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Lewenberg: D-Day approaches for Raptors

Josh Lewenberg
12/6/2013 7:04:20 PM
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PHOENIX - As his team endured what turned out to be their most disheartening loss of the young season, Masai Ujiri followed along on his iPad.

Accompanied by a couple of his scouts, the Raptors general manager was returning from a road trip to Syracuse, where he watched the Orange defeat the Hoosiers Tuesday evening. All the while he kept an eye on what was unfolding on the opposite end of the country.

With the Raptors on the verge of a historic collapse, all he could do was watch the score, as a 27-point lead morphed into a nine-point loss in 21 minutes of game time.

Ujiri watched the game in its entirety when he got back home, not because he's a glutton for punishment but because he has work to do, which is becoming more and more clear with each passing loss.

"Obviously, there's something that we have to fix," Ujiri told Macko and Cauz in a Thursday morning interview on TSN Radio 1050.

Listen to the entire interview here.

"One thing I'll tell you and the fans," he said, "we will not be caught in no-man's land in the NBA. We all know what no man's land is. We're going to really evaluate this team and see how we can go forward."

To the dismay of the reigning NBA Executive of the Year, the Raptors have been and continue to be in the centre of no-man's land. They've been trapped there for half a decade - or longer depending on your definition of "no-man's land" - without a clear or easy way of escaping.

At 6-12 they sit comfortably in 10th place, exactly where they finished last season. They're too good to be bad in a truly terrible Eastern Conference but they're a long ways from being good enough to compete. So what now?

Tuesday's loss - as painful as it was - is just one game. As Dwane Casey put it, "It's a long season and one game doesn't define us." The game doesn't but what it represents does. The roster is fundamentally flawed. A loss like Tuesday's makes Ujiri's decision easier, while making his job that much more difficult.

Whether he's watching from the stands, the tunnel or his iPad, Ujiri has been watching closely, and waiting. For lack of a more prudent solution at the time he took the gig, he gave this group - mostly assembled by his predecessor - an opportunity to sink or swim. Now, over a month into the season, he's seen what he needs to see.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "I'm not trying to deceive anybody here. We're evaluating our team and we'll continue to field calls, make calls [and] see how we can make our team better or figure out what direction we go with this team."

There's no question Ujiri has been and will continue to be a busy man (he and his wife welcomed their first child on Saturday). December 15th is a date most, including Ujiri, have circled on their calendar. That will be the first day in which offseason signees are eligible to be traded, widening the market and thus increasing Toronto's options.

At that point, the clock starts and it's only a matter of time before Ujiri pulls the trigger. Who goes, what comes back and when does it all happen? Ujiri may not even have those answers yet. It's important to remember that wanting to dance is not enough, you need a willing partner.

Not surprisingly, the primary areas of evaluation for Ujiri and his staff leading up to Dec. 15 are focused around redundancy in the roster and a general lack of chemistry amongst this group.

"For me, guys should be willing to play with each other, for each other," Toronto's GM insisted. "I don't think our guys are selfish, it's not something in terms of, 'I don't want to pass to that guy,' or 'I won't pass to that guy,' I don't really think it's that. I think it's the style of player, the way they are constructed as players."

Two players who are under the microscope, largely because of their hefty salaries and similarities to one another on the floor, are Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan. That duo, both high-volume scorers and subpar defenders, account for the bulk of Toronto's usage offensively. Both players tend to operate best in isolation, which has practically flatlined the team's offence this season.

It has become clear to the organization's primary decision-makers that this pair has to be broken up, regardless of the path the franchise chooses to take going forward. Although they'd prefer to part ways with Gay, according to a team source - not a surprise, given his on-court regression and the $19.3 million he's owed next year (assuming he opts in) - that may prove to be an impossible task.

Gay is shooting 39 per cent from the field and committing 3.4 turnovers per contest, both marks are the worst of his career, and his league-wide value is believed to reflect that. Meanwhile DeRozan's value is trending upwards, averaging career-highs in points (21.8), assists (2.8) and three-point shooting (39 per cent). Therein lies the conundrum for Ujiri and company; sell high on player with optimum value, or take whatever you can get for the other.

At least for now Casey appears to be safe. Using the coach as a scapegoat is often the easiest answer but it's not one that fits Ujiri's style. He's too rationale and too patient. He knows Casey, like the rest of the team, is handcuffed by the roster, a flawed group, pieces that just won't and never will fit together.

With each passing game Ujiri is reminded of that. They're not good enough. They're not bad enough. They are precisely where he refuses to be; in no-man's land. The day of reckoning for this team, as we know it, is just around the corner.

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