After a disappointing post-season performance by the number one team in the Eastern Conference, the NBA Coach of the Year for the 2017-18 season, Dwane Casey, was fired by the Toronto Raptors following a regular season that went above and beyond expectations. Casey was the longest tenured head coach in the Raptors history, seven seasons, and just the second to earn Coach of the Year honors (Sam Mitchell in 2006-07). Casey allocated a combined regular season and postseason win percentage of .580 (341-268), the highest in franchise history.
Masai Ujiri, Raptors executive, said himself that firing coach Casey was “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Bobby Webster (general manager) and I went to speak to him and I’ve never met anybody that classy in my life. I can honestly say I don’t know that I’ll work with a better person.”
Casey becomes only the second coach in NBA history to earn Coach of the Year honors and lose his job the same season (George Karl in 2013)
The departure of Casey tips-off a summer that is arguably the most crucial offseason in the franchise’s history. Following a roller coaster ride of a season, Ujiri’s expertise will need to be proven once again in order for Toronto to reach championship contention for the 2018-19 season. Although the firing of Casey is a transition in terms of the team’s philosophy, the Raptors may be in for a major overhaul come mid-June.
Expectations changed quickly for Toronto compared to the start of the season. At the time, the Cleveland Cavaliers overhauled their roster trading away six players from the start of the season and were presented with the task to integrate an inexperienced roster to a playoff atmosphere. Knee surgery for Kyrie Irving derailed the Boston Celtics a bit. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Considering the dysfunction of the Cavaliers, the injuries of the Celtics, and the youth of the Sixers, none of those teams seemed to be poised for a run.
For the Raptors, however, a finals appearance seemed destined to happen. The consistent superstar performance backcourt mates DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the veteran leadership of Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, and CJ Miles was a good start. In addition a surprisingly productive bench unit consisting of Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, and an overlooked rookie in the 2017 draft, OG Anunoby gave them the depth they needed. The Raptors were heavy favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2018 NBA Finals.
After taking care of business against a hapless Washington Wizards squad in six games, the Raptors laid four straight rotten eggs against Cleveland as the King twisted the knife with every blocked shot, assist, and made field goal in Toronto. As James continues on his quest for ring number four and the taste of champagne, the Raptors are still wondering how champagne tastes not including the bottles sent to the team by Champagne Papi himself.
With the A-1 management in Boston, the young dynamic “process” in Philadelphia, and the uncertain stability of the King in Cleveland, the Raptors are plagued with the biggest decision in franchise history: Win now or win later? It all starts with the King’s decision.
If the King Stays..
In this scenario, the best bet for the Raptors is to win later. James has haunted the Raptors for the past three postseasons. James has averaged 31.2 points per game in his career against the Raptors during the postseason and has defeated the Raptors ten consecutive times in the playoffs.
Toronto would have little to no hope in making it to the NBA’s promise land with this roster. Blowing up the team by trading one of their two premiere backcourt stars for draft picks, salary cap space, and tradeable assets would benefit the Raptors. It would kickstart a rebuilding process that would end the Raptors most successful period in franchise history. However, it would bring hope for the Toronto faithful once King James vacates the NBA thus making Boston, Philadelphia, and, potentially, Milwaukee their biggest competition in the East.
Another thing to think about here is the cap flexibility. DeRozan, Lowry, and Ibaka are set to make over 80 million combined. With Ibaka being a glorified utility player, the two moveable assets for Toronto that present the best possibilities are the All-Star guards.
DeRozan is the more valuable player in-terms of trade negotiations for the Raptors. Following a 23 points per game average in the regular season, he is entering the 10th season of his career and is beginning, arguably, the prime of his career. The 28-year-old and four-time All-Star has already established himself as one of the best shooting guards in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Lakers showed interest in signing Derozan as a free agent in 2017. With the salary cap space as well as the young and promising talent that the Lakers possess, DeRozan may be able to return home for the long-haul. He is set to make 28 million next season and is guaranteed over 83 million from his contract.
Lowry is a much harder piece to move for the Raptors. The four-time All-Star has gotten lost in the mix when fans, players, coaches, and executives discuss the top-notch point guards in the NBA. Entering his 15th season in the NBA, the 32 year-old point guard has had only two season where he has averaged 20 points or more. A potential destination for Lowry can be in the woods of Minnesota.
The Timberwolves are in need a a savvy, hard-nosed, and experienced point guard that can compliment Jimmy Butler in the backcourt. A realistic trade with Andrew Wiggins will not only bring youth to an already young Raptors roster, but can give fans a hometown hero to champion for the next 5-10 years. Lowry is set to make 31 million next season is guaranteed 93 million from his contract.
If the King Leaves
If James decides to leave for a championship contender in the Western Conference, the Raptors best option is to keep their All-Star backcourt. With an underdeveloped core in Philly and James gone, the Raptors would by-and-large have the most playoff experience out of any team in the conference. With Boston being the only immediate threat to the Raptors, any improvement in the roster would benefit the Raptors. The reliability of Lowry and DeRozan against teams in the playoffs, not including teams LeBron have been on, can promise the Raptors deep playoff runs and potentially Finals appearances for the next few years.
Ujiri has already proven himself to make drastic decisions in order to benefit the team. In his tenure with the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri earned the NBA’s Executive of the Year award in 2013 as they earned homecourt in the first round of the playoffs after trading Carmelo Anthony.
Ujiri has made paramount trades, high-promised draft selections, and necessary re-signings to improve the roster. He acquired Ibaka for an inconsistent Terrence Ross in 2016-17. In the offseason following, Ujiri traded backup point guard Cory Joseph for a reliable sharpshooter in CJ Miles. Also, he ensured the roster’s stability when he re-signed DeRozan in 2016 and Lowry in 2017. To top it all off, he assembled the NBA’s most productive bench unit through the draft in Wright, Poeltl, VanVleet, and more.
On the flip-side, Ujiri has also made questionable decisions that have made Raptor fans think “what if?” In 2014, Ujiri had the opportunity to re-sign the Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams, but declined due to a salary cap dispute. A similar situation occurred in 2016. The Raptors best rim protector, Bismack Biyombo, showcased his value against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto had the most successful postseason in franchise history. Once again, Ujiri failed to re-sign their premiere free agent as Biyombo ventured south to Orlando albeit at a steep 72 million dollar price.
To say the very least, the Raptors management has a myriad of possibilities that should be made. The greatness and threat that is James has already taken control of the minds of the Raptors. A change, either by LeBron himself or the Raptors, is necessary for this franchise to move to greener pastures.
The genius of Ujiri will be much needed for the Raptors moving forward. Although it will be hard for Raptors fans to say goodbye to one of their two all-star guards, a change is a necessity. The decision should call for a big plan with a successful future in mind and an opportunity for Torontonians and Canadians in general to chant “WE THE NORTH” for years to come. Of course, the ball lies in King James’s court as the Raptors wait for his “decision.”