Take a moment to marvel at the Toronto Raptors, who are the anti-Process. Rather than overvalue the idea of collecting draft picks and the currency of hope that is the lottery, they have built one of the most stable and self-sufficient franchises in the NBA without a single lottery pick and without a single max free agent signing.
Here’s a statement from Captain Obvious: Toronto has never been a free agent destination. And after the early days of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, they haven’t hit on lottery picks, aside from Chris Bosh (and he left as a free agent the first chance he got).
So the entire organization had to change their thinking and, led by general manager Masai Ujiri but also motivated by several others in the front office, the Raptors turned to a development model that has become the envy of the league. It’s not just what they do at the NBA level that matters, it’s how they utilized their G-League team, which is located right in the city, to turn unheralded draft picks and undrafted gambles into a group of players who are now an unrelenting championship-caliber basketball team without a single superstar.
Yes, even with the departure of two starters off their title team, including the most important player, Kawhi Leonard, the North keeps trending up. Usually when a franchise loses a player of that caliber, it’s time for tank mode.
But not Toronto. They keep coming at you in waves of length, athleticism and high-motor players who all shoot with confidence. And despite their reign as NBA champions, you can barely name four players on their roster.
That’s the beauty of their success. It starts with Pascal Siakam, last year’s Most Improved Player who has taken over the lead role vacated by Leonard and is leading the team with 26 points per game. It was just two years ago that he was a late first round pick, a bit raw with no perimeter game as a rookie. That season ended with him as the 2017 G-League Finals MVP as he played 12 games with Toronto’s 905.
Fred VanVleet, the undrafted guard out of Wichita State, played 16 games with 905 that season and has since emerged into one of the Raptors most important, and beloved, players. He played a prominent role for the Raptors in their takedown of the Warriors last June.
Norm Powell, starting right now in place of injured veteran Kyle Lowry, is a former second round pick who also put in time in the G-League for Toronto.
Then there is Chris Boucher, who was the G-League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year last year for the 905, who dominated Wednesday’s game against the Knicks with with sheer energy and effort to post 13 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists. Boucher looks like he’s 16 years old, but he’s actually 26. He’s becoming what Siakam was for the Raptors off the bench as a rookie.
Finally, we present Malcolm Miller, another 26 year old who was undrafted back in 2015 out of Holy Cross. He spent the last two years with the 905 and is known as a sharp-shooter form three. These are players who give a team depth, which is vital in a long NBA season, where one or two injuries can set a team back.
Former St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, who went undrafted, signed a two-way contract with the Raptors in October. He’s splitting time with the NBA and G-League clubs and it’s worth keeping an eye on the Brooklyn product to see how quickly his game grows.
Kyrie Irving took to Instagram on Wednesday night after the Nets lost in Boston — where he wasn’t present, but clearly heard the loud, angry chants directed at him — and typed out a dissertation about the NBA and what he called “one big gimmick.”
Irving complained about how fans and media don’t see the players as people who “grow up in a fishbowl of a society” and only care about the entertainment of it all.
Kyrie is a ridiculously talented player and, when he’s healthy and on his game, one of the most entertaining players to watch. This rant, however, doesn’t just show how thin-skinned he is when it comes to criticism, but also just how out-of-touch he is about what sports means to people.
Of course it’s an entertainment industry and fans don’t know you as a real person. What they know is their team and that’s where the love starts. When you play for their team, they love you. You’re family. When you leave, especially the way he did, you’re no longer family.
Kyrie’s reasons for leaving Boston were explained in detail at Media Day. He dealt with the emotions of being closer to family, who reside in New Jersey, after the loss of his grandfather. But the fact that fans wanted to get their pound of flesh because you left their team — after being the centerpiece of locker room issues last season — should be expected. That’s just reality.
Laugh it off, move on.
But to criticize the very business that has made you wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, giving you luxuries the very people who cheer for you can’t even imagine for their own families, is disingenuous. If it’s so terrible, why not just quit the league and get your Basketball Jones playing streetball just for the love of the game? Or better yet, why take a check from such a seedy business?
That rant basically told fans they shouldn’t invest their money and energy into him or the game. It told the media we shouldn’t care so much about the game. It also told us why the Nets were exactly the right choice for him. It’s quieter in Brooklyn and that’s how he wants it.
DeMar Derozan also had some social media controversy come up this week when he deleted some Instagram posts that sparked speculation that he was about to be traded. But he denied that was the case and added, “I don’t even like social media, honestly. I’m not a big fan of social media, never been. To this day, I always wish I played in the ‘90s so I wouldn’t deal with social media. I just let people talk. Me, personally, I hate it…If it wasn’t a need in 2019, I wouldn’t have it.”
Social media has been great for pro athletes and yet it’s also meant more trouble. For many, the access fans have to them and things they can say to them hiding behind a keyboard creates a lot more anxiety than in the old days, when hecklers would yell from the crowd. You wonder just how much players need it or if they’re better off not even reading it and leaving the promotional stuff to a social media manager.
Speaking of names on the trade rumor front, Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday is a player many teams would be interested in if New Orleans wanted to jettison the veteran point guard. Holiday told The Undefeated recently that, even after the Anthony Davis deal, which sent the team into a rebuild mode, he has not asked for a trade. “I’m still hopeful and encouraged,” he said. “I’m still ready to go out and hoop.”
Tony Allen was one of the top defensive guards in the NBA and was known as “The Grindfather” during the glory days with the Grizzlies in Memphis. But he was also a big part of the Celtics last championship era and told a few funny stories about how that team of alphas found a way to get along. One way was with boxing gloves.
Allen explained in an NBA.com interview that Paul Pierce said any time players had an issue, they would settle it in the ring. Allen said he wanted to box Glen “Big Baby” Davis. “Man, we come in there and all I can remember is…me trying to get my first little couple of swings at him and all I can remember is Glen Davis knocking me out. Boom. I fell. They said, ‘Awwww, he’s knocked out.’ They all started laughing and running. That was probably one of the most weird ways to bring in camaraderie and bring in love and togetherness. But it was funny, man.”
Trend to watch with the NBA moving closer to eliminating the one-and-done rule for the draft is the league is already getting younger. According to Basketball-Reference, the average age is 26.1, which is down for a fourth straight year. The average age hasn’t been this young since the 1982-83 season. In fact, it’s the youngest average age in the history of the league, with only one other season, 1976-77, coming in at the same average age.