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Lewenberg: Appetite for change following unusual off-season

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Josh Lewenberg
9/27/2013 6:27:58 PM
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Twelve months ago, Tim Leiweke was heading up Los Angeles-based sports giant AEG, partial owners of an expected-to-contend Lakers team.

Masai Ujiri - one of the league's lowest paid general managers - was set to begin his third season at the helm of the Denver Nuggets, a season that would see his team produce a franchise-record 57 wins, earning him NBA Executive of the Year honours.

Locally, Bryan Colangelo shared his "acceleration plan" with the Toronto media ahead of what would be another disappointing year for the Raptors, missing the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.

A lot has changed in the last four months but as training camp approaches, the Raptors' roster - apart from a missing former first-overall pick and a tweaked second unit - remains relatively untouched. But for how long?

For this struggling franchise, any semblance of roster uniformity falls outside of the norm. In their 18-year existence they've started 12 different centres on opening night. They've used an astonishing eight different starting small forwards to open eight seasons since Vince Carter was traded in 2005 (Rudy Gay should become the ninth in nine years when the team debuts at home to Boston on Oct. 30). They cycled through 22 different starting lineups last season (6th most in the NBA) after using 20 different first units during the lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign. In light of their recent front-office shuffle, the return of a group that started 21 of the final 32 games last season may come as a surprise.

When Leiweke was appointed the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in late April, the Raptors' new boss preached change. The makeover began shortly after with the reassignment of Colangelo and the eventual hiring of Ujiri, his former assistant. The Raptors will open training camp in Toronto on Oct. 1, Colangelo now out of the picture but the core he assembled, the core he believed could take this team to the next level, remains intact and ready to begin the season atop returning coach Dwane Casey's depth chart.

Gay will attend his first camp as a Raptor, joining fifth-year guard DeMar DeRozan, sophomore centre Jonas Valanciunas, unheralded forward Amir Johnson and point guard Kyle Lowry, who is entering the final year of his contract acquired from Houston last July.

Whether Ujiri believes in this group, as his former mentor did, or if the market and their value within it simply prohibited him from making a big move remains to be seen. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Now, the onus is on the players and their coach to justify Colangelo's vision as the former GM watches from a distance.

There's reason to believe that status quo could work, assuming the goal is to squeeze into the post-season. The aforementioned group was Toronto's most used five-man unit last year, despite only being assembled in February. They were ranked third among five-man units league-wide (minimum 300 minutes played together) in defensive efficiency, giving up 92.5 points per 100 possessions (an impressive 15 points fewer than Toronto's 22nd-ranked season mark, via NBA.com/Stats). With Gay on board from the get-go, the continued improvement of Valanciunas and the hope of a healthy Lowry paired in the backcourt with a more efficient DeRozan, Ujiri is banking on internal growth. At least for now.

Returning to Toronto with a reputation for being patient, albeit opportunistic, the Raptors' new GM has a knack for unpredictability, a silent assassin navigating through an era obsessed with breaking news before it even happens. That's precisely what makes this coming season one of the most intriguing in the franchise's recent history. 

The decision makers have changed. So, too, has the philosophy. But will the player personnel? Will the trigger be pulled, when will it be pulled and what will prompt it? Another slow start could very well bring on wholesale changes in Toronto, but couldn't a hot start conceivably do the same? If the value of players like Gay (who can opt out after this season), Lowry (expiring contract) or DeRozan (four-year extension, signed by Colangelo took effect July 1) exceed their perceived worth prior to the trade deadline, could they be moved regardless of the team's trajectory?

With change comes the inevitable uncertainty that is destined to surround this organization until a direction is made clear. Ujiri has just begun to put his fingerprints on this club, adding depth in the form of journeymen Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and Austin Daye, while appeasing the fan base by jettisoning disgruntled forward Andrea Bargnani to New York. What he does next - and when he does it - is anyone's guess, which should make things interesting going into what could be the Raptors' most unpredictable season yet.

Masai Ujiri (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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