Thursday night wasn't about a win or a loss at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, for the Raptors' newfound D-League affiliate. That will become a popular refrain for Raptors 905, who played their home opener in front of 6,007 very loud fans, kicking off what should prove to be an entertaining inaugural season.
The franchise officially tipped off for the first time Saturday in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but Thursday was, for all intents and purposes, the introduction of the 905. With Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, and D-League president Malcolm Turner all on hand to witness the 109-104 loss, the game was made to feel like a really big deal. And it should have been, because it is.
The Raptors are the 19th NBA team to enter into an exclusive affiliation with a D-League partner and the tenth to own and fully operate their affiliate. An ownership as deep-pocketed as Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment being slow to invest in a very clear area for potential competitive advantage was frustrating in recent seasons. The selection of mega-raw Brazilian youngster Bruno Caboclo as the No. 20 overall pick in the 2014 draft and a continued desire to help spread the game of basketball nationally eventually led Tim Leiweke and company to push for an expansion franchise on short notice this offseason.
A year ago, Caboclo, fellow freshman Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira, and any other young players the Raptors wanted to gain additional experience would have to do so with Fort Wayne, which was the shared affiliate of 13 NBA clubs. Once on assignment, their development would be under the control of an independent team, one trying to serve several different masters at once. The Mad Ants had incentive to do right by the players and the parent clubs assigning them, but it's a less-than-ideal strategy to outsource player development without much control—if that were the plan, Caboclo and Nogueira could have been stashed overseas and off the salary cap for a season.
Now the Raptors control everything. Ujiri put his director of player personnel Dan Tolzman in charge of the roster as the 905's GM and tapped assistant coach Jesse Mermuys—Caboclo's primary development coach a season prior—as the first head coach of the affiliate. Coaches and training staff are under MLSE employ, goals are streamlined between the teams, and the Raptors have a newfound ability to balance winning now at the NBA level with helping fortify the future of the organization. That's not always going to be an easy balancing act.
"As long as we have a symmetrical feeling, I think it will be a success," Tolzman said in October.
For some players, that symmetrical feeling will mean role similarity. Players on the fringes of rosters need to show NBA teams that they can do a small number of things well rather than flash All-Star potential. "The NBA is not looking for the next Kobe or the next James Harden in the D-League," Canadian-born Maine head coach Scott Morrison said Thursday. For those with more secure NBA futures, like Caboclo and Nogueira, the symmetry is about points of emphasis on the court, training regimen, and macro-level style of play elements, particularly on defense. That means Casey's practices downtown have to make their way West on the Gardiner and north up the 427.
Casey will have a strong voice in discussions about when players are assigned—he said last week that others (likely Delon Wright and Norman Powell, and perhaps Anthony Bennett) could be assigned for short stints as the schedule allows—but he's leaving the day-to-day management of his players in the hands of Mermuys.
The biggest point of emphasis for Casey has been on getting his youngsters minutes—minutes that aren't available at the NBA level right now. Nogueira is more advanced than Caboclo with several professional seasons under his belt, but he totalled 103 minutes between a brief D-League stint and time as the Raptors' 14th man last year. Caboclo is a baby in basketball terms, playing sparingly in one pro season in Brazil before getting drafted. As a rookie, the Raptors opted to focus on skill and awareness development outside of game situations, and the lack of an exclusive affiliate limited Caboclo to 57 minutes between leagues.
The Raptors can assign Cabcolo (or any other player within his first three years of service, or anyone else with permission from the player and NBPA) as many times as they like for as often as they like. It stands to reason Caboclo will be The Face of the 5ive, the team's marquee draw and a constant in the starting lineup. Nogueira, too, could see steady action. But like with the team and the D-League endeavor as a whole, the endgame has to be kept in mind.
"I think with the assignment guys, one thing we've got to make sure as a coaching staff is I really don't want them to put that kind of pressure on themselves," Mermuys said. "It's hard because so much in professional basketball is gauged on wins and losses, and it's just not that way here, that's not the goal, and so really if we start getting guys called up, then we're having success. And if we start losing players to other teams and for some reason Lucas and Bruno are able to enter a game this season for whatever reason and perform at a decent level, then it's a success."
The progress of Caboclo will be the most immediate game-to-game focal point, and the important thing to remember this season will be that without the Raptors' investment in the 905, there would be no game-to-game to focus on. Thursday's introduction of the 905 is a major (and overdue) step forward for the Raptors, one that has the potential to add a great deal of organizational capital and provide a competitive advantage outside of the levelled playing field of the NBA salary cap.
Just don't measure the team's success by the standings.