CHICAGO – A funny thing is happening to the Toronto Raptors on their trudge to the basement in the Eastern Conference standings.
They walked through an unmarked door last week, assuming it was another flight of stairs to take them down, only to realize too late they’d stepped onto an elevator headed up.
Toronto’s decision to trade highly paid scoring forward Rudy Gay, as well as to shop point guard Kyle Lowry, sprang from general manager Masai Ujiri‘s newness to the situation this season and an eye to the future in terms of cap space and roster flexibility. But the present has perked up considerably, with today looking pretty good regardless of tomorrow.
The Raptors’ smackdown Saturday of a beleaguered Bulls team did more than demonstrate that too many unfamiliar faces is a better problem to have than too few healthy bodies. It left Toronto with a 3-1 mark since Gay played his last game for the team and, at 9-13, looking downright viable as an Atlantic Division contender and Eastern Conference playoff possibility.
Those things are relative, of course, and they could reverse direction overnight if Ujiri and Toronto ownership hews to the grander plan of prime lottery position for the Draft in June and greater cost savings or manageable contracts. That’s the backdrop against which Gay was dealt to Sacramento and Lowry possibly could be moved this week (in the NBA calendar’s sweet spot for trading summer acquisitions and repackaging returns). With a prize like Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins on the board in one of the deepest drafts in recent hyperbole, one more year of sub-.500 ball and missed playoffs conceivably could be a small price to pay.
That’s not the same thing as no price, though, any more than playing respectably and winning more now would bring no benefits. It might not be enough to keep Dwane Casey around – the Raptors head coach is in the last year of his deal, working for a boss who did not hire him – but it’s more in line with what DeMar DeRozan, the team’s default leader now, has in mind.
After the Bulls game, DeRozan talked about the bad habits and general depression that can set in with losing. Today’s players are the ones tomorrow’s stars wind up replacing, so projecting who and what and where Toronto might draft is of little interest to most of those inside the dressing room.
“No matter who’s on the court, we’ve still got to play to win,” DeRozan said earlier in the evening. “That’s our whole mindset, to go out there and play as well as we can. Put our hearts out there and play to win the game.
“I think everybody in this locker room is living game-to-game. Nobody looks too far ahead. We just take care of our job and do it every single day.”
The “we” is a little different now but then, so are the results. In the three games since Gay’s departure was made official, the Raptors have moved the ball for 23, 25 and 26 assists, uncorked from the forward’s ball-stopping ways. Toronto still ranks last in the league at 18.3 assists per game – but in a mere week’s time, it has boosted that average by a full assist.
Of the new guys, Chuck Hayes still is being held out, his past heart condition requiring more thorough cardiac testing before he’s physically cleared. But the other three – Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons – have done well off the bench. In two games, they have combined to average 23 points on 16 of 34 shots (47.1 percent). Gay for the Raptors this season: 19.4 points on 38.8 percent shooting.
Swapping out his $17.9 million salary, with Quincy Acy ($800,000) and Aaron Gray ($2.7 million), was what drove the deal; Vasquez ($2.1 million), Patterson ($3.1 million), Salmons ($7.6 million) and Hayes ($5.7 million) bring way more bang for the bucks. Especially with what looks to be some fast-tracked transition time.
Casey said he expected another week or two might be needed to get them all clicking. But Vasquez seemed to play with the right pace and vision for Toronto and Patterson found his spot for repeated foul-line jumpers. The starters, with Lowry still around and running things deftly, were unruffled with 69 points Saturday. Terrence Ross is getting the sort of minutes he craved, Jonas Valanciunas (15 points, 11 rebounds) continues to develop, DeRozan seems more mature all of a sudden and D.J. Augustin was missing his shots for the Bulls this time, not the Raptors.
Wiggins? Jabari Parker? The lottery? That’s for Ujiri and the folks upstairs. But the Toronto players and Casey are on the ground level of something that feels refreshing, with no interest in cellar doors.