|Image courtesy of The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn.|
Leiweke acted sharply in convincing reigning executive of the year, Nigerian-born Masai Ujiri (previously of the Denver Nuggets) to return to Toronto, at the rumoured price tag of 5 years, $15M. Ujiri assumes control of a team with clear identity crisis, clogged in somewhat of a transitional phase, with more than a handful of crucial decisions to be made in the coming months. The Raptors concluded the 2012-13 with a subpar 34-48 record, managing just a 21-20 stand at home, yet contrary to some dreary projections, this writer, for one, believes there is room for subtle, cautious optimism. Removing salaries from the equation, Toronto's showpiece is indisputably second-year, Lithuanian, polished prodigy Jonas Valunciunas - at the centre position - who led his national team to a silver medal at the 2013 Eurobasket tournament, and captured the honour of MVP of the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League. Valunciunas projects to be a prime candidate for a breakout season, with potential to make 'the leap' to the next level of play, and to affirm himself as a fixture of this team for years to come.
Although uncertainty remains an undercurrent of this squad, one thing is clear days away from Opening Night - the team's starting five. The issue for Canada's team lies at the other end of the spectrum, a murky, unsure bench rotation. Ujiri rounded out the roster with the stopgap signings of former Indiana forward Tyler Hansbrough and fellow Pacers bench player D.J. Augustin, both on short-term deals. The balance of minutes and striving to avoid the overuse of starters figures to be an ongoing challenge for head coach Dwane Casey, who himself is entering the final year of a contract. The ceiling for Casey's team, as currently constructed, would likely be a 7th or 8th spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, while a wayward stretch could leave the Raptors languishing toward the bottom of the standings and looking at the lottery, yet again.
The primary case for positivity is the sturdy, defensive-oriented frontcourt tandem of Amir Johnson (the eight-year man who finally has a chance to be an uncontested starter) and the highly-praised Valunciunas. According to NBA.com stats, the pair boasted a +/- of +8.2 points per 100 possessions, as they shared the floor across 35 games this past season. Moreover, when Jonas and Johnson featured as part of a unit that consisted of Lowry-DeRozan-Gay-Johnson-Valunciunas, the team held a stifling 12.6 point advantage over opponents with solid offensive percentages, also measured per 100 possessions. Toronto does have room to move on the rebounding front, however, ranking a lowly 28th in that department for the season. The organisation will hope that extracting the poor-rebounder in Andrea Bargnani from the equation will constitute part of the solution to this problem. Furthermore, the coaching staff will look for reserve wing defender Landry Fields (gulp) to place a facade before the question marks of the above-mentioned Hansbrough-Augustin combination, who gave away an advantage of 4.9 points per 100 possessions to opponents when they played together in 76 regular season contests for Indiana.
Ultimately, this franchise is not 'about' the approaching campaign, nor is it truly concerned with championship contention, but rather, it is fully immersed in an overhaul of the roster, team branding, and league-wide respectability. There are glimmers of hope lodged within the mismatched playing roster, though observers will maintain a watchful eye, and anticipate and wonder what the next move will be. Rudy Gay comes at an unwanted price tag, and Kyle Lowry will be playing on an expiring deal, hence, Raptor rumours will be a season-long inevitability.
This team may not be playoff-bound in 2014, nonetheless, don't sleep on the potential of their prized possession - Jonas Valunciunas.