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DeRozan Never Doubted Future With Raptors, Validated In Franchise Turnaround

The crossroads of a franchise flashed before DeMar DeRozan, a text message punched to Rudy Gay signaling two paths. DeRozan stood inside the Los Angeles locker room in December with his Toronto Raptors teammates, hugging goodbye to Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray and some reaching Gay by phone, and privately many of them wondered: What’s next?

The Raptors could have crumbled under the weight of endless questions about their futures, put Dwane Casey on severe lookout for his job and faltered toward a lottery pick – or bonded inside a tight locker room with stabilizing newcomers from the Sacramento Kings, cleansed the playbook of dense isolation sets and implement a free-flowing style that has given a raucous fan base reason to believe in sacrificing basketball.

Mostly, DeRozan had to prove the organization’s old vision of him as a cornerstone, as an efficient guard and reliable leader. He needed to mature as a two-way, inside and out player. For DeRozan, the departure of Gay had been the precise sign. His stats couldn’t be empty anymore.

Masai Ujiri had entertained a serious reconstruction of the roster before the trade deadline, as he’s publicly stated, but DeRozan had already made clear in his mind: He had to stay – and win – with the Raptors.

“There was no doubt about my future here and I never had a doubt,” DeRozan told RealGM. “It was never a thought of leaving or nothing. I took an onus of myself to step up my game, especially when the trade happened because I understood what it feels like to be in a struggle and be in a tough season. Now, we have great relationships with each other, before it comes to basketball.

“That trade was our cue that everybody has to step up. It could’ve turned real ugly, real fast.”

So now, DeRozan earns his first showing in the postseason, a premiere stage for an All-Star scorer of his ilk. Around him, Casey’s mastered the pedal on this team, cognizant of when to motivate forcefully and subtly, and Kyle Lowry instigates balanced shots and sharp ball movement.

Before a dramatic reversal of a season, Toronto had been a meddling, mediocre group. There was no choice but to jolt the players and coaches with that first trade. They had no identity, no established system – only jump-shooting tendencies, external blame for the coaching staff and a perception across the NBA of me-first attitudes.

“When I got here, I read up on the team and people were talking about how they wanted the team to tank so they could get a good draft pick,” Patrick Patterson said. “They said the ball movement wasn’t there; that players were selfish holding the ball, a lot of isos, and that it wasn’t great basketball. I was unaware of that situation, what was going on, but I’m thankful for when I got here it wasn’t like that at all. People moved the ball, averaged high assists and bought into their roles.”

They started an alluring brand of ball, and it’s in turn made them an appealing franchise with which to remain. Casey admits he owes a tremendous amount to Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes for cultivating positivity among younger players, for providing calmness amid the ups and downs of a season and eliminating any locker room divides. With DeRozan locked into his contract potentially until 2017, with a priority to re-sign Lowry and with a firm front office, two pending free agents who are critical to the rotation, Patterson and Vasquez, are immensely open to returning on long-term deals.

Winning does this for any organization. After Chris Bosh left in 2010, the Raptors dwelled toward the bottom of the league, free agents losing sight of the city’s draw and fans’ backing. And now, they’ll be a desired destination.

“I wouldn’t mind staying with the Raptors at all,” Patterson told RealGM. “Toronto is a great city, and it has great basketball fans, which surprised me the most when I got here. I didn’t know the fan support was so great in Toronto.”

“If we stay together for three, four years … woo, this team will be scary,” Vasquez said. “We just got to stay humble.”

DeRozan kept his humility through the losing seasons, but he noticed increasing detractors of his game, his contract. He never implored Gay about his similar judgments, because he said he knew, “Being overlooked comes with [the league], and you use it as motivation. That’s all I did – use negative thoughts, critics as motivation.”

DeMar has some Rudy in him – the exciting athleticism and habit to fall in love with the jumper – and Gay received a maximum contract in 2010 for this blend in his repertoire. As Gay faded farther and farther away from the rim, regaining some of his old propensities with the Kings, DeRozan has shown far more determination to use his leaping ability and strength to attack the basket.

Now, Toronto gets homecourt advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and DeRozan promises these Raptors have a measured vision of advancing. This season was spiraling in two avenues months ago, uncertainties clouding DeRozan’s future and the standing of his point guard and coach and franchise. Sure, his GM received inquiries from teams searching to pickpocket the 24-year-old.

Every one of these Raptors was on the clock to see how this core would respond and how far these once misfit parts could go, and no one continues to outlast it more than DeMar DeRozan.

Raptors' Late Game Offense Less Alpha, More Pack

The Toronto Raptors are headed to the postseason for the first time since 2008, likely with homecourt advantage in the first round. 

The Raptors’ improvement is as surprising as the December trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, which seemed to signal at the time that Masai Ujiri was waiving the white flag on the 2013-14 season. Toronto is 10 games above .500, but they were 6-12 on the morning of Dec. 8.

When the postseason begins, several new faces will represent the Eastern Conference. We are accustomed to seeing the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks/New York Knicks, but the Raptors, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats will be looking to advance while learning about spring basketball on the fly.

Late-game execution is vital to success in the playoffs and while you can predict that guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant will have the ball in their hands with the game on the line, many clubs have had success without an alpha dog.

The Raptors are one of those teams.

“We have different situations where we like to go with different people. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets or anything, but we like different guys in different situations,” Dwane Casey said when asked about how he draws up late-game plays.

“We have multiple guys, we don’t have one guy that we go to all the time.”

Casey can go to DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson or even the emerging Terrence Ross in crunch time. Before you discount Johnson as a late-game option, he’s a team-high +34 in the final minute of close games (within five points) this season.

Toronto has taken 82 shots in what I’ve defined as a clutch situation, but not one player accounts for even a third of those attempts.

“That is just the trust that we have in one another on this team, honestly,” DeRozan told RealGM. “Anybody here can hit a big shot for us at any given moment in a late-game situation. That’s big for us to have. Sometimes I’ll use myself as a decoy to free up other guys. That’s just the trust factor we have.”

Lowry leads the Raptors with 27 clutch attempts, scoring a team-high 35 points on 33.3% shooting. DeRozan, a first-time All-Star this February, has scored 27 points on 26 takes (an abysmal 23.1% shooting). He is, however, 15-for-18 from the line.

“Sometimes you have to understand that if teams are coming in on me, double-teaming me, I’ve got to be comfortable as the decoy to help get a better shot for someone else on the team, whether it’s Kyle or someone else,” DeRozan said of the team’s balance.

Johnson averages 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but has been very efficient for the Raptors late in games. He’s 10-for-17 from the field with 26 points and 11 rebounds in 29 “clutch” minutes this season. Aside from Jonas Valanciunas, 21, Johnson is Casey’s lone interior threat on the offensive end.

“Whoever has the ball, we’ll believe in him and that he’ll make the right decision,” Ross said. “We believe in whoever is in that position.”

While talking to Ross for this piece, Chuck Hayes joked that he’d like to see the second-year forward take some shots in the final seconds. Ross has made some big shots this season, but he has yet to attempt a shot during the final 60 seconds of a close game.

“It gives us more options and the defense can’t load up on one person,” Ross added. “You don’t know who the ball will go to in the final minutes, it definitely helps.

“We’ve got to play together the whole game. It’d be nice if we had a KD-type closer, but we don’t.”

Defenses may not be able to key in on a specific player when facing the Raptors, but that doesn’t mean they have excelled. They are .500 (24-24) in games that are within five points in the final five minutes, but just 16-19 and in the bottom third of the NBA if you trim that clutch time down to the final minute. The Raptors are 1-6 in overtime games.

On March 25, the Raptors had the ball with a chance to tie the Cleveland Cavaliers in the final moments. Greivis Vasquez lost his footing and turned the ball over with 1.9 seconds remaining. The result was a 102-100 loss to a team with fading playoff hopes and an injured Kyrie Irving.

“He fell down. I thought he turned his ankle, but he slipped and lost his balance,” Casey said when asked about the specific play. “Those are the kind of plays we’ve got to made and find closers in those situations at the end of games. I was telling the coaching staff in Oklahoma City, you wish you had a Kevin Durant. A player that you can throw it to a half court and he’ll give you two points, but we’ve got to learn that. We are a team in the progress of growing, developing. We’ve pulled out some games with our defense, but there’s still a lot of areas that we are growing and improving in.”

Just a few days before the Cleveland loss, they led the Oklahoma City Thunder 118-110 with 49 seconds left in double-overtime. The Thunder scored nine-straight points to win the game, while the Raptors missed two field goals, two free throws and even threw away an inbounds pass.

“We’re going for a bucket. The best bucket available,” Casey said of how he approaches the end of games. “If I had Michael Jordan, or whoever in that situation, who can rise up and shoot a three we’d probably go for that. For us, we have to go for the best bucket available.”

Lowry, one of the few players on the roster with playoff experience, spoke highly of their overall offensive balance, but as a competitor he always wants the ball in his hands.

“We’ve got guys that make big plays and take big shots. As a team, we always count on each other, not just one player,” Lowry said before cracking a smile.

“I’m always ready. I’m going to make a play if I can.”

2014 First Round Picks (Which Teams Own The Picks?)

While RealGM has an excellent database of the draft picks that have been traded between teams, I wanted to put together a summary more focused on the upcoming draft. For the sake of clarity, this version will only deal with the first round.

Atlanta Hawks- Have the right to swap their own pick with Brooklyn’s. At this point, it appears Atlanta will just keep their own and move on.

Boston Celtics- Have their own first and the less favorable of Atlanta and Brooklyn, likely Brooklyn right now. They have a future first from the Sixers as well, but it only goes this year if Philadelphia makes the playoffs. We all know that will not happen.

Brooklyn Nets- No matter what, they lose their pick without getting one in return.

Charlotte Bobcats- Their own first goes to Chicago as long as the Bobcats stay remotely on track (top-10 protected) but they pick up Portland’s unless the Blazers effectively lose out. The lingering question is Detroit- if the pick is 1-8, the Pistons keep it but if it’s 9th or worse it goes to Charlotte. My gut feeling is that once Detroit knows they will not make the playoffs we will see a push to the bottom reminiscent of the 2012 Warriors.

Chicago Bulls- Have their own pick and Charlotte’s unless the Bobcats collapse. The Sacramento pick they acquired in the Luol Deng trade is top-12 protected so it will not come this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Dallas Mavericks- One of the more interesting situations in the league. By having top-20 protection on their pick (it goes to Oklahoma City if it falls 21-30 this year), the Mavs could lose their pick if they make the playoffs. Right now, the bottom seeds in the West look to be about even with the 3-4 spots in the East, so it could go either way.

Denver Nuggets- They keep the better of their pick and New York’s, sending the worse one to Orlando.

Detroit Pistons- Keep their pick if it is eighth or better, otherwise it goes to Charlotte. I fully expect them to understand the incentives and lose enough to retain it.

Golden State Warriors- Their first goes to Utah no matter what.

Houston Rockets- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Indiana Pacers- Their pick is going to Phoenix as a part of the Luis Scola trade from last summer.

Los Angeles Clippers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Los Angeles Lakers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Memphis Grizzlies- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Miami Heat- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Milwaukee Bucks- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Minnesota Timberwolves- The pick is top-13 protected, meaning they have to make the postseason or have the best record of any non-playoff team to send it to Phoenix. At this point, it looks like the pick will be No. 13 and thus the Wolves will keep it.

New Orleans Pelicans- Their pick goes to Philadelphia unless it lands in the top-five. It will be hard for the Pelicans to jump enough of the teams “ahead” of them, but they still have a shot of jumping them in the lottery itself.

New York Knicks- They lose their pick no matter what, though the destination could change.

Oklahoma City Thunder- They have their own pick and get Dallas’ first if it ends up between 21 and 30, certainly a possibility.

Orlando Magic- Retain their own pick and get the less favorable of Denver and New York’s selections. This could end up swinging on whether the Knicks can make the playoffs- if they do, the pick falls a few spots to No. 15.

Philadelphia 76ers- They keep their own pick as long as they miss the playoffs (just a formality at this point) and pick up one from New Orleans as long as it falls outside the top five.

Phoenix Suns- They have their own pick and Indiana’s on lock and appear likely to pick up Washington’s since the Wizards should make the playoffs. Minnesota’s pick has top-13 protection, so I expect the Suns to only end up with three this year.

Portland Trail Blazers- Their pick is going to Charlotte unless the Blazers have a truly epic collapse.

Sacramento Kings- Their pick has top-12 protection, so the Kings look like they will keep it even if they rattle off some late-season wins.

San Antonio Spurs- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Toronto Raptors- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Utah Jazz- They have both their own pick and Golden State’s.

Washington Wizards- They will send their pick to Phoenix barring a major letdown.

How Vince Carter's Extended Third Act Reshapes The First Two

Only the best of the best can survive 15 seasons in the NBA, a ruthlessly Darwinian league. With a 16.1 PER and the ability to meaningfully impact the game on both sides of the ball at multiple positions, Vince Carter could fit with almost any team in the league at 37.

More Than Just A Dunker: The Development Of Terrence Ross

Terrence Ross has quickly built his reputation in the NBA as one of the world's most explosive dunkers, but his ceiling and long-term production is dependent on his development as a shooter.

Why The Raptors May Already Be Done With Their Rebuild

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. Toronto 2.0 puts pressure on the opponent for all 48 minutes.

Grading The Deal: Raptors Trade Rudy Gay To Kings

In trading Rudy Gay, the Raptors get a better look at the young talent that actually matters to their future while gaining more flexibility at a time they can actually use it with the possibility of two more interesting players.

Top-60 Players In NBA Today (Considering Everything)

The goal here is look at overall long-term value of players by considering age, contract, positional scarcity and of course overall quality, without factors like a player’s connection with a franchise or fit within a specific system.

2013-14 NBA Season Preview

While the Western Conference has six teams (Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors) in its first tier, the Eastern Conference is a tier of one (Heat) with the Bulls, Pacers and Nets vying for the second tier.

The NBA's Mediocrity Treadmill Since 84-85

The treadmill is somehow both more and less common than some might think. While teams tend to fall within the 30-49 win range, as would be expected in such a competitive league, the dreaded never-ending stream of late lottery picks is uncommon.

Grading The Deal: Raptors Unload Bargnani On Knicks

Andrea Bargnani had been on the trade block for months, bridging the tenures of Bryan Colangelo to Masai Ujiri. In the GM seat for less than a month, Ujiri not only traded Bargnani but managed to pick up a few draft assets in the process to a Knicks' team limited in how to improve.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Final Edition)

Draft day has finally arrived and while everyone pines for the 2014 class already, this one has the chance to be sneaky good in the 'many quality starters' variety.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Wednesday/Quality Of Opp. Edition)

In this mock, we include the PER of each player based on the quality of opponent. Even statistics in this context can only go so far, but helps move beyond the possibility of inflation against competition that isn't even close to being NBA caliber.

2013 NBA Mock Draft (Draft Week Edition)

Entering draft week in a draft universally labeled as weak preceding the best draft of the decade, few people are talking themselves into falling in love with any specific player as fervently as usual.

Chris Bosh Must Regain Old Edge To Help Heat Triumph

Chris Bosh is the member of the Big 3 who could have the most to lose in a potential Finals collapse: His place as an untouchable on the roster. He had grown up idolizing Duncan, imagining he was hitting jumpers atop Garnett in early workouts in Toronto, and the Heat must believe now that somewhere within Bosh still exists that self-action to match the burden.

2013 NBA Draft Board

Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Otto Porter and Alex Len join Nerlens Noel at the top of our draft board.

The Eliminated (Eastern Conference Teams)

A winning record to reach the playoffs wasn't necessary this season in the Eastern Conference, which demonstrates how far the Raptors, Cavaliers, Magic, 76ers, Wizards, Pistons and Bobcats are from becoming contenders without addressing significant issues this offseason.

Healthy Mickael Pietrus Wants Strong Push To End Season

As much as Mickael Pietrus acknowledges the transition phase that the Raptors are undergoing, he still hopes that the team trusts his ability to produce on the court when needed. In his mind, a strong push to close out the season will help players enter the offseason with a more positive outlook.

Amir Johnson Playing Bigger Than ‘Jeopardy’ Reputation

There are only a few NBA players averaging at least 10 points, seven rebounds and one block per game while also shooting 55% from the field this season. LeBron James, Al Horford, Serge Ibaka and Amir Johnson.

Grading The Deal: Rudy Gay Traded To Raptors

The reactions to the Rudy Gay trade from the Grizzlies' perspective are as split as could be, which is an interesting element to examine in and of itself beyond how the Raptors and Pistons fared.

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