They did everything right.
When Masai Ujiri took over as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors, in May of 2013, he inherited a weird misshapen mess of a team that had won 34 games the season before, and 23 the season before that. It still had Andrea Bargnani on it, for God’s sake.
But it also had DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valančiūnas, and Dwane Casey was the head coach. If DeRozan and Lowry seem like obvious stars now, they definitely didn’t at the time: DeRozan was a promising 23-year-old who’d put up empty, inefficient scoring numbers and not much else on bad teams; Lowry was a rotund 26-year-old who’d never averaged more than 14.3 points over a season and was on his third team already, owing to a reputation as a surly malcontent. Casey had won less than 35 percent of his games in two seasons as the team’s coach. But between then and this morning, when he announced the firing of Casey, Ujiri replaced everybody else, except those four.
A well established article of conventional wisdom is that big-time NBA free agents, the caliber of players who can choose where they play, do not want to move to Canada; generally speaking, hot-shot incoming rookies have seemed lukewarm on the prospect, too. Working within these constraints, Ujiri built and continually replenished the Raptors’ roster through the middle and back of the draft and through wise trades. If not all the lumpy project players they’ve brought aboard this way have panned out—it’s probably a bit past time to stop waiting around on Bebê Nogueira, for example—Casey and his coaching staff have shepherded a downright stunning number of Ujiri’s raw hires along the developmental path from gawky, green uselessness to genuine on-court basketball value.
Here’s a fun fact: This season the Raptors gave regular minutes to 11 players, and only three of them—Lowry, big man Serge Ibaka, and sharpshooter C.J. Miles—have ever played even a minute for another NBA team. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Norm Powell, Fred VanVleet, Valančiūnas, DeRozan: all developed in-house, under Casey’s and Ujiri’s stewardship. None of them regarded as sure-thing prospects when the Raptors acquired them, and all of them now important contributors to a team that won 59 games and the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. No other current NBA team comes close to measuring up to this; even the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, lately regarded as models of player development, are comparatively loaded both with sure-thing blue-chip lottery picks and expensive free-agent hires. It’s a stunning accomplishment.
Everyone had to do everything right, for it to happen. The front office had to identify the unpolished prospects to take on, out of a perennial sea of lanky doofuses with springs in their legs and on their fingers. The coaching staff had to identify the right sets of skills those prospects could develop in order to become the best and most useful possible versions of themselves, and how to teach those skills so they’d take root in awkward goobers like Siakam and Valančiūnas, and the lineup combinations and minutes rotations that would allow those prospects to test out those skills in live game action without nuking their confidence or tanking games. Casey had to trust his team’s fate and his own job security in the hands of untested youths from far-flung corners of the earth, and did, when most coaches do not. And those youths had to bust their fucking asses and eat shit to get better and become real players of consequence, while also not holding back a team that expected to win games along the way.
DeRozan successfully added a three-point shot nine years into his career. Even more shockingly, so did Valančiūnas, a seven-foot mauler who’d never previously been comfortable more than a handful of feet from the rim, in his sixth NBA season. Lowry, in his 12th season as a pro, adapted to the need for more ball movement and a quicker pace, even though it would mean sacrificing a ton of touches and shots. The team pretty much completely overhauled its approach to scoring baskets. All of this after years—whole years!—of succeeding doing things a whole different way.
Think of all the ways they could have screwed this up! Not even the big, spectacular, Naked Gun ways—just the mundane ways even competent organizations and coaches and players screw things up. Ujiri’s front office could have grabbed one or two of the wrong projects—not even totally worthless Jan Veselý types, but just guys whose developmental tracks, even if they moved swiftly along them (a rarity even for blue-chip types, to say nothing of raw international players) would lead them into friction or redundancy with their teammates. They could have bundled up their blossoming youngsters and decided to cash them in short-sightedly, as assets to acquire, like, Andre Drummond; they could have decided to cash them in cynically for more assets with later sell-by dates and punted the promise of success and accountability over the horizon. Casey’s coaching staff could have crammed weirdly contoured skillsets into the wrong roles, or rotated minutes in ways that left vulnerable young dudes in disastrous, confidence- and reputation-killing lineups. Somebody could have given, say, Pascal Siakam the idea that he needed to focus on building his low-post scoring arsenal, rather than on useful stuff like screening and cutting and defense, and turned him into a pumpkin. DeRozan could have settled for the All-Star skillset he already had, instead of working to expand his range and become an All-NBA force. Lowry could have sulked and poisoned the locker room when the team asked him to give up control of the ball. Ujiri could have traded him away any of the myriad times that seemed to be on the table over the past few seasons. Casey could have stood pat on the stagnant, isolation-heavy style that the team rode to success, instead of doing the work of trying for more.
They did none of that. They avoided every pitfall. What they did instead is, they did everything right, for five years. Young Raptors fans have the immense privilege of not knowing just how astronomically rare a phenomenon that is: In an entire adult lifetime of rooting for a sports team you might never get a solid half-decade stretch in which every part of the organization does a good job in concert with all the others and the club rises steadily from irrelevance to sustained excellence and reason to expect even better than that. Franchises sometimes win actual championships without ever once putting together a stretch like that!
The Raptors did it, in Toronto, without ever scoring a top-three draft pick or landing a big marquee free agent. They nailed every part of it. And the half-decade in which they did it just happened to coincide with the reign, over the Eastern Conference, of the greatest player in the history of the sport. For getting the short end of that cruel and impossibly unlikely fluke of cosmic happenstance, they fired their coach. It was a mistake, and it was the first one they’ve made in a long time.