How the culture change this offseason has affected the Toronto Raptors thus far.
After the Toronto Raptors were unceremoniously and effortlessly bounced from the playoffs last year, Massai Ujiri called for a culture change. Many took this to mean that Dwane Casey was in trouble. After all, the defense-oriented coach refused to utilize the talent he had on the offensive end of the floor. He declined to put any trust into the bench and regardless of the players on the court the game-plan remained unchanged, give Lowry and DeRozan the ball, step-back, and enjoy the show. Year after year this tactic failed miserably in the playoffs, but Casey refused to abandon or even tweak the “strategy” that was obviously lacking. Too much ISO play, too little ball movement, and too much hero basketball. Demarre Carroll caught a lot of flak for saying that there was a lack of trust on the team but he was right. How else could players not named Lowry or DeRozan interpret the fact that the ball just never seemed to find its way to them?
"This year, I feel like a lot of guys didn't trust each other, and a lot of guys -- they didn't feel like other guys could produce or [be] given the opportunity - so there was a lot of lack of trust on our team, so that's what hindered us from going [as far as we wanted to go]."
Last season’s playoffs were the final straw. The Raptors entered the postseason with a loaded team. Ujiri had, to his credit, through trades and signings addressed every problem that plagued the Raptors. Both on the defensive and offensive end. The problem was that Ujiri worked on fixing issues Casey did not believe he had. Toronto barely survived the first round and then got steamrolled in the second. Now, losing to the second best team in the NBA is nothing to be ashamed of, but the Raptors never even made the Cavs break a sweat. A change was desperately needed, and Casey’s head was set to roll.
Raptor's course of action
That, as you well know, did not happen. What did happen is, the Raptors lost any semblance of depth the team boasted the year before. Although Toronto added C.J. Miles, who seems like a fantastic fit for this team thus far, he doesn’t exactly make up for the loss of Carroll, Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, and Cory Joseph. The 2017-2018 Raptors are the same team they were last year only not as deep and not as versatile. All this should not inspire much confidence in their performance but the more of them you see, the better they look. While losing talented players is never a good thing it appears to be precisely what the Raptors needed to play winning basketball and finally do it the right way. The lack of depth is forcing Casey's hand, and he is finally, willingly or not, changing.
Five games into the season the Raptors sit at three wins and two losses. It may not be the most impressive of starts, but the record, at least this early on does not matter. What matters is that the ball is flying around the court like a hot potato, what matters is that the Raptors are averaging more than 24 assists per game and finally, what matters is that the bench is involved, energized and producing. The sample size is minuscule, and there is plenty of time for the Raptors to go back to the team that was dead last in assists a season ago, but that will not happen. The team is running faster, the ball is moving again, and the players seem to be having more fun, particularly the ones who had been riding the pine for the last couple of years.
The two losses thus far were against the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, and both games were a tossup until the very end. While it is true that when teams stumble a bit, go through a rough stretch and face adversity, they tend to revert to what they know. But now that the bench players are feeling the support of the team and seeing the ball more often, they won’t be very quick to let that go, and they will be much more assertive when it comes to demanding the orange. Let's not forget the two all-stars who are undoubtedly feeling the benefits of not having to carry the team for 48 straight minutes, and would probably want to avoid sliding back into their purported “comfort zone.” There is less pressure on Lowry and DeRozan, and the games are a lot less physically punishing on them when the rest of the team carries their weight, and so far, "the other guys" have shown that they are well equipped to do so. They always have been, all they needed to prove it was the ball and a modicum of trust.