DeMar DeRozan has a knack for one-liners. The famous "don’t worry, I got us…" tweet sent after Chris Bosh’s departure sits above the other examples, returning to feeds every time he lives up to that lofty proclamation. His latest quotable moment came last Thursday, as he described his affection for Toronto and hope for the team’s future.
In his devotion to the franchise and improving it, DeRozan is indeed Toronto. He has come to represent what Masai Ujiri is attempting to build for this Raptors franchise. In a league where the cap structure only allows for four and five-year deals, where players have the carrot of prosperity dangled in front of them at 26 and 27 years old, it is increasingly difficult to build team culture through a roster of players. The Raptors are doing it, though.
Ujiri has developed this team like a duck swimming on water. What everybody sees on a daily basis has been steady, while the churn below the surface, at the end of the bench, shows how hectic the NBA has made it to stay afloat for the long-term.
Above the water? It’s the coaching of Dwane Casey and the core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas, which has been intact since 2013-14. There have been complementary pieces added. Ujiri has amplified his core's blue collar work ethic with DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph.
Pedaling hard below the water is the youth of this team, which is where Ujiri has really done well. The players he’s drafted have been uniform – raw talent, under the radar, no attitude, moldable minds. Most people saw this first-hand at this year’s Las Vegas Summer League. Norman Powell led the highlights, but Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, Jakob Poetl and Paskal Siakam (pre-injury) all showed signs of their promise, combining for one of the showcase’s most potent teams.
That said, this summer hasn’t been as busy as many would like. The Raptors were relatively quiet in free agency, re-signing DeRozan and using the remaining mid-level exception on risk-laden Jared Sullinger. The anticipated trade of Terrence Ross hasn’t come to fruition. While the rest of the NBA has made splashy moves, the Raptors have more or less banked on their core to continue growing. It’s a stand-pat move that repeats the last two summers, and can be nerve-wracking as you watch Eastern Conference rivals in Boston, Chicago and New York take a step forward.
Whether sexy or not, though, every small move by the Raptors this summer has been done with the long-term in mind.
Re-signing DeRozan not only ensures the team’s second-biggest asset doesn’t walk for nothing, it also keeps Toronto’s biggest supporter in the locker room. There’s mutual interest in keeping him around – despite a game that at times seems maddening, DeRozan has been exceedingly vocal in his support of the Raptors, which both coalesces his team and perks the ears of free agents.
Draftees Poetl and Siakam weren’t attractive first round picks, but they fit the mold of what the Raptors are trying to build. Poetl has shown in Summer League that he can grow to be a capable defensive big, moving his feet and challenging shots from like-sized players. Siakam may be a surprise, another motor forward that Ujiri has coveted on every stop in his management tour.
The team’s lone free agent signing, Sullinger, is admittedly fraught with weight issues. The Celtics, who have leaked almost everything internal this off-season, weren’t shy in expressing their feelings on Sully’s paunch. Still, he’s 24, he can rebound and stretch the floor, and was signed during a cooling period on NBA bigs. A starting power forward approaching his prime was signed for $6 million in an off-season where Timofey Mozgov drew almost triple that. Better yet, he seems to have an understanding of what the Raptors are building.
There haven’t been trades, but you can assume there will be. Terrence Ross is an old cap player playing below his new cap value, and teams will value his three-point shooting. The Raptors are tired of waiting for him to become a multi-tool player and if they can find a partner who wants a mercurial, athletic wing, he will be on the move.
Just because that trade or any others didn’t happen though, just because the Raptors are staying the same, doesn’t mean Ujiri isn’t building.
Winning a championship in the NBA requires transcendent talent, either through the draft or acquisition. In the first case, you need to draft high, draft high at the right time, and still get a bit lucky. Tim Duncan will stand as the all-time example: the Spurs have been horrible for one of the last 25 years, and it was the year that Duncan went first in the draft. The Raptors have drafted high, but due to poor management and timing, they ended up with Andrea Bargnani and Rafael Araujo. Vince Carter and Chris Bosh came and played well, but the Raptors never built well enough around them. They’re building now.
In the case of acquisition, in order to get blue chip free agents, you need to get meetings. Increasingly, superstars are choosing teams that can win immediately. Kevin Durant doesn’t leave Oklahoma City if Klay Thompson doesn’t hit a billion threes in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. He did, though, and the Warriors ended up one step closer than the Thunder to getting Durant a title. He went where the rings would be.
The Raptors are not in the Warriors’ position, obviously. Keep building that winning culture, though, and Ujiri will earn those meetings. LaMarcus Aldridge visited with Toronto on a whim last summer. DeRozan’s salary hand-tied the team from going after big free agents this year, but he was also a top five UFA had he intended to meet with anyone else. Toronto is getting ever-closer to earning productive meetings with free agents, and they should be a top ten destination for anyone looking.
They may not be winning the championship anytime soon, but the swimming duck that is the Toronto Raptors continues to grow this off-season. The legs are churning faster – gym freak Norman Powell may be progressing quicker than we dreamed, Delon Wright got his braces off, and Bruno… well, shows flashes. A couple promising first-rounders add to the excitement. The body remains steady – DeRozan, ever grateful, returns to the team. Sullinger is added as an upgrade over Luis Scola. Ujiri has a playing chip at the poker table with Ross.
It may have seemed like a dull off-season, but the Raptors are speaking loudly enough by staying quiet.