So I know it's been a while and I've whiffed on covering some interesting team news (okay, one interesting news item and one publicity stunt), but with training camp underway and the first pre-season game less than a week away (feel the excitement?), I reckon it's time to get back in the swing of things here.
The main focus of this blog will be the new stable of decision makers and coaches, along with a smattering of holdovers (Dwane Casey is still around, as is assistant coach Tom Sterner, while homegrown product Jama Mahlalela earned a call-up to assistant status). However, I would be remiss to not spend a few lines offering up my five cents on Tim Leiweke's 2016 All-Star Splash, Featuring Drake:
The All-Star Game / Drake
It's tough to find an original, new angle on a piece of news that generally garners a response along the lines of "oh, that's great for Toronto" or "glad to see Leiweke making his mark and helping the Raptors regain some semblance of relevance". But I'll give it a shot:
- Yes, it's certainly good news and a suitable step for the franchise and the growth of the club as 'Canada's Team', but forgive me for not gearing up the excitement just yet. Realistically, it'll be difficult to identify any buzz surrounding the 2016 All-Star Weekend beyond the days following the press conference and, say, a week or two outside of the actual event. Which, again, is two and a half years away.
- Was I the only one amused by the prospect of Drake serving as an encore to the franchise's debacle with the "Raptors" franchise name? Think about it - as big as he is right now, there is no guarantee that Drake will be atop the hip-hop world in 2016 (the parallel here being the team name, which was confirmed to be sticking around during the ASG presser, stemming from an outdated reference to a 1993 movie).
- I'm not sure how this transitions into promoting the team or the country, but you just know that the league will LOVE what Toronto has to offer.
The Front Offce
They didn't exactly get there in the smoothest of ways (sorry, Bryan Colangelo), but the Toronto Raptors' front office makeover is complete. Out are Colangelo (first as GM, then entirely), Maurizio Gherardini (did he actually contribute anything meaningful to the club?) and Marc Eversley (could do big things in Washington); in are new President & GM Masai Ujiri, Executive VP and John Hammond disciple Jeff Weltman and Vice President, Basketball Management & Strategy (aka cap guru) Bobby Webster.
Let's take a look at the new guys:
The guy who was, really, the only option for the Raptors in their GM hunt. And on top of his media charming and charitable work with the league over the summer, I happen to agree with his non-committal approach this off-season. With his track record still far from being evaluation-ready, I thought it was interesting to see a largely non-plussed reaction to his hiring on the part of the team's fan base. It might be an indication of his relatively low - albeit successful - profile in Denver, but to me its a larger statement about a leery group of supporters who have been down this "marquee GM" trail before (see Colangelo, Bryan). Ujiri will find that he has little rope with a fan base eager to support a winner.
Weltman's hiring as Ujiri's right hand man signals a shift towards more analytics-based critical evaluation and roster management. The former Bucks and Pistons exec was courted for GM openings, including those with the L.A. Clippers and Phoenix Suns, before agreeing to join the Raptors immediately after the draft.
Probably the most inspired hiring over the Raptors' off-season, Webster joins the club after spending the past seven years working in the league offices. While there, he most recently served as the Associate Director of Salary Cap Management. So yeah, the guy knows him some CBA. Although unconfirmed, Webster's arrival almost certainly spells the end for former capologist Steve Fruitman (he of the cap massaging for the Hedo Turkoglu deal) in Toronto.
Dwane Casey managed to survive a transition of managerial power and seems to be on the same page as Ujiri, something that reportedly could not be said of he and Colangelo last year. Not as lucky was most of Casey's staff, including lead assistant Johnny Davis (although he did find solid ground with the Lakers). He, Scott Roth, Eric Hughes and Micah Nori have all moved on to positions with other clubs. In their place are a group high on experience but low on splashy name value, comprised of Bill Bayno, Jesse Mermuys, Nick Nurse, the promoted Mahlalela and the returning Sterner.
Clearly, most of the blame for last year's disappointment fell squarely on the shoulders of Colangelo. But even so, its hard to absolve Casey completely and it seems as though some of the shine has washed off of the man who was probably the franchise's most popular figure at this time last year. When Ujiri talks about a culture of defence, toughness and 'making it hard to play in Toronto', one can't help but wonder where those core values were with last year's Casey-coached club.
A defensive specialist, Bayno is a 20-year coaching vet who has had college head coaching stints at UNLV and Loyola Marymount and has served as an NBA assistant under Nate McMillan and Rick Adelman in Portland and Minnesota, respectively. He will fill Davis' lead assistant role.
Like Weltman, Mermuys is well versed in NBA analytics. He comes to the team from Houston, where he was an assistant coach and director of player development. Prior to that, he climbed the organizational ladder in Denver, going from video co-ordinator to advanced scout to assistant coach.
Nurse, the club's first coaching hire, has taken a less-travelled path along the way to his new assistant position. After 12 years coaching in Europe (mostly in Britain, including an assistant job on the 2012 Olympic team), he has spent the last six in the D-League, most recently serving as head man for the Rockets' affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
A great story of a local product making it big, Mahlalela started with the Raptors in 2006 and worked his way up from the community development department to director of player development to his new assistant role. Prior to that, he played for the UBC Thunderbirds and coached on the UofT Varsity Blues staff.
Sterner has been around the NBA carousel plenty, having worked for the 76er's, Mavericks, Warriors and Magic before coming on board Casey's staff last season. If you had a chance to sit near the Raptors' bench at any point during last season, it was likely either Casey or Sterner's voice you heard barking out instructions and encouragement.