The Big Picture

Sunday afternoon’s game 7 loss to the Nets is going to take some time to recover from. The franchise and its fans were so close to their second appearance in the NBA’s second round only to have it slip away in the final seconds of game 7. Over the next few days, weeks and months fans will look back and think about how one call, a couple free throws, a bounce here or there could have made the difference in deciding this series.

When the anger and sadness subside fans should focus on the positives that developed and on the road ahead. This team has a lot to look forward too and the next few months will be important ones in deciding where the team goes next.

While the outcome of this first round series wasn’t what anybody was hoping for, the young Raptors seem more ready and more determined than ever to get back to playoff basketball. Next time they’ll be ready too.

The 2014 playoffs and the ups and downs experienced by the Raptors young core will go a long way toward shaping the future of this franchise. Many positives presented themselves in this series.

DeMar DeRozan, arguably the team’s biggest star had his playoff coming out party. After years of missing the playoffs with the raps he finally made it to the postseason and did not disappoint. The All-Star got to the line, scored in bunches and put the team on his back numerous times. He was a fairly consistent threat and learned to adjust to the tight defensive style of basketball most teams use in the playoffs. He looked confident, he looked comfortable. Coming into this series there was serious concern about how DeRozan would adjust to playoff style basketball, but he looked right at home. The young star is now likely licking his chops for another chance. That’s exactly what the team wants.

Kyle Lowry solidified himself as the heart and soul of the Toronto Raptors. Going into the offseason it was already very likely that the organization would try to convince Lowry to stay long-term, but after his playoff performance it is now a certainty that Lowry will be asked to come back. Tim Leiweke, Masai Ujiri and MLSE are going to break the bank to keep him in town. Fans want him back, the players want him back and the organization now has little choice. The choice will be his.

For young players like Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson this experience was critical for their development going forward. All three players are set to be large parts of the Raptors future and all three got big minutes in this series. Amir and Jonas had occasional moments of brilliance and at times were the best players on the court. Jonas struggled in game 7, but overall he had a good series and gained the experience of matching up against the leagues elite. It is important for fans to focus on his game 1 success rather than his game 7 issues. He will need to learn to stay on the floor early on. He needs to control those fouls.

Terrence Ross had a rough series. His shot wasn’t falling, he was having trouble all series guarding Johnson and Pierce. He looked lost. Game 7 was his best performance. He looked more confident and his defensive play at the end of the fourth quarter gave the Raptors a chance to tie the game. He will get better. This series was a great learning experience for this team and his struggles will likely serve as a chip on his shoulder next year. He is going to want to get back into the playoffs to redeem himself.

The young Raptors were not supposed to make the playoffs this year. The original plan in the minds of most was to tank the season in hopes of landing Canadian college superstar Andrew Wiggins. Kyle Lowry was supposed to be a Knick. Yet after all that the team was able to hold on for the Atlantic Division title and take the veteran Nets to the limit.

It must also be said that the Raptors would have likely been quick fodder for the Miami Heat, as Brooklyn now looks to be. The Raptors season ended on a last second drive that fell just short, it could have ended in a second round sweep. The optics of losing a close series in round one are better than getting pummeled in round 2. The loss, in a weird way, may have ensured a more positive outlook to the season for the team and its fans. A crushing loss to the Heat in round two could have killed the confidence and momentum this team built during the regular season and first round. Instead fighting their way back from certain defeat in game 7 and giving themselves a chance to win the series on the last play of the game left the team and its fans feeling very positive about the future and how close they are to contention.

This season was a great success. The team learned to play together, Dwane Casey emerged as a strong reliable coach and young players stepped up. The young core of the Raptors is now in place and the team has this shared experience to draw on in the future. One they can all look back on together and spend the next year working to improve on.

Much like Vince Carter and the Raptors of 2001 were after their first playoff loss, the Raptors of 2014 are a team on the rise. With the right moves this off-season and hopefully the re-signing of a few key free agents this version of the raptors can surpass the success of their predecessors.

The young Raptors and "Jurassic Park" showed the NBA that Toronto is an NBA city to be reckoned with.  The team certainly seems to be headed in the right direction.

The young Raptors and “Jurassic Park” showed the NBA that Toronto is an NBA city to be reckoned with. The team certainly seems to be headed in the right direction.

While it’s easy to think of what could have been, the overall experience of being in the playoffs can only have positive results. These young players now know what it takes to win playoff games and they will all be better prepared next time they get there. The fans are now more hungry than ever for playoff basketball. “Jurasic Park” was the place to be during the first round. It was the talk of the NBA, mentioned on many broadcasts on both sides of the border and provided the Raptors with a definitive home court advantage.

Management now knows that it is time to take advantage of this new-found basketball frenzy and strike while the iron is hot. With a core consisting of DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas that has yet to hit its ceiling the organization can now afford to take its time to build the right way. Though it is likely that there will be some change in the roster, the plan has to be to keep these three together.

Fans in Toronto have legitimate reason to look forward. This team is young, talented and ready to strike in an Eastern Conference that is right for the taking.

The hurt we all felt on Sunday was real and it was deep, but there is every reason to believe there will be brighter days ahead. This is a team on the rise, now everyone knows it.

***

Kristoffer Pedlar
The Zan Tabak Herald

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Raptors Role Players Ready for Important Role

The Raptors may have been on the losing side of Saturday’s playoff opener, but definite positives emerged. While it was clear the “playoff jitters” got the best of the young Raptors, it was also clear that this game was still theirs for the taking and the series remains very much as well.

While much of the narrative coming out of Game 1 has been about DeMar DeRozan and his poor shooting and Amir Johnson and his inability to get going, the young Raptors did enjoy some strong playoff performances from their supporting cast.

Jonas Valanciunas looked right at home in his playoff debut. He played strong on the offensive end and tore down a record number of rebounds. He wasn’t intimidated by the older, more experienced Garnett. He fed off of his team, took advantage of his opportunities and may become a more significant player in this series. Not one of the Nets bigs could do much to contain Jonas.

We also saw Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson play significant minutes. While DeRozan was cold from the field, Vasquez was red-hot. He shot the ball extremely well, got to the line and looked really confident out there. Patterson shot 50% from the field and was given the unenviable task of guarding Paul Pierce in the second half.

The Raptor bench picked up the slack.

On Saturday Greivis Vasquez was a huge lift off the bench for the Raptors. On Tuesday Toronto will need a similar effort from their role players to even this series. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NBAE via Getty Images)

On Saturday Greivis Vasquez was a huge lift off the bench for the Raptors. On Tuesday Toronto will need a similar effort from their role players to even this series. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NBAE via Getty Images)

If Toronto is to get back into this series and ultimately win it, they will need a continued effort from their bench.

In the playoffs some stars play like stars and some don’t, but often the playoffs are when you need to rely on your depth, on your role players. The Raptors will need Vasquez and Patterson to continue their strong play. They will also need others to step forward. Tyler Hansbrough may be called upon for an energetic boost off the bench, Landry Fields may be asked to defend Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson and Steve Novak may need to hit some timely three pointers.

The most important player for the Raptors may very well be Terrence Ross. When the Raptors are winning games the ball is moving and it often ends up in the hands of a wide open Terrence Ross. With the Nets focused on stopping Kyle Lowry and making life difficult for DeMar DeRozan, they leave Ross open. On Saturday it was Vasquez that benefitted from the open looks (and he will continue to get them on the second unit), but Ross needs to get more looks early on.

Foul trouble shut down Ross early and he was never able to get it going. On Tuesday, he will be a key to a bounce back effort. He is a finisher for this Raptors team. While the defense focuses on DeRozan, Ross can emerge and take open shots or drive the net. When the Nets adjust, DeRozan will get his looks. Ross will be a key factor in any Raptor resurgence.

Every team, whether it was the Championship Bulls, Celtics, or Heat have relied on their role players. The Steve Kerr’s, the Eddie House’s and the Shane Battier’s have made names for themselves because of their ability to rise to the occasion when it mattered most.

Terrence Ross can be that player for Toronto.

Don’t get me wrong the Raptors still need DeMar to be better. They need Kyle Lowry to facilitate the offense and they need to keep feeding Jonas inside. Without their big stars doing their job, the Raptors are likely sunk, but in the playoffs solid performances from your stars aren’t enough. You need your role players.

On Twitter fans are frequently using the hashtag #15deep to describe this team. All season long they have needed their entire bench to win big games. They’ve needed different players to step up when another falters. The playoffs are not going to be different. The Raptors, to win this series, will need big performances from their role players. Rebounds, blocks, timely buckets and defensive stops. All can and will mean the difference between victory and defeat.

The Raptors possess a far stronger bench then their counterparts. While Vasquez and Patterson looked solid for the Raptors, Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche were almost non-factors. Even Kevin Garnett was rendered ineffective by this Raptors squad. This needs to be used to their advantage.

So while many were lamenting the struggles of DeRozan and Amir (and the Raptors do need them to be better), there were some significant reasons to be optimistic.

Game 2 and beyond depend not on DeMar’s ability to rebound. He will be better, there is little doubt. The Raptors need to take greater advantage of their biggest asset: their secondary scoring in order to turn this series in their favour.

The Raptors bench is going to play a big part in this series. Vasquez and Patterson have already shown their worth in Game 1. Whether they continue to be the difference in game 2 or others step up, the Raptors will be leaning on their supporting cast.

This team got to where it is now by being a team of 15 deep. On Tuesday that’s exactly what they need to be.

Kristoffer Pedlar
Zan Tabak Herald

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Raptors Ready for Big Test

No matter what has been said by anyone, this was not the first round matchup the Raptors were hoping for. Even if you choose to ignore the playoff history between these two teams (The Nets, behind Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, beating the Raptors in six games in 2007) or the massive difference in playoff experience (the Nets with a combined 459 playoff games played to the Raptors 94) the Nets are going to be a tough matchup. 

Brooklyn is a tough test for any team. They shoot well from the perimeter, something the Raptors have not had great success gaurding, and their team is full of older guys who understand the playoff atmosphere.

This the narrative you’re going to hear over and over again, especially if the Nets draw first blood on Saturday. Young vs. Old, Rookies vs. Veterans, Experience vs Inexperience. I’m sure the Raptors are sick of hearing about it. But still, that divide exists.

Brooklyn was built for the playoffs. Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson; this is what they live for and where they have had great success in the past. Even coach Jason Kidd, a rookie behind the bench, has a wealth of playoff experience to draw on. The Raptors don’t

This is not to suggest the Raptors should be counted out. They absolutely should not. Yes, many of the players will be making their playoff debuts on Saturday, but there is more here than meets the eye.

When looking at this current Raptors team it is easy to recall the ghosts of the past and beleive the trend of young Raptors teams losing in the playoffs will continue. Vince Carter and the Raptors couldn’t beat a veteran Knicks team they had dominated in the regular season. A young Chris Bosh couldn’t turn an Atlantic division title and 47 wins into a playoff victory against the veteran Nets in 2007. Every young team the Raptors have seen debut in the playoffs, have fallen short. Only one team in the franchise’s history has even made it out of the first round.

But this team isn’t like those other Raptor teams.

This team is deep. This team is built like a team and they have numerous weapons in their attack. In 2001 the Raptors relied heavily on Vince Carter and the veteran Knicks made life difficult for him. In 2007 the Nets knew Chris Bosh was the key to the Raptors’ team and they shut him down for their series. This year there are too many concerns for the Nets. Shut down DeMar DeRozan and you have to worry about Kyle Lowry. Shut down Lowry and you have to concern yourself with Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas or Greivis Vasquez. After that you have to legitimatley worry about Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansborough and Patrick Patterson all of whom could play huge roles in this series.

This Raptor squad has a lot of different weapons to use and their strength is in their unselfish play. In every Raptor win this season ball movement and defensive play has been key. This Raptor squad likes sharing the ball. It is their unselfishness that makes them so dangerous to opposing teams. It’s not something they’re going to have to figure out how to do the way Carter did in 2001 and the way Bosh did in 2007. This team is already a well-oiled machine.

On paper the Raptors lead the Nets in a number of key statistics cheif among them Rebounding (Raps are 17th in the league while the Nets are 29th), defensive efficiency (10th) and field goal percentage. Of course, the games are not won or lost on paper, but this Raptors squad has something the teams of Raptor past did not.

They have the will to win.

At the beginning of the year this team wasn’t expected to do much more than fight for the first overall pick in the upcoming entry draft. When Rudy Gay was traded half way through the season it seemed clear that this team wasn’t going to be a contender. Following that deal the Raptors played some of the best basketball in the association. They found the right recipie to win.

Kyle Lowry was cemented as the leader of the franchise. He was no longer looking over his shoulder and the franchise put their faith in his talent and ability to lead. DeMar DeRozan, after the Rudy Gay trade, was finally free. He was the focal point on the offensive end and didn’t have to share touches with anyone else. Jonas Valanciunas was given more and more court time and responsibility and his game began to develop especially in the last month of the season. Amir Johnson got some help up front and was no longer being asked to carry the load for an entire 48 minutes. The team added a bench. A motley crew of characters that could, in the end, be the difference between winning and losing this series.

The Raptors are ready. This Atlantic division title wasn’t a fluke. It was the product of hard work, of playing together and of focusing on the big picture.

Come Saturday, the Raptors will look across the court and see a team that is more experienced than them, a team that has won championships, one that they are not supposed to beat. But the Raptors have heard that all season.

They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, they weren’t supposed to win the division and they definitely were not expected to be one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, but here they are.

The Raptors are faster, tougher, they shoot better, defend better and rebound better and, most importantly, they play together.

On Saturday, the Nets will look across the court and see a team beyond its years. A team hungry for playoff victory and one that is very capable of bringing home a win.

While this likely wasn’t the matchup the Raptors were hoping for it is certainly one they are up for.

Get ready for one hell of a series!

Kristoffer Pedlar
Zan Tabak Herald

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Raptors Return Home for Important Stretch

It seems like every season the Raptors hobble back from their Western road trip a tired and beaten team. Last season the early Western road trip was, arguably the nail in the coffin for the Raptors playoff hopes. This season they return home after a tough western road trip tired, but not beaten.

Even the most optimistic fan would have been happy with a 3-2 record on this trip, so 2-3 isn’t bad considering the quality of their opponents. But this trip came at such a crucial time in the Raptors schedule. The next 10 to 15 games could decide the playoff fate of this team.

The Raptors will play at home for the last two games before the All-star break and play 8 out of their next 10 at the ACC. Of those next ten games, six of them are against conference rivals that they will be battling for position in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

It is important for the Raps to be healthy and ready for those games.

For the first time this season the team is looking a little worse for wear. Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan are fighting nagging injuries. Kyle Lowry has been bothered by a knee issue lately and the team is coming off a long road trip.

Late nights, time zone changes and lots of flying can take its toll on a team at this stage in the season, especially a young one, but the Raptors need to fight through this rough patch. The next 10 games will go a long way toward deciding if they are a playoff contenders or pretenders.

The asset the Raptors have going for them right now is depth. They are a far deeper team than they were a year ago and have used this asset to their advantage since the ‘Rudy Gay trade’. Dwane Casey has used a tight 9 man rotation most nights and seems very confident with this group. As the season continues he may have to dig deeper than was originally thought. We may see a lot more of Landry Fields and Steve Novak. Julyan Stone and Chuck Hayes may be needed to take some minutes away from overworked starters.

The coaching staff may have to make moves in the starting lineup, trading Amir for Patterson or Hansborough on a given night to help keep the legs on this team fresh and ready for battle. Young players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have only gone through a complete NBA season once and certainly not playing the amount of minutes they are currently playing. Rest may be needed. Players that haven’t been logging very many minutes may be called into duty.

On this road trip we saw a lot more of Steve Novak than we have in a long while. I would expect this to be something we see more of as the season wears on. He came in ready to play and played valuable minutes during the trip. Having a strong veteran presence at the end of the bench (Novak, Fields, Hayes) may become an unexpected benefit.

The Raptors have given it everything they could over the first two chapters of this season and they are in a great position because of it, but they are going to have to use every weapon available to them to finish out the stretch.

On paper, the hardest part of the season may seem to be over, but the reality is, it only gets harder from here.

***
Kristoffer Pedlar
Zan Tabak Herald

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What Ross’s Big Night Means for the Raptors

Terrence Ross had himself a night on Saturday. He rained down 51 points on the Clippers in a losing effort mind you, but showed the fans and organization what the future might hold.

Ross was a surprise draft pick of Colangelo’s in the 2012 NBA draft. He went higher than he was expected to go at number 8 and many doubted the pick at the time. Many questioned if Ross could be much more than a bench player in Toronto, but he has emerged this season as much more.

He took large strides last year in his rookie year with increased minutes later in the season and was obviously a fan favourite after his solid effort in the Slam Dunk contest. He has also been a go-to guy for Dwane Casey on the defensive end. But since the Rudy Gay trade and his insertion into the starting lineup we have seen some true flashes of brilliance from T-Ross and hints at the player he may ultimately become.

51 points on Saturday night was another of those flashes.

Now, no one is expecting Ross to hit that point total on the regular, but it was fascinating to watch him work as the number one option on the offensive end. He hit a crazy amount of three pointers (10-17) a skill he has been relied on to deliver with this year. But, more interestingly, he was able to get to the line 10 times and drove the ball to the net with intensity and regularity. It was one of the better inside-outside performances we’ve seen from a Raptor this season. His performance was a signal that, maybe, he needs a bigger role on this team. Maybe he’s ready for one.

Ross has a solid three-point stroke and we know he can throw down with the best of them. Saturday night served notice that he is not a ‘one trick pony’. He can take charge of a game when asked to. He can score the ball in a variety of ways and can, unlike many, crete his own shot. Having a secondary option that can take the game over is a luxury the Raptors have not had for a long time.

Ross is proving this year that he is more than just a high flyer.  Image by Issac Baldizon/NBA/Getty Images

Ross is proving this year that he is more than just a high flyer.
Image by Issac Baldizon/NBA/Getty Images

For a young team like the Raptors it is important to know the potential of the players you have so you know which ones to keep building with and which to let go. When Ross was drafted it was doubtful that Ross fit long-term because of his similarities to DeMar DeRozan, but he is beginning to set himself apart from the Raptors current number one.

Ross can do things DeRozan can’t. His defense is better, he can hit the three-point shot with better efficiency, but he’s still young. As DeRozan has shown throughout his time in the NBA, it takes time to develop your game in this league. Ross has a lot of growing to do, but he seems to be moving in the right direction. 51 points in a game is a big step for Ross, but it will be how he follows it up that will be of most interest to Raptor fans.

Will he continue to make smart choices on the offensive end, take open shots and wait for his moment to strike? Or will he try to force the issue trying to re-create the performance?

Whatever happens after this, Terrence Ross has shown huge improvements in his game during his sophomore season and looks primed for a larger role in Toronto. In many ways Ross is the missing piece the Raptors have been looking for.

For years, since Vince Carter left town, the Raptors have been looking for another wing presence. A player that could be a serious threat on the offensive end and steady on the defensive end.

Ross has been the Raptors most steady defensive player. He has been called on to defend the best of the best in this league. Lebron, Paul George, James Harden, Paul Pierce it doesn’t matter. Ross has had to defend them all. His defense against George,holding the MVP candidate to 12 points, was probably one of his best defensive performances and resulted in a big win for the team. That performance really cemented Ross as our “stopper”. A role he looks to carry for the rest of the year and into the playoff push.

But then he scored 51 points on Saturday night and reminded everyone that he can ball with the best of them. Showing everyone watching that he is a player only just beginning to hit his stride.

His future is bright and it is clear he will go far. How far, we will soon find out.

*****

Kristoffer Pedlar
Zan Tabak Herald

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Time to Forgive and Forget

If you’ve been a Raptor fan for a long time, chances are you have a Purple Vince Carter jersey hiding somewhere in the recesses of your basement or hanging in a closet somewhere in your house. You likely also recall (in slow motion) the shot Vince rimmed out during the 7th game of the Eastern Conference Final against Philadelphia. You likely own a Todd McFarlane plastic statue of Air Canada himself and have fond memories of jumping up and down on your couch during the 2000 Slam Dunk Championship when Vince hit that between the legs dunk.

These are some of the fondest memories a Raptor fan can possibly have in the history of this young franchise; a history that is still very much in its infancy stage.

But Vince is still very much a part of the present in Toronto. Fans have not been able to let go of their anger toward Carter for the way he left town, nor have fans enjoyed Carter coming back to town and showing up his old team with game winning shots, ferocious dunks and all around good play. He’s beaten us at the buzzer and in the playoffs. The boos continue to rain down on the man who was once lovingly refered to as “half man, half amazing” every time he touches a ball at the ACC.

If you’re a current Raptor fan chances are you’ve gone down to the ACC and booed Vince Carter relentlessly as a member of the opposing team. You booed him for quitting on the team, for forcing a terrible trade out-of-town and for setting the franchise back for year and years.

How can one man elicit such joyous memories and such disdain at the exact same time?

Such is the legacy of Vince Carter in Toronto.

But maybe it’s time for all of us to let that hatred go. Let that anger dissipate and finally let bygones be bygones. Time has passed and surely the wounds of the past are, at least, somewhat healed.

The team currently playing for the Raptors are having a surprisingly successful season and there is an air of optimism surrounding the team, even in the midst of a three game losing streak. There is a lot to be positive about in Toronto these days; so why focus on the negative? Let’s try to remember the positivity that Carter brough the franchise.

Vince was the best basketball player to ever put on the Raptors uniform and he should be remembered for what he did. He gave the city the most exciting 6 years of basketball that have ever been seen around these parts. He brought the franchise respectability, notoriety and a sense of belonging in this league.

Should we have been mad when he asked for a trade, quit on the team and lowered his trade value before leaving town? absolutely.

But it’s time to let it go.

He is the greatest player to ever put on the Raptor jersey and he has never been properly thanked for the good he brought this franchise.

Now, fans pay money to come and see the Raptors play. They pay good money and should be able to cheer or boo any player if they so choose, but doesn’t Vince deserve that one last ‘thank you’ from the fans before he gracefully heads for the exit?

Carter is in his 16th NBA season and is likely near the tail end of a solid career. There wont be many chances remaining to see Carter visit the ACC as a member of the opposing team. Wouldn’t it be nice to see him finally get the ovation that his tenure as a Raptor truly deserves?

Now there are two sides to this Carter debate.

The first (which I have been a part of since he left town) refuses to forgive and forget. They want Carter to pay for holding the team back and for the way he unceremoniously left town all those years ago. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed, there is no forgiveness to be had.

To that group Carter is an outlet to vent the many frustrations that being a fan of this team has brought them.

The second group is more willing to let bygones, be bygones. They would be willing to welcome the star back to Toronto with open arms should he want to return for a victory lap or a “Roy Halladay contract” at the very end of his career. A popular suggestion online would see Carter return to Toronto this summer as a free agent to finish his career where it began.

Vince was a star in Toronto. Though his departure hurt, he should be remembered for greatness he brought to the city.

Vince was a star in Toronto. Though his departure hurt, he should be remembered for greatness he brought to the city.

Whether that fits into the plan Masai Ujiri and Tim Leiweke have long-term for the franchise remains to be seen, but it’s a cute idea.

In truth, Carter’s exit did start the Raptors on a downward spiral that didn’t end until their Atlantic Division championship in 06-07. The team was seen as a disaster around the league and that perception took years to rectify. Had he stayed (and played to his ability), maybe he could have helped the franchise return to the playoffs. Maybe he could have given us another few years of that old VC magic. So disgruntled fans are certainly entitled to their frustration.

Another popular Raptor fantasy involves an alternate universe where both Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady stayed with the franchise long-term. Such a pairing could have resulted in a dynasty for the Raptors.

Of course, that’s all just theory. One which admittedly McGrady, himself, even agrees with.

“In hindsight, looking back, obviously I wish I had stayed in Toronto…There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often.”

So, true, there is a lot to be bitter about when reflecting on the legacy of Vince Carter. A lot of ‘what ifs’ and ‘could have been’. So many unanswered questions and unrealized potential.

But one fact remains true; For six and a half years this city had one of the greatest players in the world to call their own. He excited us, wowed us, took us to heights we never thought possible and then, yes, even broke our hearts.

This city has never seen his equal (and may never again). It is time we celebrate the best player this city has ever had. He’s paid his debt.

On Wednesday night Carter returns to the ACC as a member of the Dallas Mavericks; let’s finally give him the welcome he deserves.

Kristoffer Pedlar
Zan Tabak Herald

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Raptors in Good Hands

MLSE made some noise by making some bold moves to bolster the on-field talent of Toronto FC. The acquisitions of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Dwayne De Rosario show that MLSE is willing to spend money to make Toronto a winning team in MLS. These moves instantly make TFC a legit contender and a big time draw in the city.

But what does this have to do with the Raptors?

It’s simple: the man behind these big time, game-changing acquisitions is the same man who is in charge of the Raptors. Tim Leiweke, was brought in to make a splash and help lure big name talent North of the border. He is starting to live up to this task.

With the additions to TFC, Leiweke is showing that he is more than capable of making the big time moves necessary to win. Jermain Defoe is, arguably, the second biggest acquisition in the history of MLS and one that was probably more difficult to acquire than people think. The biggest acquisition in MLS history is, of course, David Beckham (also acquired by Leiweke). If he is able to make this kind of impact with TFC, then there is no telling what he can do with the Raptors.

I can’t help but recall the first press conference Leiweke ever had as president of MLSE. He made it very clear from the onset of his time as president that the Raptors and TFC were a big priority. It was a small comment, but one I picked up on at the time: He said, “I don’t think it’s any secret the emerging question and the first action is going to be the Raptors…”

Of course, at the time, Leiweke was directly referring to the fate of then GM Bryan Colangelo, but make no mistake, since Leiweke has arrived, he has been very heavily involved and focused on the Toronto Raptors organization.

First he hired Masai Ujiri, the reigning executive of the year and a man who had to be sold on leaving a very good situation in Denver to come to Toronto. Next, he helped orchestrate the bid and landing of the 2016 All-Star game for the city. Next, is likely the acquisition of a big name talent that will help make the team a serious contender for that ever so important 2016 season.

Tim Leiweke was brough to MLSE to create championship calibre teams and that is what he is starting to do.  Photo by: JUAN OCAMPO / ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN & ASSOCIATES

Tim Leiweke was brought to MLSE to create championship calibre teams and, so far, that is exactly what he is doing.
Photo by: JUAN OCAMPO / ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN & ASSOCIATES

Now, Leiweke isn’t directly in charge of the day-to-day transactions the Raptors make. He is more of an overseer. It was Leiweke who chose to bring in Ujiri to turn the fortunes of this franchise around and make those day to day decisions. So far Ujiri has done just that. But Leiweke’s influence around the league cannot be understated and his ability to land the big fish will likely play a key factor in the teams immediate future and the decisions that Ujiri makes.

Leiweke’s resume includes, most notably, a long stint in Los Angeles where he was president and CEO of AEG who own and operate the Kings, Galaxy and Lakers. There he learned how to land the ‘Big Fish” with the Lakers. “I come from the NBA, I know a lot of people in the NBA, I’ve learned under the curve of Jerry Buss and Jerry West…You do not find two better teachers than those two guys on how to build an organization that not only wins one championship, but becomes the dominant organization.”

With words like these, he has gien hope to the Raptors fan-base that the long awaited return of playoff basketball is not far away; that this franchise is finally going to build a contender the right way and that the agony of watching top flight talent leave the city will finally be a thing of the past.

Since the Rudy Gay trade and the change in on-court strategy the Raptors are already looking like a playoff bound team and one that is playing very exciting basketball. The turnaround has been fast and may be happening earlier than originally anticipated. Much of the credit falls on Ujiri, the man Leiweke brought in.

Ujiri is one of the best minds in the game today. His ability to quickly turn around the fortunes of the Denver Nuggets despite losing Carmelo Anthony was a thing of beauty and he hasn’t looked anything but brilliant since taking over the Raptors. Trading Bargnani for future picks and financial flexibility was a solid move with an eye to the future and the Rudy Gay trade has resulted in the team you see on the court right now, but also added a wealth of additional assets.

Still, in a season where most teams are not putting their best team on the court, the Raptors need to be wary of getting too over-confident about the current on-court product. Yes, they have some good young pieces to build with, and yes they are winning a lot of games, but this is not currently a team that is going to do much more than challenge for a mid to low playoff spot in the long-term.

Leiweke knows this. He knows this is not a team bound for multiple championships at the moment. This is a team with some solid pieces, but lacking a true, legit star. Leiweke didn’t come here to just make the playoffs, he came here to compete for championships and I believe that is exactly what he is going to try to do. In order to get to that place he needs to land a ‘big fish’ for the Raptors.

The Raptors roster is currently a solid mix of young players and a number that could be very useful off the bench, but they lack that top-tier star. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that DeMar DeRozan has the potential to be a solid number 2 on a good team, but the Raptors need a number one. A star. A player that can take the game into their own hands. That’s where Leiweke and his influence around the league will come into play. If he can convince Jermain Defoe (still a very talented and useful player), to leave Europe to come to Toronto, then he can likely do the same with todays NBA stars.

In the next two years players like Durant, LeBron, Carmelo, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will all be available. Second tier guys like Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Lance Stephensen will also be available and could help deepen this team even further. Now I’m not suggesting the Raptors will have the ability to lure one of those big names north of the border, but with Leiweke in charge and the capspace now available, these next few years will be the best opportunity that the Raptors will ever get to add a franchise cornerstone.

Add to this the pressure Leiweke has put on himself and the organization to compete by the 2016 All Star Game and you have a recipie for success. 2016 is very much the end goal for the Raptors. Leiweke and MLSE want to be a significant player in the NBA by that time and the hope is, obviously, that at least one or two Raptors will be taking part in that game.

With the success of the current roster, it is clear the Raptors organization has the pieces and the resources to make a move in the very near future. Tim Leiweke clearly believes in the future of this organization, “The Raptors have that chance. They got the fan base, they got the ownership, they got the support economically.” That fan-base he refers to is now firmly behind the team again and desperately wants (and deserves) more.

Talk of tanking is now firmly in the rearview (probably for the best) and the focus is now on how to use this successful year to build on.

With the combination of Ujiri’s ability to evaluate talent and Leiweke’s ability to recruit top-tier talent the Raptors have a dangerous duo running the show. Also, do not underestimate the influence rap star Drake will have as well. Another Leiweke move that could have serious gains in the NBA where most players are big fans of the star. If coming to Toronto means getting to hang out with Drake on a regular basis, there are players that would very interested in that opportunity. It was a simple phone call by Drake to Defoe that helped tip the scales and bring Defoe across the Atlantic. His influnence cannot be understated.

Leiweke has made it very clear that the organization is ready to do what is needed to make this franchise a dominant one. “We will do whatever it takes, including spending to the cap on any of our teams or spending luxury tax for Masai…And Masai and I again, another very strong, good relationship. We see the world the same way. If there’s a move he can make now that ultimately makes this team better and doesn’t give up on any of our assets, then he not only has 100% of our support, we’re not afraid of the luxury tax at the right time. He just needs to make a decision on when the right time is.”

Whatever path the Raptors are going to take to get themselves into the championship conversation it is clear Tim Leiweke and Ujiri will be the ones steering the ship. With the leadership at the top of the franchise firmly in place, fans should enjoy the journey from here to 2016. Good things are in store for this franchise.

Kristoffer Pedlar
Zan Tabak Herald

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