Then again, maybe the plan is to get a high pick and take a point guard like Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State or Zach LaVine out of UCLA. Perhaps free agency has an option the Raptors might look at like Eric Bledsoe, Ramon Sessions or Avery Bradley. None of which are sure-fire options or much better than what Lowry may be able to provide. Add to that a trade involving Lowry would likely bring in a young player or some assortment of future draft picks and you have a lot of factors to consider before you move Lowry.

Masai Ujiri is faced with one of his most difficult decisions as general manager of this team. The fate of Lowry will have an immediate and far-reaching effect on this franchise. There is no clear choice to be made and fans may have to wait another month or so before the final decision is ultimately made.

One thing is certain, if we are to believe the words of Ujiri, This team will not finish in ‘no-mans land’. There will be a clear choice made as to where the Raptors are going to go this year.

What that choice is exactly, will have everything to do with the future of the Raptors starting point guard.