The Toronto Raptors could have taken the easy way out this season, to try to make life more palatable for Masai Ujiri – the new president and general manager of the NBA franchise – by continuing to travel their well-worn path of recent years.
Just lose, baby. That’s all it would have taken to allow Ujiri to go home at night and sleep soundly.
With his head on his pillow and a smile on his lips, the GM would have been able to drift off and dream good dreams about the Raptors heading into the June draft as a lottery team, possibly with the No. 1 pick. It would allow Toronto to nab homegrown talent and perceived franchise saviour Andrew Wiggins, and Ujiri would awaken and give thanks to the basketball gods for all his good fortune.
By tumbling once again during his first year on watch, the Raptors would have been making it easy for Ujiri to blow up the roster and start anew.
Toronto has failed to make the NBA playoffs the past five years and cost Uriji’s predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, his job. And the smart money last summer was being leveraged against the Raptors being anywhere near the playoff ladder in the Eastern Conference.
But Ujiri’s life of leisure plans have been clouded considerably by a team that continues to confound all the so-called experts by playing, for the most part, smart, sound basketball and, even more importantly, winning on a consistent basis.
And with that, the real work will now begin for Ujiri.
The Raptors, no doubt benefiting from a wretched conference where only five of the 15 clubs are sporting winning records, are almost certainly playoff-bound this season. And with a favourable schedule the rest of the way, the Raps could quite easily reach the 40-win plateau for just the seventh time in franchise history.
However, the Raptors’ recent home-court magic dried up against the Washington Wizards, who legged out an emotionally-draining 134-129 triple-overtime victory Thursday at the Air Canada Centre. The loss was only Toronto’s fourth at home in 15 games since Jan. 1.
Two turnovers down the stretch in the decisive five-minute overtime frame proved Toronto’s undoing, leading to two easy Washington buckets and a 131-127 lead with a minute left.
Marcin Gortat, the big Washington centre who fouled out with 56 seconds left, led the way with 31 points. DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors with 34.
But with a solid lead atop the Atlantic Division (32-26), the Raptors solid play this season has muddied the water considerably for Ujiri.
Primary among the concerns the GM must now wrestle with is the future of point guard Kyle Lowry. At one point considered expendable after a mostly undistinguished turn last season, Lowry has suddenly become a key component in a winning formula.
A solid argument could be made Lowry has been the most proficient point guard in the East this season, averaging 16.9 points and 7.6 assists prior to the Washington game.
He’s a free agent at the end of this season, and Ujiri will have to try to distinguish between the good Lowry and the bad Lowry – and decide if the 27-year-old is the Raptors’ best option at the point going forward.
“He’s a pit bull,” is how Greivis Vasquez, the Raptors back-up point guard, described Lowry’s on-court demeanour this season. “I know he’s going to do his job defensively and offensively. He’s just making winning plays for us the whole year.”
Ujiri’s other big decision will concern Dwane Casey, the head coach. Casey’s contract is also up for renewal at year’s end, and the speculation has been he would not be invited back if the Raptors miss the playoffs.
Casey has done a masterful job, somehow getting the best out of a team that is really still in a development mode, with the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, only in their second NBA campaigns, receiving healthy doses of playing time.
“I’ve said this for the last couple of years: the hardest thing to do is to develop and win at the same time,” Casey said. “And, luckily, we’ve got some wins.”
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