Is it 2013 all over again? Overachieving Raptors exceeding expectations, just like after the Rudy Gay trade
It was the deal that disproved the age-old maxim that says the team that gets the best individual player in any sports trade always wins that trade.
On Dec. 9, 2013, first-year Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri shipped arguably the team’s best player, forward Rudy Gay, to the Sacramento Kings for four players: Greivis Vásquez, John Salmons, Chuck Hayes and Patrick Patterson. The Raps threw in two marginal players, and happily waved goodbye to the $38 million Gay was owed.
A few months earlier, former first overall pick Andrea Bargnani had been dealt to the New York Knicks. When the Gay deal was done, the Raps were 7-12 and it certainly looked like the objective was to tank and land Canadian-born phenom Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 NBA draft.
Indeed, another deal was in the works to send guard Kyle Lowry to the Knicks. Once that trade was done, the tanking would truly begin in earnest.
Except the Lowry trade fell apart. Then a funny thing happened. The players left in Toronto started to share the ball and become a team. They started diving for loose balls. Lowry began to assert himself as a leader. The players acquired from Sacramento began making contributions. The team became fun to watch.
The Raps won nine of their first 12 games after moving Gay, and ultimately registered an unexpected 48-win season for their first playoff berth in six years. Drake joined the program, “We The North” was born and Ujiri endeared himself to Toronto basketball fans with his famous, $25,000 “EFF BROOKLYN” outburst.
Five years later, the Raps lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Hayes, Vásquez, Salmons and Patterson were all long gone, but you could argue the championship process started with the Gay trade, and the transformation of the Raptors into a team with a plan, an attitude and an identity.
Why bring this up now? Well, in these early days of the 2021-22 NBA season, there seem to be some similarities with what is happening with Nick Nurse’s team and those intriguing, confounding days back in 2013. These days, it seems like new growth on the vertebrae of a winner.
Expectations for Toronto were moderate to low coming into this season. A 53-win campaign two seasons ago gave way to a 27-win season last year, with the Raptors banished from Canada all season because of COVID restrictions. One by one, many of the top players from the ’19 championship team had left. Kawhi Leonard. Danny Green. Marc Gasol. Serge Ibaka. Norm Powell.
Then, finally, Lowry was traded away almost eight years after nearly being sent to New York. He went to Miami in a sign-and-trade transaction that brought veteran guard Goran Dragić and forward Precious Achiuwa to Toronto. For the player reckoned by many to be the best in team history, the returns seemed moderate.
To start the ’21-22 season, finally, star forward Pascal Siakam was injured. Siakam, a revelation when he was a support player, hadn’t fit as well into a marquee role last season. There was an incident with the coaching staff. The drafting of Scottie Barnes seemed to open the way for Siakam to follow all the other stalwarts from the ’19 champs out the door.
Siakam wasn’t traded, but that didn’t end the speculation. With him on the sidelines, the Raps lost opening night at home, badly, to Washington. They beat Boston on the road, then lost two more at home to Dallas and Chicago. The home-court advantage they hadn’t had at all last season didn’t seem to matter.
At 1-3, with Siakam still out, trouble seemed to be at hand.
Well, here we are 10 days later, and like those initial days after the Gay trade in 2013, the developments have been — to some, at least — surprisingly good. Shocking, almost.
Going into Friday against Cleveland, the Raps had ripped off five wins in a row, including four on the road. Siakam still hasn’t played, and has been joined on the injured list by the impressive Barnes. Still the winning continued, including an impressive triumph in Manhattan on Monday over the highly-touted Knicks.
Ten Raptors played in the 109-100 road win over the Wizards on Wednesday. Guard Fred Van Vleet (33 points) led the way along with OG Anunoby (21 points), but significant performances came from Gary Trent Jr., Svi Mykhailiuk, Khem Birch, Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Dalano Banton.
Like the four Sacramento players acquired for Gay in ’13, these secondary players have found useful roles on a Toronto team that is over-achieving. This is a long-armed team that seems to deflect balls and create steals with regularity. They are surprisingly poised as a group.
Nurse seems to have had few preconceived ideas, which has allowed Banton to grab all kinds of floor time that was projected for Dragić and Malachi Flynn. Mykhailiuk has been given a chance and his career seems back on track.