Posts Tagged ‘Masai Ujiri’

Casey, Raptors want to ride continuity

 

casey

Dwane Casey will be looking to build on last season’s 48-win campaign. (NBAE via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – Back in December it hardly seemed possible that Dwane Casey would be standing here at Summer League with a smile on his face and his lightweight button-down shirt casually untucked, and most of all still as the coach of the Toronto Raptors.

This misbegotten big-market franchise with the redundant roster was floundering again, off to a 7-12 start, and the well-liked, but lame-duck Casey looked to be running out the clock on his three-year contract.

Then, on Dec. 8, new general manager Masai Ujiri, having built a reputation as a next-generation whiz, made the deal to send Rudy Gay and his massive contract to Sacramento for depth help in point guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Around the same time, Knicks president James Dolan vetoed a trade that would have landed Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry in New York.

Suddenly, a feeling of stability overtook the team. They looked around, looked at themselves and liked what they saw. And everything changed.

“After the trade happened, I thought it brought our team together — camaraderie,” said Casey, who signed a three-year contract extension in May. “They made the decision that we were not going to be a lottery team — I think that’s what everybody expected — and we kept teaching them the principles of what we wanted to be doing and it just came together.

This wasn’t a referendum on Gay, who went to have a surprisingly efficient offensive season with the Kings. Gay and DeRozan are friends off the court, but ill-fitting parts on it, and as the parts fit better and the floor opened up, the Raptors’ offense, also buoyed by Lowry’s uprising, took off.

“It was a fit,” Casey said. “A lot of times you have talent and it doesn’t fit. DeMar and Rudy were similar and Terrence Ross is sitting there, he’s similar, so once you took all the pieces out it opened up things and we went from 29th, I think, in the league in assists to 16th or 17th. That really changed things for us. It helped us tremendously.”

On Dec. 8, the Raptors ranked 30th in assists and 28th in offensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Dec. 9 to the end of the season, they ranked 13th in assists and ninth in offensive efficiency (107.2). They went 41-22 after the Gay trade and played a rousing seven-game series in front of madhouse crowds, plus gatherings of 10,000 fans in Maple Leaf Square. It was truly one of the great scenes of the postseason.

And it was enough to convince Lowry to stay put, making him the rare Raptor to re-up when he had a chance to leave. He signed a four-year deal worth $48 million. Free agents Patterson and Vasquez also re-signed. Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Jonas Valanciunas, Ross, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough are all back, giving the Raptors a real sense of continuity in roster and process.

Toronto also traded Salmons to Atlanta for guard Lou Williams and intriguing developmental center Lucas Nogueria, and signed long, athletic wing James Johnson, who is coming off something of a breakout season with Memphis.

“I don’t know if [Lowry] is the first player to be a free agent to re-sign that had an opportunity to leave, so that says something about what we’re trying to do, where we are, trying to build,” Casey said. “For the first time in his career he was able to say, ‘this is a team that I’m one of the leaders of,’ and for him to come back, it does make a statement of where we are in our growth process and the kind of program we have, and kind of opened some eyes to what kind of city Toronto is.

“The continuity is huge,” Casey said. “You can just see it turning, guys are getting comfortable with the defensive system, the offensive system. We can be top 10 in both offense and defense. Now we just have to continue to do that.”

The Raptors could get some votes as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the preseason predictions start to hit the newsstands. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has shaken up a conference that might boast a favorite in Chicago, but mostly has a handful of what should be entertaining squads, including Toronto, Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and perhaps Brooklyn and still Miami.

“There’s opportunity for somebody to step up, it’s so balanced right now from top to bottom,” Casey said of the conference. “It gives us an opportunity to move up and take another step.”

Back in December, that hardly seemed possible.

Raps keep Lowry, still have more work


VIDEO: Free Agency: Lowry Remains a Raptor

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Toronto Raptors have taken care of the important business, agreeing to terms with Kyle Lowry on a new four-year, $48 million contract. After winning their division for the second time in franchise history and returning to the postseason after a five-year absence, they’re bringing back their best player. Lowry is a bulldog on both ends of the floor, and if he wasn’t the best point guard in the Eastern Conference last season, he was right there with John Wall.

The Raptors had one the conference’s best benches as well. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson arrived in the Rudy Gay trade in December and made big impacts. Patterson spaced the floor at the power forward position, while Vasquez’s passing was infectious. Toronto recorded assists on just 49 percent of its baskets before the trade and 60 percent after it.

The numbers spell out how important Patterson and Vasquez are. They had the two best on-court NetRtg marks on the team, with the Raptors outscoring their opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions with Patterson on the floor and by 8.5 with Vasquez on the floor. In the playoffs, Toronto outscored Brooklyn by 53 points with Vasquez on the floor and was outscored by 64 with him on the bench. Patterson was a plus-30.  As it was in the regular season, they were at their best with those two guys on the floor.

If the Raptors want to build on last season’s success, they need to keep the bench together. If Lou Williams (acquired in a trade for John Salmons) is healthy, it could be even better than it was last season.

On Friday, Toronto reportedly agreed to terms with Patterson, a restricted free agent, on a three-year, $18 million contract. That’s Step 2.

Vasquez is another restricted free agent, meaning the Raptors can match any offer sheet he receives from another team. But with the new contracts for Lowry and Patterson, the addition of Williams, and the possibility of adding rookies Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira, Toronto is approaching the luxury tax line. And they want to make one more move.

After Joe Johnson beat them up in that playoff series, the Raps acknowledged that they need more size on the wing. Even if Caboclo is less than “two years away from being two years away,” that size would have to come in free agency, perhaps from an Al-Farouq AminuAlan Anderson, Jordan Hamilton or Richard Jefferson. The Raptors have the mid-level exception (or a portion of it) to spend on an outside free agent.

Adding one of those guys, keeping Vasquez, and staying under the tax line will be a challenge. If Darren Collison can get the full mid-level exception (from Vasquez’s former team) in Sacramento, Vasquez should surely be worth that much. Complicating matters is that Toronto is already paying small forwards Landry Fields and Steve Novak almost $10 million to ride the pine.

Back in January, SportsNet’s Michael Grange reported that the Raptors would be willing to go over the line “at the right time.” But if they bring everybody back, they’re still a team that lost in the first round.  Even if they add a piece, they still have a ceiling, especially if LeBron James remains in Miami. And if Jonas Valanciunas gets a lucrative contract extension next summer, it will overlap with the last two seasons of Lowry’s deal (and the last of DeMar DeRozan‘s), which may be the time to think about paying the tax.

So Raptors GM Masai Ujiri has his work cut out for him over the next couple of weeks. He got the most important deal done. But his team’s depth is just as critical to its success as its best player.

Lowry agrees to deal with Raptors

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Kyle Lowry  isn’t going anywhere. Not to Miami or Houston or Los Angeles or anywhere else.

Lowry is returning to the Toronto Raptors on a four-year, $48 million deal, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports.

Targeted by contenders around the league in free agency, including the Miami Heat, Lowry will return to lead a Raptors team that broke through last season, winning the Atlantic Division earning home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Lowry’s deal has an early termination option after the third season, giving him the chance to become a free agent after the third season of his new deal.

The Raptors had to hold on to their starting point guard and catalyst. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri declared Lowry priority No. 1 in free agency and made good on his words by keeping the leader of his team in the fold, even after Lowry became the hottest point guard on the free agent market.

Lowry averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists last season, helping guide the Raptors to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Big year and a bigger decision for Lowry


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry is one of the more coveted free agent point guards on the market

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kyle Lowry faces the decision of his career: Cash in with the Raptors and maybe one day walk away a Canadian folk hero (you saw those crazed playoff crowds, right?), have faith in the leaky, but legendary Lakers or settle for a mere pittance to play with the King.

But wait, there’s more …

To start free agency at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale were in Philadelphia seated in front of Lowry. The two men who shipped Lowry north of the border in the first place were now telling him how perfect he is for the team he actually aided in assembling.

Plotting a path to form a super team in Houston, Morey was hoarding drafts picks and the first-rounder he got from Toronto for Lowry two summers ago was supposed to be another carrot to finally lure Orlando into a deal for Dwight Howard. A month later Howard was traded to the Lakers, and the draft pick wound up in Oklahoma City as part of the package for James Harden. Howard, conveniently, followed as a free-agent acquisition last summer.

As Morey, McHale and Lowry dined, or whatever it is that goes on in these after-midnight meetings, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was working his own plan (reportedly a contract starting around $12 million) to keep the spark plug point guard behind Toronto’s resurgence, a spark plug Ujiri was prepared to trade to New York at the deadline if not for the reluctance of the  Knicks’ former regime to throw in a future first-round draft pick.

Meanwhile, back in South Florida, Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley was maneuvering for his own meeting with free agency’s top point-guard target. The Riley pitch, if he gets to make it, will get straight to the point: Come to Sacrifice City and compete for these shiny rings with LeBron James.

Amazing what a career year will do for a guy’s fortunes. Lowry, not long ago down on his luck, last season averaged career highs in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (7.4), minutes (36.2) and 3-point percentage (38.0), while tying his career-high in rebounds (4.7).

Many believed Lowry, 28, should have made his first All-Star team of his eight-year career. After the All-Star break he reinforced that notion by averaging 20.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 5.1 rpg, while maintaining his bulldog approach to defense. The Raptors finished the season 20-10 and won a franchise-best 48 games, finishing above .500 for the first time since 2006-07.

So perhaps a contract starting at $12 million isn’t too high for this big-market franchise desperate to maintain its playmaker and elusive momentum.

Yet becoming just as desperate are the Miami Heat.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are free agents, too. They’re waiting to finalize new contracts while Riley works to re-tool the roster. Big men, wing depth and a point guard are needed. On Tuesday, Heat target Marcin Gortat reached an agreement to return to the Washington Wizards at a price (five years, $60 million) far too rich for the Heat. Another report stated small forward Luol Deng will not sacrifice pay to play for Miami. A later report had Washington nearing a deal to bring back yet another Heat target, small forward Trevor Ariza.

The aggressive, 6-foot Lowry fits the Heat needs to a T. Only they won’t be able to match the Raptors’ reported offer and fill other needs. Earlier Tuesday, Jodie Meeks agreed to a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons for three years and $19 million, a hefty pay raise for a middling player, and one that would make it seem highly unlikely that Lowry could feel good about taking a deal that wouldn’t pay him much more.

The wild card here, as it always is with the Heat, is a lower pay grade is the price to play with LeBron. We’ve seen it with players nearing the end of their careers, but not necessarily from one in his prime.

Lowry has seven postseason games to his name since 2009 back with Houston when he reached the second round. All seven came this past season with Toronto. The Raptors, boasting an emerging star in DeMar DeRozan and rising talents in Terrence RossJonas Valanciunas and restricted free agent Patrick Pattersonlost a heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round.

For a franchise that has experienced two winning seasons in the last dozen, and has had its troubles keeping and recruiting star-level players, Lowry would be welcomed back as hero.

But then there’s always LeBron … or the Rockets … or the Lakers …

The decision of Lowry’s career will be coming soon.

Five teams LeBron should, but won’t consider

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pat Riley discusses the Big 3 staying in Miami

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Even before Pat Riley went all Clint Eastwood — Stay, “if you’ve got the guts” – during his entertaining Thursday news conference, my money was on LeBron James understanding that island hopping for titles on the backs of fans’ emotions isn’t a good look. And so he will ultimately keep gunning for not three, not four, not five … in sun-kissed South Florida.

Of course, Dan Gilbert never dreamed LeBron would dump his Cleveland Cavaliers, but he did. So until he says otherwise, there is always a chance The Chosen One will think his work is done here and seek a new hoops metropolis to conquer.

It certainly would be unprecedented, the most dominant player in the game packing his bags yet again, and this time after leading his last franchise to four consecutive Finals and two championships. Who in the history of the game has ever done that?

And yet, there’s something devilishly fascinating about that very prospect.

Could LeBron lift a third team to the NBA Finals? Could he win a third title? A fourth, a fifth?

And for which team would he play?

Forget the Knicks, that move would have to wait until the summer of 2015 when New York has cap space. The Lakers? Always a possibility, but how rewarding would it really be to hang a 17th championship banner in Staples Center all the while being Kobe Bryant‘s personal valet to a sixth ring and even him up with Michael Jordan?

I’ve got five teams — three in the East and two in the West — that LeBron could vault to instant contender. Three of the five franchises have never won an NBA title, and of the other two, neither has won one since 1983. So LeBron would be a sight for sore eyes, and a boon for business in any one of these locales.

I call this list, The Teams LeBron Should, But Won’t Consider.

His desire should be to stay in the Eastern Conference because it’s just a whole lot easier to get through the East than the brutally competitive West. Plus, with the Heat instantly weakened, the path to the East crown would truly be wide open. So here are my five:

1. Washington Wizards: The Wizards’ finances are in as good as shape as the Wizards’ backcourt with John Wall and Bradley Beal emerging as a dynamic duo. Washington needs to re-sign center Marcin Gortat to reproduce a front line with Nene. Add LeBron — who would come in as the elder statesman to the Wizards’ rising stars, so there’s no adjustment period as to who is the alpha dog (assuming Wall can handle it) like there was initially in Miami with Dwyane Wade – to this starting lineup and dare I call them Eastern Conference favorites.

2. Philadelphia 76ers: Don’t laugh. And, hey, if LeBron and Carmelo Anthony really want to team up, here’s their spot. There’s so little money on the books that Philly could sign both stars and still have enough left over to add some pretty good role players. These two could come in as the big brothers and lead one of the great youth movements of our time. Think about it, the Sixers already have Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams at point guard and 6-foot-11 Nerlens Noel is ready to roll after sitting out all of last season. With the third pick in next week’s Draft, they’ll add another high-caliber youngster, maybe Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Then there’s consummate pro Thaddeus Young. Sounding good isn’t it?

3. Toronto Raptors: General manager Masai Ujiri has already overseen a couple minor miracles in shedding the salaries of Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani, so what’s one more? The books still aren’t as clear as in Philly, but it can work. Re-signing Kyle Lowry might be out the window, but how about Greivis Vasquez, budding, young star DeMar DeRozan, LeBron, Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas? I’m pretty sure coach Dwane Casey would be good with it.

4. Phoenix Suns: Imagine LeBron driving and then trying to decide if he should kick it out to Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye or maybe Gerald Green. Imagine LeBron sprinting for fast-break dunks with a perimeter defense that includes himself and the dogged Bledsoe, and a team that stamped itself as one of the great hustling squads of last season. If we thought the old Steve Nash-Mike D’Antonio Suns teams were fun, whoa, this one could fly off the charts.

5. New Orleans Pelicans: There’s some work, not a ton, to be done on the payroll side, and there’s some tradable commodities despite multi-year deals in place (i.e. Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon) and nothing should be viewed as impossible when it comes to pairing LeBron with Anthony Davis, right? Greatest inside-out duo since Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal? This pairing has devastation written all over it. New Orleans would never be the same.

However, we all know that no one backs down from a challenge issued by Clint Eastwood.

Executive of the Year: Ryan McDonough

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: McDonough answers questions from fans

Architects and general contractors hear all the oohs and aahs. Demolition crews just try to get in and get out, completing their gnarly but necessary work without soiling the carpet.

Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough figured to be one of the latter, doing a lot more tear-down than build-up in his first full year as the Suns’ general manager. Only he axed and crowbarred his way to something pretty impressive, winding up as the choice here at Hang Time HQ as the NBA’s 2013-14 Executive of the Year.

Technically, none of us in the media votes for the EOY — that’s done by executives from the 30 teams. But McDonough would get points from anywhere for helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s happiest stories from start nearly to end. Don’t put too much stock in that flameout in the final week. The Suns nearly doubled last season’s victory total (they won only 25 then) and became only the second team to win 48 and miss the postseason since the NBA went to its 16-team format. Their record would have tied for third in the East.

This is a tale of the Suns rising in the West and the role McDonough played. In this year of (cough) “tanking” — more accurately described as avowed rebuilding — Phoenix was supposed to be bottom and center. McDonough made moves to clear the roster, open up salary-cap space and stockpile draft picks, rounding up a coaching staff fresh and upbeat enough to endure the losing without fraying.

Double their victories? Bah. Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Suns’ over/under at 21.5, a swoon from last season.

It didn’t take long for Phoenix to make the experts look silly. They won five of their first seven and were 17-10 by Christmas. They topped last year’s victory total before the end of January and were in sixth place a day after the All-Star break.

How did this all come together? Let us count the ways in which McDonough transformed-not-tanked:

  • He hired Jeff Hornacek as a rookie head coach, getting someone who, true, faced no pressure to win and brought a temperament suited to taking the expected lumps. But the former NBA shooting guard had played for and learned from some of the game’s most-innovative coaches — Jerry Sloan in Utah, John MacLeod and Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix, Doug Moe in Philadelphia — synthesizing a strategy from them. Hornacek didn’t need to hitch himself to a franchise/superstar player, getting plenty of whole from the sum of Suns parts. His players feel ownership in the surprising results, while he hasn’t had to wrangle any massive egos.
  • Trading for Eric Bledsoe, though, was a big-time move, worthy of the most ambitious contender. McDonough liked Bledsoe’s rookie contract, sure, but he also liked the prospect of sticking him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. That gave Phoenix maximum playmaking options and the tandem clicked — the Suns were 23-11 when the two started together.
  • Acquiring Bledsoe brought along veteran forward Caron Butler, who was so leery of suffering through a dreary season that he lobbied for and got a trade to … Milwaukee? Worked out OK for Butler eventually (he ended up in Oklahoma City), worked out better for the Suns, who got back backup guard Ish Smith. Smith has been a valuable and speedy reserve.
  • Let’s not forget the future first-round draft pick McDonough got for veteran Luis Scola, another fellow who preferred a backup role on a good team to a starting job with a projected loser. But wait, there was more: the Pacers also sent Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix. Plumlee has been a helpful big, but Green has been reborn — or sold his soul to ol’ Lucifer. The much-traveled wing with the rarely harnessed skills is a top contender to be voted 2013-14’s Most Improved Player.
  • Gifting center Marcin Gortat to Washington, along with Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee for injured Wizards big man Emeka Okafor and a future first-rounder. Everyone knew the prognosis for Okafor — out all season with a herniated disc in his neck — so nothing screamed “tank!” more than McDonough swapping healthy for hurt a few days before Opening Night. Washington has been thrilled with Gortat but you’d have to say he’s been valued there more than he’s been missed in Phoenix. Plumlee has plugged in fine and Gortat’s erasure — along with Jared Dudley‘s, a disappointment with the Clippers — has enabled the Suns to play faster.

McDonough didn’t have his fingerprints on all Phoenix improvements. Dragic is getting all-NBA attention, Markieff Morris earned himself a bunch of Sixth Man votes and Channing Frye might be Comeback Player of the Year if the league hadn’t replaced that with the MIP. All preceded McDonough in Phoenix.

But McDonough has served competing masters, positioning Phoenix well with picks and with money to woo free agents. Shouldn’t be long before our Exec of the Year puts down his crowbar and picks up a scalpel to tweak a team well past the tear-down stage.

The contenders:

Daryl Morey, Houston. Landing Dwight Howard, despite the once-glamorous Lakers’ advantages, was a biggie unto itself. But this darling of the analytics crowd has been wheeling and dealing creatively all along. The Rockets are a playoff handful for any opponent, any round, and might be set up best to take a real run at Carmelo Anthony should the Knicks scorer actually consider leaving New York.

Rod Higgins, Charlotte. Hiring Steve Clifford, another COY contender, was a move that smacked of the Bulls tapping Tom Thibodeau in 2010. Signing Al Jefferson proved to be a bigger win-win, dropping Big Al into the Bobcats’ culture to be a leader and an anchor, while eliciting the best performance of his career.

Neil Olshey, Portland. Did you know that Robin Lopez was going to have a breakthrough season? Or that Mo Williams would prove so effective off the bench behind Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews? The biggest benefit of those Olshey moves was calming LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-Star power forward who no longer makes noise about exiting.

Danny Ferry, Atlanta. Letting Josh Smith walk while opting instead for Paul Millsap, at a much better value (two years, $19 million vs. Smith’s four years, $54 million), was a heist for Ferry. So was the easy decision to match Jeff Teague‘s offer sheet from Milwaukee at a reasonable price — four years, $32 million — for a full-service point guard without most of Brandon Jennings‘ (three years, $24 million) flaws. Ferry also hired Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s former right-hand man with the Spurs.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction, moving Rudy Gay to Sacramento to get the bump every team apparently does when unloading the skilled forward. And sometimes it’s the move you don’t make at all: Dwane Casey had one of those “expiring contracts” that don’t have much allure among coaches, and the guy who hired him (Bryan Colangelo) got deleted last summer. But Casey’s defensive bent and calm, mature approach were given enough time to pay off in the Atlantic Division crown.

 

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd

Break Up The Raptors? No, Really…


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry has a team-high 16 points as the Raptors beat the Bulls

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.

Morning Shootaround — Dec. 14


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Dec. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers again weigh Pau Gasol trade | Lowry talks continue | Shaw may change Nuggets’ lineup

No. 1: Lakers again weigh Pau Gasol trade — The Los Angeles Lakers want to see what they have now that Kobe Bryant is healthy and haven’t eliminated the possibility of re-signing Pau Gasol when he’s a free agent next summer, but if the big man is going to continue pouting about his role under Mike D’Antoni, they may have no choice but to see what they can get for him. Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN write that the time to take calls may be coming soon:

The Los Angeles Lakers prefer to keep struggling center Pau Gasol and believe he eventually will have success in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, but his recent comments and subpar play have caused them to begin weighing whether to make him available before the NBA’s annual trade deadline in February, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

The Lakers have yet to engage in any Gasol-related trade discussions with other teams, sources told ESPN.com. But Gasol’s recent comments about his frustrations with his role in the Lakers’ offense, his impending free agency, and his struggles offensively and particularly defensively have essentially forced the team to consider its options.

Gasol had something of a bounce-back game in Friday’s 122-97 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and made a point of saying that “you always have to make yourself responsible” for your own play and that “when you start pointing fingers at other sides or other directions, you’re making a mistake.”

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No. 2: Knicks executives pushing owner Jim Dolan to do deal for Kyle Lowry — If the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are both bidding for Kyle Lowry, that’s probably good news for Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who got a nice haul for Carmelo Anthony when he pitted the same two teams against each other in 2011. Yahoo‘s Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down what’s on the table from both teams:

As New York Knicks executives work to convince owner Jim Dolan he should ignore public criticism and complete a deal for Kyle Lowry, the Brooklyn Nets are gaining traction as a possible destination for the Toronto Raptors point guard, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Knicks are desperate for a point guard, and their front office had a deal together that would’ve sent Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and a 2018 first-round pick for Lowry.
The Knicks’ front office is determined to re-enter talks on Lowry, league sources said, but it is unclear how they will try to amend a trade package – or whether they’re willing to return the original offer to the table. Without the future first-round pick, there’s little chance of the Knicks landing Lowry, sources said.

The Golden State Warriors also have remained involved in talks with Toronto on Lowry, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Dolan became livid over the public disclosure of the deal terms and became aware over some segments of reaction that deemed the package a third straight debacle in dealing with Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, sources said.

Ujiri, the NBA’s Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets a year ago, negotiated deals that brought the Knicks Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani in recent years.

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No. 3: Could changes be coming to the Nuggets starting five?The Denver Nuggets play absolutely atrocious defense at the start of games, allowing 123 points per 100 possessions in the first six minutes of the first quarter. Their struggles continued on Friday, allowing the Jazz to score 18 points in the first 4:33. So yeah, as Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post writes, Brian Shaw is thinking about making a lineup change:

The Nuggets have a recurring problem: Bad starts. Slow starts, whatever you want to call it, they aren’t getting out of the gate with any kind of urgency much of the time. On Friday, Utah scored 33 points on 54 percent shooting (85 percent from the 3-point line) in the first quarter, the latest in a lengthening line of irritating starts.

So Shaw is now on to this: Considering a shakeup in the starting lineup.

Whether it actually happens remains to be seen, and maybe he cools down and rethinks the whole concept overnight after his team’s 103-93 loss to Utah on Friday. But switching out some starters is a card he’s as ready to play as he’s ever been.

“Continuing to give up those big quarters is not going to get it done for us,” Shaw said. “I don’t know if I have to shake it up or what I have to do with that starting lineup. But the chemistry, for whatever reason, is not there. And it’s putting too much pressure on our bench to have to come in, night after night and have to bail us out and have to expend so much energy getting back into the game. Then they get tired and then I try to put our starters back in to give them another opportunity – they push the lead up to 10 again. And that’s kind of been the theme and the way that things have been going. So, I have to kind of search and figure out what I’m going to have to do to remedy that.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pelicans’ Tyreke Evans reinjured his left ankle in Friday’s win over the Grizzlies … Brook Lopez missed Friday’s loss in Detroit with another sprained ankle, but says he already feels betterTom Thibodeau played Jimmy Butler more than 36 minutes in his return from turf toe … and the Knicks are down another big man.

ICYMI: Rudy Gay made his debut for the Sacramento Kings on Friday…


VIDEO: Rudy Gay’s Kings Debut

New Coaches: Heat Is On Already

 

HANG TIME, Texas – It’s not very often that 13 different teams decide to change coaches during one offseason. It’s a sign of these impatient times in which we live, especially when six of those teams finished last season with winning records.

It used to be “what have you done for me lately?” Now it’s “what have you done in the last 10 minutes?”

Of course, not every new coaching situation is the same. No one expects a pair of newcomers like Brad Stevens in Boston and Brett Brown in Philly to perform water-into-wine miracles with stripped-down rosters.

Doc Rivers goes coast-to-coast to show a 56-win Clippers team how to take the next step while Mike Brown returns to Cleveland with a roster full of young talent ready to bloom.

However, not everybody gets to settle in comfortably. Here are the five new coaches who’ll find that seat warm from Day One:

Dave Joerger, Grizzlies – Sure, he’s paid his dues and learned his craft in the minor leagues and as an up-and-coming assistant coach in the NBA. All he’s got to do now is take over a club that is coming off the best season in franchise history, including a run to the Western Conference finals. While that means the Grizzlies have a contending core in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley and a supporting cast to repeat their feat, it also means that every decision, every move that Joerger makes from the first day of training camp through the end of the playoffs will be judged against his predecessor Lionel Hollins, who evidently could do everything except make his stat-driven bosses appreciate him. In a Western Conference that just keeps getting stronger, it will be tough enough survive, let alone thrive with a ghost on his shoulder.

Larry Drew, Bucks — After spending three seasons in Atlanta, where he always had a winning record but could never get the Hawks past the second round of the playoffs, Drew moves to a Bucks franchise that overachieves if it climbs into the No. 8 seed to play the role of punching bag for the big boys in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee has turned over its backcourt from an inconsistent pair of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to a spotty trio of Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal. Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo has size, athleticism and a bundle of talent. But he’s only 18 years old and the question is whether Drew will be given the opportunity to stick around long enough to watch him grow. The Bucks are one of two teams with plenty of space under the salary cap, but have no real intention of spending it except to get to the mandated league minimum. This is a Bucks franchise that doesn’t have a sense of direction and that hardly bodes well for a coach. It’s not even a lateral move for Drew and could make getting the next job that much harder.

Brian Shaw, Nuggets – After waiting so long to finally get his opportunity to become a head coach, Shaw steps into a situation that is almost the opposite of Joerger. The Nuggets let 2013 Coach of the Year George Karl walk along with Masai Ujiri, the general manager who built the team, and then blew a gaping hole in the side of the 57-win, No. 3 seed in the West roster by letting Andre Iguodala get away, too. Shaw still has Ty Lawson as the fire-starter in the backcourt, but one of these seasons 37-year-old Andre Miller has got to run out of gas. As if the rookie coach didn’t have enough to juggle with the mercurial JaVale McGee, now he’s got Nate Robinson coming off his playoff heroics in Chicago with that ego taller than the Rockies. It’s never a good time to be stepping into a new job when management seems to be pulling back.

Steve Clifford, Bobcats – He’s another one of the longtime assistant coaches that has paid his dues and was ready to slide down the bench into the boss’s spot. But Charlotte? That’s more like the ejector seat in James Bond’s old Aston Martin. The Bobcats have had six coaches in the seven years that the iconic Michael Jordan has been head of basketball operations and then majority owner. From bad drafting (Adam Morrison) to bad trades (Ben Gordon, Corey Maggette), through constant changes of philosophy and direction, the Bobcats simply go through coaches faster than sneakers. Now it’s general manager Rich Cho calling the shots, but that didn’t stop the firing of Mike Dunlap after just one season. Clifford gets veteran big man Al Jefferson to anchor the middle of the lineup, but he’d better have his seat belt fastened tight and watch out for those fingers on the ejector button.

Mike Malone, Kings — Not that anyone expects Malone to be under immediate pressure in terms of wins and losses. What the Kings need now that they have a future in Sacramento is to re-establish a foundation on the court. Of course, the multi-million-dollar question is whether that base will include the talented and petulant DeMarcus Cousins. Everybody knows that he’s physically got what it takes to be a dominant force in the league. But the jury is still out when you’ve played three years in the league and you’re still getting suspended for “unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team.” Paul Westphal and Keith Smart couldn’t get through to Cousins to make him somebody the Kings can rely on and were spat out. Now as the big man heads toward a summer where he could become a restricted free agent, the franchise needs to know if sinking big bucks in his future is an investment or a waste of time. That’s the intense heat on Malone and the clock will be ticking immediately.