Raptors’ Outlook Fastly Improving Under Masai Ujiri’s Guidance

by Rafael Uehara

Since trading Rudy Gay on December, the 8th, the Raptors have won 13 of 18 games, picking up victories against heavyweights like the Mavericks, Thunder and Pacers and other postseason-caliber teams like the Bulls, Knicks, Nets, Wizards and Pistons in the process. Toronto now ranks fourth in the eastern conference in wins and has a top 10 pace adjusted point differential, though against a schedule that basketball-reference.com rates as the 12th weakest in the league. Nonetheless, the Raptors have gone from bad mediocre pre-trade to good, enjoyable mediocre post-trade. The question is what’s next for Toronto?

When Masai Ujiri took over the job as general manager in the summer, he was tasked with cleaning up the mess Bryan Colangelo left behind before finally being demoted after an interminable tenure of incompetence. And it’s remarkable how fast he did it, not only getting rid of Gay and Andrea Bargnani (who would combine to earn around $31 million next season) but actually managing to get a first round pick in return for one and the rights to two high end restricted free agents for the other, who might net a couple other future second round picks on sign-and-trades or very well fit in the team’s future at the right price. It’s been said Ujiri has the big picture in mind and everybody but Valanciunas and Ross could be on the table, with reports having him reaching a deal in principle with the Knicks to send Kyle Lowry to New York for yet another first round pick and either Tim Hardaway, Jr. or Iman Shumpert in mid-December before James Dolan nixed it in fear that perception would be he got ripped off by Ujiri again. That’s according to New York Daily News’ Frank Isola, at least. However, amid the push to the top of the conference over the last month, the Raptors are past the point of tanking by now. The dream of the ping pong balls awarding them Andrew Wiggins is over.

As we reach the midway mark, the Raptors look like pretty much a lock to make the postseason as they are constituted at this moment. Not because they hold a five-game edge over the Nets and Knicks (tied for eighth and ninth place) in the loss column but because it has played the most sustainable basketball in the conference outside of the Pacers and the Heat, with the Hawks stumbling a bit after the loss of Al Horford. With Jonas Valanciunas steadily developing into the interior presence the franchise envisioned when it drafted him fourth overall in 2011, Toronto ranks seventh in scoring allowed per possession. It has allowed just 55% shooting within five feet (the fifth best mark in the league) and opponents are shooting just 47.2% on roughly 301 attempts with Valanciunas protecting the rim, according to nba.com’s SportsVU. Meanwhile, the offense has evolved from the ball-stopping, inefficient unit from the Rudy Gay era to a more free-flowing, quick-passing drive-and-kick attack whose 60.5% assist rate ranks eighth in the league over this 18-game stretch.

Lowry has played great ball since the trade and the emergence of rumors that he was next to be shipped out of town. In a contract year, he is now having a superb season, currently averaging 1.35 points per shot on 53.3% effective shooting, teammates producing 22.3 points per 48 minutes off his assists (ninth best in the NBA) and the team posting a +5.2 pace adjusted point differential with him on the floor. Some of the same can be said of DeMar DeRozan, who has made noticeable improvements as a passer (teammates are averaging 11.3 points per 48 minutes off his assists) and pick-and-roll defender, also becoming a more willing three-point shooter, though yet to reach average status making those. And Amir Johnson has been, in a word, excellent. He is 31st in the league in scoring per possession, including number one in second chance scoring on 32-for-47 shooting off of offensive rebounds, and the Raptors are seven points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor in comparison to when he is not. With these three playing at such a high level, Valanciunas anchoring the defense and Terrence Ross quickly developing into one of the league’s top gunners, a trip to the second round of the postseason is within reach. The team’s top five-man unit is posting a +6.2 pace adjusted point differential in 265 minutes.

Long-term, the team will have some financial flexibility entering the summer, though the $22 million in cap holds for Lowry, Vasquez and Patterson tie up their cap space. This is a strong draft class coming up but a pick in the high teens has low odds of netting a prospect with difference making ceiling. Ujiri, however, has that track record of putting together a stable of above average players who under the right coach performed some exciting brand of basketball in Denver, despite the lack of a top 15 star to lead the way. And though back-to-back first round exits enabled doubters to challenge the success of that model, the mere possibility of Ujiri emulating that same run in Toronto is the most alive the franchise has felt ever since Chris Bosh departed, arguably even from the moment Vince Carter bolted.