The Raptors made a serious run at their first NBA Finals, taking the Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference finals.
Their biggest offseason acquisition? Former Celtic Jared Sullinger. But that is misleading. Their biggest offseason move was retaining free agent DeMar DeRozan, the career-long Raptor who was rumored to be headed to his native Los Angeles in free agency to play with the Lakers.
The Lakers never even got a meeting with DeRozan. He limited his free agent pool to only the Raptors and signed a five-year maximum contract to stay in Toronto. General manager Masai Ujiri kept much of the core of his team together and hopes players such as Sullinger and center Jonas Valanciunas respond to the loss of Bismack Biyombo in free agency.
“The young guys have to step up,” Ujiri said. “We extended Terrence Ross and Jonas in the summer and that was our thinking, too. You want these guys as part of your team and now bringing in a guy like Sully, the improvement of our team is going to come from inside. Kyle [Lowry], DeMar, and Jonas and Patrick [Patterson] and Terrence. They will probably take it to another level.
“So hopefully we can compete in the East.”
Are the Raptors still the second-best team in the Eastern Conference? Or have they taken a step back, relenting to the Celtics in the Atlantic Division? Ujiri hopes DeRozan, Lowry and a healthy DeMarre Carroll will lead the Raptors back to prosperity, and that his biggest accomplishment as a GM may have occurred this summer despite the lack of a free agent splash. After decades of losing players such as Marcus Camby, Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh, the Raptors were able to secure DeRozan long term, perhaps erasing the stigma that Toronto is a difficult place for stars to flourish.
“First of all, we can say we’ve tried to build a program, we can say we tried to build a culture, but winning is important in all these things,” Ujiri said. “But with all that being said, the human being that that kid [DeRozan] is, is remarkable. He’s an unbelievable person. Never any issues. Basketball and winning is what matters to him. He’s gotten better every year in the league, so the credit absolutely goes to him. For him to say, ‘I’m not talking to anybody, this is where I want to go.’ And we believe in him, and that’s why we gave him that contract. It’s remarkable that he did that for us.”
With the emergence of DeRozan and Lowry and their decisions to re-sign with the Raptors, and the city hosting its first All-Star Game successfully last season and captivating a younger fan base, the perception that players would disappear or be overshadowed in Toronto has dwindled.
“Honestly, winning is what I tell the players, that’s what you want your culture to be,” Ujiri said. “You can say all you want about a city — just win. And develop your culture to where players find it enjoyable to come and play. You create a great working environment and you create a great culture.”
Twice during Toronto playoff runs, Ujiri has addressed the crowd that gathers outside of Air Canada Centre and offered fiery words of motivation, being fined $60,000 for separate incidents in which he used an expletive to fuel the crowd.
“We have one of the best cities in the world, the best people, the best fans in the world,” he said. “So what is left for us to do is our jobs and put the team together and not listen to all the negatives that come with that. That’s how I take it. [Not being able to win in Toronto] are excuses to me. We have to do the job well and we have to put the product on the floor and it all comes with winning.
“When you win, players will come.”
Ujiri re-signed Valanciunas to a four-year, $64 million extension and Ross to a three-year, $30 million pact last year. Both were considered above-market deals. Until this summer. And now they’re bargains with the league’s increased salary cap. Adding DeRozan’s contract to the previous deals, the Raptors have $106 million in payroll this summer.
“We like them as players. It’s something we thought we had to do,” Ujiri said. “You have to project a little bit and figure that part out. It’s our league and it’s the place that the league is in right now. When you know your players, it’s easier, the players that play for you. That’s where we felt we are, so we took care of our own players. That’s going to be what we’re looking at with this increase.”
Meanwhile, the Raptors will definitely be challenged in the East by the improving Pacers, Celtics, and Pistons. Cleveland remains the prohibitive favorite, but the Eastern Conference race should be fascinating this season.
“Everybody wrote off the East a couple of years ago but there were a lot of young teams and rebuilding teams. Now it’s funny, there’s no teams tanking, everybody wants to win,” Ujiri said. “That’s why you play the game, to compete to win a championship. That’s why you look forward to it. Every team in the NBA can win a game on a certain day. To be one of the elite teams in this league, you have to compete.”
LITTLE BIG MAN
Felder stands out in Cavaliers debut
One of the standouts at the Las Vegas Summer League was Cleveland point guard Kay Felder, who emerged along with Jordan McRae to lead the Cavaliers to the semifinals. Felder was a second-round pick, 54th overall, by Atlanta. The Cavaliers thought so much of the former Oakland University standout, they paid $2.4 million for Felder’s rights.
He could serve as the team’s backup point guard to replace the departed Matthew Dellavedova. The stocky, 5-foot-9-inch Felder is fearless driving into the paint as well as finishing. He got into an entertaining duel with the Celtics’ Terry Rozier during Cleveland’s 98-94 summer league win.
Felder is the latest in a slew of under-6-feet players seeking to make an Isaiah Thomas type of impact.
“I try to just be in attack mode at all times,” said Felder, who averaged 15.3 points in seven summer games. “I’m just trying to put pressure on the defense.”
That fiery demeanor has helped Felder emerge as one of the more intriguing rookies this season. The high-scoring college guard felt he was ready for the NBA after his junior season. His decision to leave was difficult, but Felder said he was focused on the next level after averaging 24.4 points last season for Oakland.
“Before my sophomore year, I knew I had a chance,” he said. “I wrote down ‘NBA’ on my notepad and my dad always told me to list five goals each year. It’s so crazy that it happened, my life changed in one year.”
Felder, like Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, slipped in the draft because of size. Felder said he would not allow that to determine his fate.
“I didn’t care if I didn’t get called, I was going to be on someone’s roster and go hard when I have the opportunity,” he said. “Going to the world champs [was amazing]. I’ve always been a LeBron [James] fan, he’s hanging up on my wall. My whole family knows, I root for LeBron every time, no matter where he is. It’s great to play with your idol.”
REST IN PEACE
Garden mainstay Edwards dies
Rudolph “Spider” Edwards, who was in charge of maintenance at the old Boston Garden and later TD Garden from 1964 until his retirement in 1997, died at age 86 last week. He was honored at halftime of a Celtics game this past season.
The immaculately dressed Edwards, donning his Fedora, always made sure the Garden was clean and prepared for the transformation from court to ice for the Bruins. Edwards was much more than a man who kept the parquet free of dust, debris, and sweat. He often held on-court conversations with players and grew close to Red Auerbach, John Havlicek, and Tom Heinsohn. He was a Garden legend and conjures times when stadium employees not only took great pride in their work but were proud representatives of the team and staples of the community.
“In all my years of my father working down there, I don’t remember him taking a Celtics game off,” Rudolph Edwards Jr. said. “He always wanted to be there and he was just as much recognizable as the players that came through there.”
In addition to working at the Garden, Edwards raised his four children as a single father. Rudolph Jr. even worked on his father’s crew for a time at the Garden. During his retirement ceremony, when Edwards walked onto the parquet for the final time, the Celtics gave him a pair of new New Balance sneakers to wear rather than his customary dress shoes to avoid scuffing the new floor.
Edwards walked the court in those sneakers, but immediately gave the shoes away. Edwards’s father had told him never to wear sneakers to work, and he didn’t. Edwards took pride in his job, took pride in his appearance, and became a part of the Garden experience. Blessings and farewell to Spider.
NBAPA answers bell on health care
The NBA Players Association voted unanimously in their June meeting to fund health insurance for retired players with three or more years of service time. Last week, former NBA center Cherokee Parks, who underwent surgery three years ago to repair an aortic valve, lobbied for full health care for former league players.
The NBAPA has begun providing free heart screenings for former players after the heart-related deaths of Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins, and Sean Rooks in the past year.
Remember, many former NBA players, especially those who played in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, did not capitalize on the league’s financial success. Charles Barkley earned just over $40 million for his entire NBA career while Mike Conley will earn more than $30 million in the first year of his new contract.
Some players have essentially disappeared from the map since their playing days, just trying to make it financially. To receive benefits, former players will need to be part of the Retired Players Association.
Life after the NBA has not been so kind to certain ex-players, and full health care could extend their lives.
“You’ve got to be involved,” Parks said of former players seeking health care. “You can’t expect, ‘Hey I was here, I’m part of the family.’ Nah. You were part of the [NBA] family 15 years ago and you didn’t maintain contact and all of a sudden you’re making cold calls [seeking help]. No one likes a cold call. You lose character credibility because you haven’t been around. People got business, people got reputations, every door is just not open the way it used to be. That’s why it’s very important to find out about these programs, pay attention to these programs and understand how important they are and stay involved the whole time.
“I got caught up where I fell off the radar for a minute. I don’t have social media, so people were like, ‘Damn, we’ve been trying to find you.’ It’s a lot of work from both parties. The [health] programs need to be there but the players, they’ve got to be involved. You’ve got to want to be involved in this.”
Parks touched on the importance of post-career health insurance.
“You’ve got these thoroughbreds that run and at least they get a nice pasture when their done,” he said. “That’s what health insurance is for us. You need to be involved with the Retired Players Association. There are things you need to check for. When is the last time you had blood work? Check for diabetes, check for cancer. Same thing with your heart. And now you’ve got a track record.
“[In your 40s] your body is feeling pretty good and then one day your hair is turning gray, the hip is starting to hurt a little bit, the knee is acting up, and then suddenly, boom, you can have a year where you got slammed [physically]. If you’re not prepared for that or you don’t have proper health coverage or economically you’re not in a position to handle that stuff, it could seem like your life is going to hell for lack of being prepared or educated. This is happening in your 40s and you’ve got a lot of life left to live.”
In rather subdued fashion, Amar’e Stoudemire retired from the NBA after 13 seasons, leaving a bunch of ‘what-ifs?’ in his path. He signed a one-day contract to return to the Knicks so he could retire as a member of that organization. Stoudemire averaged 25 or more points per game three times and reached the All-Star Game six times by the age of 28. The second half of his career was spent fighting off constant knee injuries, which robbed him of his athleticism. Stoudemire, who entered the NBA out of high school, became one of the best pick-and-roll players of his era. His weakness was defense, and one offseason, Stoudemire, then playing for the Knicks, placed a call to former Celtics coach Doc Rivers for tips on how to improve at the defensive end. Stoudemire was always known for athleticism and scoring prowess, but once defense became more of an emphasis for him, he felt the need to seek assistance . . . Portland’s C.J. McCollum was the first player from the draft class of 2013 to sign a long-term extension and avoid restricted free agency. McCollum signed a four-year, $106 deal to join Damian Lillard, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and Festus Ezeli as Blazers signed to long-term deals. Forward/center Kelly Olynyk is eligible to sign a long-term deal before the Oct. 30 deadline but the Celtics are likely to wait until next summer to determine whether to invest in him long term. This is a critical season for Olynyk, who is coming off shoulder surgery. He will be depended on to be the floor-stretching sharpshooter the Celtics have desired the past three years. Olynyk has missed 43 games over his first three seasons, primarily because of injuries. The Celtics want more toughness and consistency from their former first-round pick . . . Speaking of the 2013 draft, former Celtics second-round pick Colton Iverson spent last season with Pinar Karsiyaka in the Turkish League, averaging 11.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 21.2 minutes per game. Iverson was once considered a candidate to fill a Celtics roster spot but played poorly in summer league in 2015. He is likely to return to Europe next fall with the Celtics’ good depth in the frontcourt. The Celtics own Iverson’s rights, so the only way he’ll play in the NBA is with Boston, unless it trades his rights.
The United States men’s basketball team will head to Rio without much Olympic experience. Only two of the 12 players have participated in the Olympic Games, and four others played in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Here’s a breakdown of the team:
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.