"[Suns GM Ryan McDonough] and I, when we talked about players, probably 99 percent of the time we agreed on what we were thinking," Jeff Hornacek said. "All the coaches that I talked to said that the biggest thing is, 'When you get a shot, make sure that you and the GM are on the same page." -- ESPN Los Angeles
Coming into the season, Dwane Casey’s career looked on its last legs. In his second stint as an NBA head coach, he had a 57-91 record with the Toronto Raptors. Bryan Colangelo, the general manager who hired him, had been fired in the offseason. Masai Ujiri didn’t have a prior relationship with Casey; most expected him to bring in his own people. When the Raptors opened with a 6-12 record, Casey’s fate seemed sealed. Few unsuccessful coaches get a third chance.
Some thought Ujiri waived the white flag in December, when he traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons. A year earlier, Colangelo had acquired Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies in a last-ditch effort to save his job. Instead, Toronto missed the playoffs while Memphis made the Western Conference Finals. So far, the Raptors have an 8-3 record without Gay. They look like a much better team.
Casey was criticized for allowing Gay to dominate the ball, but there wasn’t much he could do. In the NBA, salary dictates playing time. Gay was making $17.9 million; he wasn’t coming off the bench. Since he isn’t a great shooter and he likes to hold the ball, it tends to die in his hands. In Toronto, he was taking 18.5 shots a game and making them at a 38% clip. It’s not a huge surprise that redistributing those possessions has made his old team better.
Terrence Ross, the No. 8 pick in 2012, has been the biggest beneficiary. An extremely athletic 6’6 195 shooting guard, he averaged only 17 minutes a game as a rookie. Ross had the reputation of a great shooter and a great dunker coming out of Washington, but limited playing time and touches in his first season made it hard for him to get in a rhythm. In the last 10 games, he is averaging 14 points, 4 rebounds and 1 assist on 45% shooting.
With Gay gone, Kyle Lowry has more offensive responsibility. At 27, Lowry is in his prime, a 6’0 205 bulldog who can score, shoot, defend, rebound and pass. He has never made an All-Star team, but he is a starting-caliber point guard. When Lowry is given space to attack off the dribble, he can create a decent shot for himself or one of his teammates. In the last 10 games, he is averaging 17 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds on 43% shooting.
Upfront, Amir Johnson has flourished in Gay’s absence. Drafted out of high school in 2005, he is only starting to reach his peak in his ninth NBA season. Johnson is a monster on the pick-and-roll, an athletic 6’9 210 power forward who can play above the rim and stretch the floor. In the last 10 games, he is averaging 12 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal on 60% shooting. He is the rare big man who helps his team on both ends of the floor.
Combine those three with Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors have a quality first unit. They start five excellent athletes, all of whom can score. They can get out and run and they have options in the half-court - pick-and-rolls with Valanciunas and Johnson, isolations for DeRozan and Lowry, running Ross off screens. The keys for them will be buckling down on defense and avoiding turnovers, two bugaboos for young teams.
Dealing Gay wasn’t just addition by subtraction. Ujiri turned him into a bench -- a 6’6 point guard (Vasquez), a 6’6 wing (Salmons) and a 6’9 stretch 4 (Patterson) with NBA experience. All three have been productive starters at points in their careers; they can match-up with the vast majority of second units. The combination of the Sacramento refugees and the interior muscle of Tyler Hansbrough means Toronto’s reserves are no longer bleeding points.
All of a sudden, Casey has a rotation he can work with. The Raptors are a versatile team with lineup options on their bench. They can play Lowry and Vasquez together or go big on the perimeter with Vasquez, Ross and Salmons. They can run pick-and-pops with Patterson or use him to open up the floor for pick-and-rolls. Toronto 2.0 puts pressure on the opponent for all 48 minutes. In the regular season, a strong second-unit keeps you in games and picks up wins.
Since the trade, the Raptors have been in almost every game and have not had a bad loss. They lost twice to the San Antonio Spurs and had an OT loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. Five of their eight wins have come on the road, including three out West. In consecutive games, they beat the Mavericks in Dallas and the Thunder in Oklahoma City. They were the first team to get a win in Chesapeake Energy Arena this season. The rebuild may already be over.
The average age of their starting five is 24 -- DeRozan is 24, Ross is 22 and Valanciunas is 21. There’s been speculation about Ujiri selling off assets and tanking for the 2014 draft, but the point of lottery picks is to acquire under-25 starters in the first place. With only $41.4 million in salary committed for next season, Ujiri can be aggressive. Do the Thunder want to pay Reggie Jackson? He could offer the Raptors' first rounder in 2014 and the Knicks' first in 2016.
If they stay healthy, Toronto can make a run at the No. 3 seed, moving Casey from hot seat to Coach of the Year candidate. That’s how thin the line can be in this business. Casey started coaching in 1979 and has been in the NBA since 1994; there’s nothing he can’t figure out on the court. Basketball is basic geometry, not applied calculus. Like any coach, if he has the players, he can win games. After two seasons with Colangelo, one with Ujiri may save his career.