NBA

Strickland: State of the Raptors' union changed for better

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Will Strickland
1/31/2014 11:31:14 AM
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"We, The People, In Order To Form A More Perfect Union..."

Disregard the fact that the phrase is from an American political document or that there can be nothing "more perfect".

Instead, review how the Toronto Raptors began their perfectly imperfect quest and what's next for the squad.

October 31, 2013: Start of the 2013-14 NBA season. Fresh off a solid training camp with a full complement of players and outwardly optimistic, questions about the future of the franchise under president and general manager Masai Ujiri remained.

With a highly publicized and strongly projected 2014 Draft Class, uncertainty about roster stability, quality and identity of the team and what appeared to be a lame duck head coach in Dwane Casey, RaptorNation and TankNation seemed to be in accord.

Not having sniffed playoff pay dirt since a 2008 first round ouster at the hands of the then-Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic, an uneasy relationship with multiple monikers on what lay ahead for Canada's Team abounded: Mishandle For Randle, Concede For Embiid, Be Sorry For Jabari, Stop Caring For Aaron and of course Riggin' For Wiggins.

A shrewd and savvy front office executive, Ujiri has proven to be in just a few short months north of the border, jettisoning the personages and albatross-like contracts of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for more than just flotsam and salary cap relief. The deft moves brought in team players and quality, unselfish veterans in Steve Novak, Greveis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and the gritty, gutty Chuck Hayes, all fully aware of their roles and willing to lend to an ever-developing chemistry under head coach Dwane Casey.

Now leading the Atlantic Division at 24-21 and in third place in the Eastern Conference standings, the Raps begin a week-long West Coast swing on Friday and a short homestand before the All-Star break. The energy around this team, despite recent injuries to Amir Johnson and the newly-minted All-Star DeMar DeRozan, has been at a fever pitch.

Despite bucking for home court advantage in the playoffs, there is an overwhelming consensus that Ujiri will move Kyle Lowry by the NBA's trade deadline instead of losing the unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

But don't be so sure.

Any day between now and February 20 may well be The Tomorrow You Should Have Feared Yesterday as the Toronto Raptors and Masai Ujiri in particular, face a dilemma of potentially franchise-changing dimension. At the crossroad to this predicament, the twisted fates of Lowry and Casey stand.

The Question is: Are they all headed in the same direction?

"Where our team is, I don't know if, as a team, we're where we can get two guys (on the All-Star team). That's the truth, but we're getting there," Ujiri said. "We'll see how we continue to grow as a team."

Is Masai Ujiri willing to roll the dice on Lowry, not move him and hope that he can make a cap friendly and competitively respectful offer in July for his starting point guard to stay in Toronto?

All-Star snub aside, Lowry is averaging career highs in points and assists at 16.8 and 7.6 respectively. Arguably one of the Top 10 point guards in The Association, his real growth may be in areas that don't show in the box score, however.

"I'm going to keep grinding no matter what, All-Star or not," said Lowry. "I'm always going to work hard and continue to be the best player I can be to help my team win. So for me, hey I didn't make it, it didn't happen, you've got a game, you've got to worry about the rest of the season and you go on."

Does Ujiri have confidence that Casey is the right man for the job to lead the Raptors to heights unseen by the franchise?

"My wish, my hope and my desire is to not let this be a one year flash in the pan," said Casey. "We want to develop something and that's why I keep talking about the process."

With the Raptors at well beyond tanking level, the delicate ballet of managing expectation, fruitful return on any trade and current chemistry on this team falls in the apt hands of Masai Ujiri.

As the exhaustive hype over the strength of the 2014 Draft Class continues to dissipate, Raptor fans might wish to envision the success of Ujiri's "No Superstar" team in Denver of 2013.

Or look to the steady build of a solidly great team in Oklahoma City by their GM, Sam Presti, who has effectively retained his very best players while building through the Draft, key veteran acquisitions and stability on the bench.

Then again, RaptorNation might rest well on the notion of Ujiri standing pat with Casey, Lowry and the rest of the team for this season by thinking about the 2004 Detroit Pistons.

It was that unit, led by a highly motivated and well-travelled point guard in former Raptor Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups, a tough, veteran guard, an athletic young wing, two workhorses down low doing the dirty work, a solid bench and a very good coach, who defeated the seemingly invincible Los Angeles Lakers, fronted by Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, 4-1 in the NBA Finals.

Reaching?

Perhaps...

But dreams have to start somewhere...

What "more perfect" place than Toronto with these perfectly imperfected Raptors?



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