Aside from the expected conversations regarding acquiring free agents and making trades during the off-season, a lot of the chatter surrounding the Raptors has to do with what Masai Ujiri described as a "culture reset." Specifically, the talk of a refinement in the operations for the Raptors as a result of being swept by Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs. However, what was - and still is not - immediately clear is what exactly Ujiri meant when he proclaimed that the Raptors are in need of such a change and how it will be implemented.
When talking about culture, it seems intuitive that it doesn't begin and end with the style of play on the court or how the team develops its chemistry during game-time. Culture, it seems, is something that needs to be monitored and constructed on and off the court as it involves how people interact on not just a professional level, but also a personal one as well. Ujiri is very selective with his phraseology and wouldn't toss out a word like "culture" if it simply meant pushing towards a new style of play that meshes more with the direction the NBA is trending towards in terms of spacing the floor and utilizing the 3 more than we've traditionally seen. This is certainly part of a culture shift, but it's fair to say that there's a lot more than involved. The question are, are the Raptors in the position where they can actually undergo such a change and how will they enforce it?
This was talked about in some detail on the most recent SOT6 Podcast with myself and DeMar Grant of TipOfTheTower.com. Any talk regarding a culture reset or change must first start with some sort of introspection from each individual player and coach in the hopes of finding what direction he wishes the franchise to go towards and, if/when all parties can find the similarities, build on it. In an ideal scenario, the process would be simple and it would only take a group conversation to figure this out. Once this happens, they would just apply the similarities to their scheming and it would come naturally. However, since nothing is ever ideal, it seems that it's going to take a lot more than just a simple conversation.
Whenever you hear of any type of reset when it comes to a sports organization, it's fair to assume that it means there will be some elimination of talent or personalities that aren't conducive with the new direction the franchise wishes to go. Very rarely do you see a call for a refresh while maintaining the vast majority of those that have been on the team that we assume led to such a call. This is what makes the situation the Raptors are in a bit of an anomaly. With the exception of Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, PJ Tucker, and DeMarre Carroll, the main core group of players have either remained or have been reacquired. Not only has the main core remained, but the coaching staff is also set to return, leaving the entire team to undergo a quick change and perhaps force themselves to move away from what they are used to; something that is easier said than done.
As mentioned, when approaching the task of a culture reset it involves both on and off the court changes. It's perhaps better to address the on the court changes first, as they are easier to pinpoint and discuss as there's tangible evidence that can be used to back it up.
For quite awhile now, the Raptors have been playing a sort of 90's style of basketball during a time where ball movement, the ability to be quick in transition, floor spacing, and three-point shooting is driving the league and enabling teams to win in a much more dominant fashion. The Raptors have been playing a predictable antiquated style, with the high pick-and-roll being the main focus on offense, while relying on isolation during close-game situations. Such a style will only get you so far in the NBA and certainly won't allow them to surpass teams that stand on top of the mountain, like Cleveland (for now), Golden State, Houston, and San Antonio. To put it bluntly, the Raptors put themselves in positions where it's easy for their weaknesses to become exposed and prevents them from taking that necessary next step to really cement themselves as a top-tier team. Thus, a culture change on the court is necessary if they wish to be able to find themselves in the same position as the aforementioned teams. Adaptation on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball is what will drive such a change and being able to trust their teammates will be absolutely crucial for the Raptors in their efforts of solidifying it.
This is all well and good but, unfortunately, way easier said than done. It's easy to simplify these types of situations and ignore the fact that each individual on the floor and sideline is human like you and I. It's unfair to expect these individuals to be able to change on a dime and jump into the season with a brand new approach. Like most humans, when it comes to utilizing a new skill-set that you aren't quite confident in or used to during challenging situations, it's real tempting to resort back to what is comfortable in order to ease yourself into the difficult circumstances that face you. This is my biggest fear when it comes to the Raptors and their efforts of a culture shift on the floor. Not only do I fear that the players will find that old habits do indeed die hard, but I also fear that Dwane Casey will lean towards doing the same in close-game situations. Thus, therein lies the difficulty in calling for a change yet keeping the same individuals. The Raptors have been so used to playing the style we have seen year-in and year-out that expecting them to stick to something new may be a bit overambitious. The scheming that the NBA is trending towards may be contrary to the philosophy that Casey is used to, perhaps leading to a bit of a cluster and frustration within the organization. In a way, I suppose I can sympathize to what DeMarre Carroll was saying during his interview Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun when he claimed -
“But once adversity hits and stuff starts going wrong, guys are going to go back to ISO basketball, that’s how it is. You’ve got to trust it. It’s one of those things you’ve got to build, you’ve just got to trust each other. This year, I feel like a lot of guys didn’t trust each other and a lot of guys, they didn’t feel like other guys could produce or (be) given the opportunity, so there was a lot of lack of trust on our team, so that’s what hindered us from going (as far as they wanted to go).”
Although I don't agree with the tone or even the reason for Carroll to speak out against how his former team operated the offense, what he is saying isn't necessarily wrong and at least deserves some consideration.
However, it's important to note that I am by no means saying that it's an impossible task and the Raptors are doomed to allow history to repeat itself. What I am saying is that expecting such a change to occur quickly may be asking for a bit much. The majority of this team has been playing together for quite some time now and has been utilizing a certain style of play almost exclusively; it's what they are used to. Obviously there are certain times where adaptation is necessary and this is especially true during this "three-year window" in which the core group of players (DeRozan, Lowry, and Ibaka) will be leading the pack. Becoming a more fluid and selfless offense will be something that the Raptors will have to work on in order for them to achieve the goal of a culture reset if they want to persevere in the NBA. It starts from the top, and if Casey is able to game-plan based on this, while the main core is able to utilize it correctly on the floor, then it ought to trend to the bench and the role-players and creating a well-oiled machine. Basically, everyone has to be all-in with the shift and can't revert back to what even Ujiri has described as unsuccessful. To boot -
"Because we’ve done what we’ve done so many times and it hasn’t worked," Ujiri said. "It’s easy to defend in my opinion when you play one-on-one. It’s predictable, we feel we have to go in another direction. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it will be the new thing in the league that wins.
"We’re trying to be progressive thinkers, and not just continue to pound, pound, pound on something that hasn’t worked."
Things get a little bit more murky when we get into the off-the-court culture changes. Going back to Carroll's comments, trust amongst teammates is crucial, and it's something that will bleed onto their off-the-court relationships. Further, when we examine Ujiri's comments from the end of the season presser and dig into the details, it certainly seems that the culture reset covers this area as well. Specifically,
"We have done things here for four years and we have had a level of success but how do you take it to another level is what I’m talking about. We have to dig deep into everything we do. And I’m talking scouting, I’m talking our medical department, I’m talking everything,"
Maybe I'm over-analyzing what he means by the term "everything," but it wouldn't shock me if the way the team interacts and/or handles challenging issues (in a word: trust) may be part of this reset, as well.
Full Disclosure: I'll be the first to admit that I don't know how the players interact off the floor because I am not around them. I'm not in the locker room for post-game interviews or statements, I don't mingle with the players or coaches when they're in town, and I don't know any of them on a personal level. I'd like to think that the players have a good relationship with each other and there's no animosity or tension. I'd be hard-pressed to point fingers and call out individuals and claim that they are in need of any sort of change in attitude. Doing so would be irresponsible and provocative.
However, there is some evidence that there was some dissatisfaction within the locker room last season. Specifically, earlier in February when the Raptors had lost their 10th game out of a 14 game stretch, when asked how the Raptors can fix the funk that they were in, Lowry gave the calculated and vague response of "I have an idea, but [I'm going to] keep my mouth shut, keep it professional." It was widely assumed that his response was aimed towards a coaching change, but it's important to note that this was never confirmed and was a result of pure speculation. A further example can be found in aforementioned comments made by Carroll about the Raptors. Although he is no longer on the team, Carroll has not been shy when voicing his displeasure with how the Raptors have operated their offense and how he never felt comfortable in it. It's safe to assume that this isn't the first time that Carroll has vocalized his displeasure with the scheming the Raptors have been utilizing, but perhaps it is the way it was communicated. Like Lowry's comments, if Carroll's way of vocalizing it was vague, it doesn't help the team grow and learn from their mistakes. Maybe this is key to the off-the-court culture change.
Communication is crucial when dealing with the same people in a group setting on an almost everyday basis. Being opened-minded and receptive to constructive criticisms allows one to grow as both a talent and person in professional sports. Perhaps showing that you are willing to branch outside your comfort zone by being open to new ideas is how one is able to evolve on a personal level; in a word, trust. This is what I think is part of the culture reset that will be implemented for the Raptors. Maybe this discussed during the meeting that Lowry had with Casey, Powell, and DeRozan earlier in the off-season and it wasn't just an attempt to sell him on the organization. Further, perhaps Casey's efforts to bring the aforementioned players together to watch one of the games during the NBA Finals in order to have his players experience the Finals atmosphere is all part of the growth and culture shift that the team wishes to enforce. Perhaps this is evidence that Casey is aware that he too needs to evolve and be more receptive to the new ideas and changes. I mean, no one wants to be Phil Jackson, am I right? (Too soon?)
The point is, calling for a change in culture is incredible ambiguous, especially when Ujiri claims that "everything" needs to be reexamined. This won't be an easy task for the Raptors, but it's certainly not an unattainable goal. In fact, by implementing such a change, perhaps it will allow them to grow and persevere, leading them to be able to take that next step in taking down the monster known as Cleveland in the Eastern Conference. Ujiri is keen in his examination of the Raptors' flaws and I have no doubt that the effort will at least be there. There is no individual or set of individuals that need to be highlighted in order for the culture reset to be successful, as it will depend on the entirety of the staff. If the entire wheel is able to spin smoothly to start the season, the team should be able to build on it and these changes will just become natural.
All we can do is trust the proce... task.