Not that long ago, the Toronto Raptors were a model organization. The team was consistently winning, with an innovative trendsetter coach and a successful developmental program.
The Tampa season cast doubt on that truth, until last year’s 48-win team restored it. But after this past season of mediocrity, one can argue that last year was the blip, and the Raptors franchise has been having issues going back three years, resulting in an organizational failure in all four levels. The front office, coaches, players, and the franchise as a whole laid out a big fat egg, leading to what may have been the team’s most disappointing season in its history, considering the expectations for the season.
The band-aid fix is to either replace the coach or overhaul the roster. Doing both is more drastic. While all three options might move the needle, it feels like this club needs to do a long-overdue organizational reset to avoid being stuck in mediocrity or being a “mid” team, as the streets say.
Right now, the easiest and most popular term is that the Raptors need a “culture reset.” I have used that term talking about this team this season. Still, upon further reflection, this team needed something more: an Organizational Reset.
The Raptors need to reassess, from top to bottom, their organizational strategy and confirm whether the earlier established strategy still aligns with their mission and vision, especially with the ever-changing landscape of the NBA.
Despite not being directly responsible for what’s happening in the game, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster collectively have plenty of culpability for the product we saw on the floor, significantly whether the team is improving yearly. As the front office, they need to evaluate whether they have a competent team that can scout talent, build and manage a team, create a thriving environment, identify the right coaching staff, and design a developmental system, without compromising the company culture.
Post-Championship season, the Raptors have struggled to find talent. The developmental pipeline dried up after Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, O.G. Anunoby, and Norman Powell moved into the rotation. They were able to turn Chris Boucher into a rotation player, but they only have Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., who developed in Portland and replaced Powell, to show for since. Other teams have caught up and even lapped the Raptors in identifying talent in the draft. There has yet to be a Raptor prospect (drafted or undrafted) that came out of their developmental system since (as a lottery pick, Barnes doesn’t count).
Free agency has been a recurring problem for this front office. Aron Baynes, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas, Alex Len, Svi Mykhailiuk, Juancho Hernangomez, Isaac Bonga, DeAndre Bembry, Otto Porter Jr. have all flopped as Raptor.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing several prospects, either drafted after the Raptors’ picks or even undrafted players popping up with different teams. The Raptors may still have a good eye for talent, but at the very least, the Raptors are behind the eight-ball. When it comes to experienced players, why is it so difficult to find pieces that fit the current core, or better yet, why is it so difficult to bring in talent in general? These issues must be addressed by evaluating their scouting and talent acquisition strategies and developing a better solution.
The Raptors have gone into playoff mode for three-and-a-half seasons out of the four seasons after their championship run, with only two playoff appearances during that stretch. Coach Nick Nurse desperately tried to squeeze this team’s core to get them into the playoff picture, but it looks like the wheels have fallen off these past three seasons, and a big part of that is due to wear and tear.
The front office has cycled through several players — rookies, vets, and second-draft type of players, yet none survived Coach Nurse’s ecosystem. Is it because the talent that the management has brought to date is not good enough for Nurse’s system? Or is the system too rigid, making it hard for these guys to thrive? That’s a chicken-and-egg argument, and perhaps both sides are responsible. However, Nurse’s my-way-or-the-highway approach to his system drove his key players to the ground and provided little to no runway for their reserves to develop.
Shams with some details on Nick Nurse's future. Some of the frustration of this season being directed at him is to be expected, everyone should be held accountable:https://t.co/G9j5EYoDpd pic.twitter.com/iz6byQ9uA1— Vivek Jacob (@vivekmjacob) January 30, 2023
Perhaps Masai and Bobby need to evaluate how they envisioned this team. Can they look at Nurse’s approach and believe it will work if they can find the right talent and be in perpetual, not necessarily win-now, but “compete-now” mode? They also need to be honest themselves whether they can find such talent that suits Nurse’s approach now, not in a couple of years.
Otherwise, the management needs to make a swift decision, move on from Nurse, and find a new coach. From there, they would need to find a coach that fits their vision for the coming season and the immediate future AND give this team’s new iteration all the tools they need to succeed.
Vision 6'9" works. Heck, even Vision 6'10" or 6'11" would work. But you'll need talent. Not just potential, but as-is skill set. Then focus on development. Look at Thunder's Vision 6'8" that will just get better next season. Oh, they also got Chip Engelland, the shooting coach— JD Quirante (@jdkeyrants) April 13, 2023
The front office needs to reinvent its developmental pipeline and strategy. They can’t bring several young players with the same redundancy, not just in the skill set but also in how far along they are in their development. Unless the team plans to go in full or semi-development mode, they can’t have more than half of their roster, including the two-way roster spots, looking like they’re two-three years away from competing for 9th spot on the rotation. There has to be a strategy in terms of the variety of skill sets, development progress, and floor on these prospects while considering where the coaching staff can use them throughout the season and give them ample developmental minutes with the main club. Next week, we’ll investigate and go into more in detail as to why the developmental pipeline stagnated.
Honest Assessment of the Core
It’s time for the front office to make more business decisions than emotional decisions regarding this core. I can’t blame them for getting understandably misled by nostalgia and their emotional attachment to the core that they developed from the ground up. With contract situations and frustrations about their roles hounding the season, it’s way past due for this management to examine whether they still believe in this core and whether they think it can take this team to another level.
I used to think that the core was a “playoff starter pack,” but the way this team deteriorated this season had me losing confidence, but still believe enough that by bringing them back together, they can still be a “play-in starter pack,” granted that they are surrounded with better fitting teammates.
Culture is essential; just ask Doc Rivers. His Los Angeles Clippers teams were talented, but even Rivers was resigned to the fact that they couldn’t win because the players did not get along.
"Not trying to take anything away from that [Clippers] team. That team was never going to win... we just didn't get along well enough as a group & you can't win without cooperation."— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) April 13, 2023
Doc Rivers on which team this Sixers group reminds him ofpic.twitter.com/NEN9JpJGce
That appears to be the case for the Raptors this season. While there hasn’t really been any documented in-fighting, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that “There’s been frustration throughout the roster and staff with the team’s play at points of this season, and that has been directed toward Nurse at times too, according to sources” on his trade deadline piece earlier this year. New Orleans Pelicans’ CJ McCollum also mentioned on his pod that some players aren’t happy.
The product that we’ve seen on the floor’s very telling. There were a lot of games where this team looked indifferent to each other at best, while some noticeable bad body language would rear its head now and then. We would see games where it seems like the players on the floor don’t like each other to start the game, only to figure out that they need to play together once they’ve dug themselves a hole and would try to make a fake comeback attempt. When things get tough, the team plays hero ball instead of trusting each other. But worst of all, this team had too many games where they “no-showed” and embarrassed themselves.
I can(and have) critique Nick Nurse on offensive systems, defensive systems, and rotations, and each of those criticisms is very pointed. But the benefit of continuity is supposed to be identity, and the Raptors feel like a team without one way too many nights.— Anthony Doyle (@Anthonysmdoyle) April 2, 2023
Suppose there’s a cherry on the top to show that the Raptors’ culture has eroded. In that case, it’s Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s post-trade deadline presser where he publicly called out the team for being selfish. While people immediately thought of the players with the most touches, selfishness can also be attributed to someone who won’t play within the team concept because they’re unhappy with their situation.
How does the front office reset this team’s culture? How can they get this back to the point where they value working hard, selflessness, and togetherness? They must evaluate whether a culture reset would require a change in coaching and/or doing addition by subtraction with their core players. Masai and Bobby also need to look in the mirror and reflect on their part in the deterioration of this locker room. They are, after all, responsible for the poor roster construction and the contract situation of several players, including the coaching staff.
The front office is responsible for putting together a locker room, coaches included, that works before they even step on the court. They are also responsible for being on top or at least able to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of team building and ensure that it aligns with the team’s vision. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster can either go with a “hard reset” or a “soft reset,” but the ownership must play their part.
For one, there has to be a buy-in from the ownership regarding the Front Office’s vision. As the owner, you can’t say that you trust your team’s leadership if the mandate puts the front office into either crippling them or limiting them from making short-sighted moves.
The pandemic likely caused a big dent in the ownership’s bottom line, and the mandate to win these past two seasons probably came from the top to get some of that post-season earnings. If the messaging wasn’t clear enough, go back to Ujiri’s post-trade deadline presser, where he backed down from his original stance about the play-ins.
That mandate, understandably, would have flowed down to Nurse, and the positive word “win” helped create the toxic environment they are in. You have a coach that’s unhappy with the hand he’s given, and he’s asked to do more with less. He was a coach that, in order to win, had to alienate his bench and perhaps the lower-end options on the team to focus on making every night a must-win game, despite the team looking more like a mid-developmental team this season. The front office knows when the team’s not good enough, and Masai has moved the goal post in the past, so it makes one wonder why they couldn’t move the goal post this season.
Of course, there’s always the business side of running a basketball team. However, the Toronto Raptors are different from the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Knicks, where they can maintain profitability regardless of how mediocre they are. The fanbase is also different, and they will not put up with a mediocre product, especially with how expensive it is to watch Raptors basketball. The ownership needs to be completely bought in with whatever reset this Masai or Bobby will make, or they will be back selling Sprite Zone tickets again.