Looking back, our December version of the Toronto Raptors “State of the Squad” was a real mystery. The team, and seemingly the motivation, was in flux. They were a few weeks into the trade of Rudy Gay, which GM Masai Ujiri probably figured would cause the team to struggle and would allow him to overhaul the entire roster in an attempt to secure a top pick, hopefully Canadian golden boy Andrew Wiggins. The problem was that they were playing pretty decent; good enough to have second thoughts about the sure tank that it looked like they were going for. But we weren’t sure.
What can a month do for you? A lot, apparently. The Raptors are soundly in first place, even with a recent five-game winning streak from the New York Knicks (which we predicted, exactly, a couple weeks ago!). The Raptors have won 12 of their last 16 and have guys in the running for berths in the All-Star game.
With that, let’s get to the more optimistic January version of our State of the Squad.
We will be honest, it is a little less entertaining doing this month’s “State,” not because we are not happy about the recent success and optimism, but because without all the chaos and constant speculation, there is a certain settling of things. Change creates buzz, but change isn’t always good. Success is and we can’t complain about the Raptors’ success, as long as that success does not squarely place them in the “no man’s land” that Ujiri fears.
But in regards to the solid play on the floor, we have made something of a shift in how we view the barometer of this team. While we have been banging the drum for DeMar DeRozan all season, we now concede that this team goes as Kyle Lowry goes. He is the most important player, even if he not the most talented one.
The Raptors went from Rudy Gay running the team with DeRozan trying to keep pace, to Lowry running the team, with everyone else, including DeRozan, just trying to make things more cohesive and efficient for each other. We have to assume that is a manifestation of putting the ball in Lowry’s hands and letting him go. He is still a scoring guard, but one who has embraced the responsibility of a normal point guard, which he couldn’t do sharing the floor with Gay. The results have been obvious, both to Lowry and the rest of the league. He may be a more difficult re-sign now, but the fact that Ujiri has seemingly pulled him off the market may be an indication that he feels confident in getting Lowry to sign an extension.
To us, it has been good that we are not hearing any more about DeRozan being on the trade block. Of course, being a scorching first place team can do that to a GM, but the intent may have been there. We are not sure if that was ever a real possibility, but DeRozan’s continued stellar play should only reinforce to the Raptors what they have: a passionate, team-oriented scorer who is evolving his game for a vastly improving team. We are unapologetic in saying that he can be the number two option on a perennial contender. We eagerly await the day that Jonas Valanciunas makes the big jump and cements himself as that number one. He’s not there yet and the ascension has been slower than we anticipated. Perhaps our expectations were too ambitious. But he will get there. We hope that he will have this cast of characters, and more, as he continues to find his footing as a legit NBA cornerstone.
We would be remiss to not mention the contribution of Patrick Patterson since he arrived in Toronto. He has been fantastic off the bench. Averaging 15 points and six rebounds over his past six games, Patterson has been the ideal backup playing max minutes for both Valanciunas and Amir Johnson.
For the first time in a while, there is more focus on basketball than bureaucracy in Toronto. There will certainly be time for that; Ujiri still needs to put his stamp on this team. But with a team playing this well, our January “state” needs to laud this team, at least currently, as more than just a charity playoff visitor.