Raptors’ overhaul paying off massively and quickly

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TORONTO – In 2016, the Raptors’ best season to date ended with a loss to the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the conference finals.

“We’re learning,” then-Toronto coach Dwane Casey  said. “We’re not where they are right now. We’re going to be.”

Casey was right. The Raptors assumed the East crown from Cleveland and are one game from winning the NBA Finals.

But to get here, Toronto fired Casey and turned over most of its roster.

The transformation has been difficult and rewarding, necessary but also dangerous. Raptors president Masai Ujiri revamped a team in the midst of the best era in franchise history. He did it primarily by acquiring a superstar who set a one-year clock on his services – a narrow window, especially amid all the surrounding chaos.

And it has worked.

The major move was trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, swapping a loyal fan favorite for a hired gun. But as much attention as that deal has deservedly gotten, it fits into a far greater context of upheaval.

Kyle Lowry (who has become Toronto’s lifeblood in his seventh season here) and Norman Powell (a fourth-year player barely inside the playoff rotation) are the only players remaining from that 2016 team. Everyone else is pretty new.

The Raptors drafted Pascal Siakam and signed Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Toronto traded for Serge Ibaka in 2017 and Marc Gasol just before this year’s trade deadline. Danny Green came in the Leonard trade. Nick Nurse got promoted to head coach last summer.

Even several deep reserves – Patrick McCaw, Jeremy Lin, Jody Meeks, Eric Moreland – joined the Raptors after this season began.

To make way, plenty of contributors exited: DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Bismack Biyombo, P.J. Tucker, Luis Scola.

This Toronto team is nearly as brand new as it gets for a title contender.

The average Raptor, weighted by postseason minutes, has played just 181 regular-season games for the franchise. That’s barely more than two seasons.

It’s the lowest mark for a Finals team since the 2006 Heat (average of 142 games). Miami drafted Dwyane Wade in 2003, traded for Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, bolstered its rotation in the summer of 2005 with Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey then won the 2006 title.

Here’s every Finals team since NBA-ABA merger, sorted by that same average-games measure (*won championship):

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That Leonard – especially Leonard – Gasol and Green can all leave in unrestricted free agency this summer gives this team a mercenary feel. Even Lowry, Ibaka and VanVleet are locked in only one additional season, as Ujiri wanted an exit ramp for this group.

But winning quickly vitalizes fans, who’ve ached through years of playoff disappointment in Toronto – even if the specific players on the court now haven’t. This feels like the right evolution for this team.

It also helps that the rotation youngsters are so likable. Siakam’s meteoric rise and VanVleet’s beat-the-odds story and candor are quite endearing. Three years is plenty of time for players like that to establish a connection with the fan base.

Their limited time together hasn’t always been enough for the players cement their connection to each other, though. The gaps have mostly shown in small pregame moments – Lowry dapping up an imaginary DeRozan, Gasol not knowing what to do during Lowry’s routine, Leonard ignoring Powell’s fist bump.

Yet, the team seems so aligned when it matters most.

How has this group developed such strong on-court chemistry so quickly?

Talking to players, common themes emerge – maturity, professionalism, unselfishness. This isn’t a random collection of players. Ujiri carefully selected each one. These are mostly veterans who can apply their wisdom to a new situation.

The newcomers even have some institutional knowledge. VanVleet, the third-year pro who’s already one of Toronto’s longest-tenured players, has shared stories of the Raptors’ playoff struggles and previous day-to-day operations.

“We tell them how it used to be,” VanVleet said. “But that’s about it. From then on, it’s create a new identity with each team and each roster.”