Raptors relying on minor changes to make major difference
Toronto has its sights set on dethroning King James and Cavaliers in the East
While the Toronto Raptors headed into the off-season amid talk of a "culture reset," their new look is more of a trim than a completely new 'do.
DeMar DeRozan, the team's leading scorer and master of metaphors, was asked about a change in playing style as the team held media day Monday, the traditional opener to NBA training camp.
It's more about tweaks than wholesale changes.
"You trim it down a little bit, they're going to say you look a little different, but you're still you," said DeRozan, continuing the analogy. "You might walk with a little bit more of a swagger, you're going to feel a little bit more confident about yourself."
The Raptors rolled to a 51-win season and a second-round playoff appearance last season, but their ugly sweep by Cleveland left the team — and fans— disappointed. President Masai Ujiri talked about the need for a culture reset, and a change in offensive style.
"I can tell even by some of the workouts and the tone of our meeting [Sunday], it's something I think we're going to at least make an effort to do and see how well we can do it," Ujiri said. "We've played a certain way for the past few years and I think it's gotten to a point where, everyone agrees, if we can make some little changes ... they don't have to be drastic, I don't think, because some of the things that we do well has gotten us to a place where we are."
Coach Dwane Casey said the offensive focus may be as fundamental as "on time, on target passes," which proved problematic in the post-season.
Hours before boarding an afternoon flight to Victoria, the players mugged and flexed for photos, and went through an assembly line of interviews as part of their media day duties. Talk of U.S. President Donald Trump and his criticism of athlete protests, both in the NBA and NFL, dominated the day.
Several Raptors were outspoken on the subject.
"I think the president brought a lot of this stuff on himself ... he's got to look in the mirror after making all these statements, saying all these crazy things about guys that's trying to do the right thing, stand up for what's right," DeRozan said. "You've got your president on Twitter more than a 12-year-old saying the most outrageous things for people who are trying to do something right. It's crazy."
DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who signed a three-year deal worth $100 million US in the off-season, anchor a core that remains largely intact. Toronto's key additions include sharp-shooter CJ Miles (trade), and rookie OG Anunoby (draft). Gone are Canadian point guard Cory Joseph and gritty forward P.J. Tucker.
This camp marks a first for DeRozan, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, who had just a couple games together last season before heading into the playoffs. Ibaka was acquired in a trade while Lowry was sitting out 21 games after surgery on his wrist.
"It's going to be big," DeRozan said. "It was tough when we made the trade last year ... we're trying to get things going, the trade happens, we've just got to jump right in and play. Kyle gets back and we've got to try and figure out how to play with a whole new starting lineup — it was tough.
"This time around, being able to really lock in from ground zero and understand step by step how we're going to play, how we're going to execute, really building that chemistry ... everything plays big in this training camp and this pre-season."
Embrace the hate
One theme has remained a constant through the Raptors' past few training camps: no respect.
Several media outlets predicted the Raptors will plummet down the Eastern Conference standings this season, and Casey and his players have taken the criticism to heart.
DeRozan said he takes "that to the gym with me."
Casey said "I love it."
"I love the fact they slight us," the coach said. "We should be playing with a chip on our shoulder, we're that little team up north that they don't respect and we've got to earn that, get it back again. We did it last year."
Casey acknowledged that somehow solving the Cavaliers, who've dispatched Toronto in the playoffs the past two seasons, would go a long way toward changing that dialogue.
"It's not about regular season, it's about us pushing through in the playoffs and getting over Cleveland," he said. "That's who's been our nemesis the last couple of years."
The Raptors play the Los Angeles Clippers in exhibition games in Honolulu on Sunday and Oct. 4, and are back at the Air Canada Centre on to host Detroit in a pre-season game on Oct. 10.
Toronto opens the regular season at home on Oct. 19 against the Chicago Bulls.