Tonight on CSN: Ujiri's Raptors off to a surprising start

Tonight on CSN: Ujiri's Raptors off to a surprising start
December 31, 2013, 2:15 am
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Mark Strotman

Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri may be too good for his own strategy.

Ujiri, who came to Toronto after winning Executive of the Year last season with the Nuggets, is widely considered as one of the top basketball minds in the NBA.  He has held positions as a scout with the Orlando Magic, an international scout with the Nuggets, the Director of Scouting and assistant general manager with the Raptors and the executive vice president in charge of basketball operations with the Nuggets. He's a true success story who has climbed the ladder of NBA front offices, and now has taken on the biggest test of his career, turning around a Raptors franchise that hasn't made the playoffs or finished .500 since 2008.

Toronto went 34-48 last season and didn't do much in the offseason to create much buzz. The thinking was an easy one: with a loaded 2014 draft class and not much upside with the current team, the Raptors would take a wait-and-see approach in 2013-14, allowing young players in Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross to develop while earning a high draft pick, potentially to draft Canada native Andrew Wiggins.

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And 18 games in, Ujiri traded away leading scorer Rudy Gay. The move was expected to "help" Toronto both in the short-term (losing one's leading scorer usually means losses) and the long-term (Gay has two years and more than $38 million remaining on his contract after this season).

Unfortunately -- as far as tanking goes -- the Raptors just keep winning.

Since the Raptors traded gay, they have gone 7-3 and moved to the top of the league-worst Atlantic Division at 13-15. In the embarrassingly bad Eastern Conference, they have the sixth-best record and according to ESPN's Hollinger's NBA Playoff odds, they have a 98.4 percent chance of making the playoffs and an 88.2 percent chance of winning the division.

So while it's unlikely the Raptors select in the top five or have a chance at Wiggins, Ujiri can still take solace in the fact that his Raptors are playing well.

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They're led by a solid tandem backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, while forwards Valanciunas and Amir Johnson are both performing above expectations to have the Raptors in the Atlantic hunt (despite the sub-.500 record). Even Greivis Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the deal for Gay, is playing well behind Lowry.

Part of that 7-3 record post-trade included an impressive 99-77 win against the Bulls on Dec. 14. Five players scored between 12 and 16 points, led by Lowry's 16 points and six assists and Valanciunas' 15 points and 11 rebounds. They forced the Bulls into 15 turnovers and pulled away with a 26-11 fourth quarter.

Trading for Gay freed the Raptors from an absurd contract and a player who was shooting just 39 percent. With more shots available and a deeper bench, Toronto is thriving underneath head coach Dwane Casey.

Though he couldn't say so, Ujiri and the Raptors had hoped a subpar season could help them secure a top pick in the coveted 2014 draft. But the team the reigning Executive of the Year has built continues to win (again), and has made the Raptors division contenders and a team not worth looking past on the schedule. That's what the Bulls face tonight on Comcast SportsNet, and you can catch it all beginning at 6:30 p.m. And stay interactive throughout the contest by checking out Bulls Pulse, using #BullsTalk to join the conversation.