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Toronto Raptors make big changes

Brooklyn Nets

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 08: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors drives against Spencer Dinwiddie #8 of the Brooklyn Nets during their game at Barclays Center on January 8, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors won 59 games last season, including a 4-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, but a second-round exit led to some seismic changes up North.

The Toronto Raptors, not surprisingly, handled their business against the Brooklyn Nets last season, winning all four meetings, including an overtime win at Barclays Center on Jan. 8 and a 33-point blowout north of the border on Dec. 15.

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That was part of a season that culminated in the team setting a new franchise record for wins with 59 — the fourth time in the last five seasons the Raptors have broken that particular mark.

But LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers once again proved himself to be the true King in the North, leading the Cavs to a stunning four-game sweep of the top-seeded Raptors in the second round of the playoffs.

It was the third straight season the LeBrons ended Toronto’s postseason run and the second straight year it was via a sweep in the conference semifinals. Over James’ final three seasons in Cleveland, Toronto was a less-than-stellar 2-12 against the Cavs in the playoffs.

That led to some big changes in Toronto, the first of which came on May 11 when longtime head coach Dwane Casey was fired despite a 320-238 record over seven seasons, a run that included a franchise-best five consecutive playoff appearances.

The next big move was perhaps even more surprising. General manager Masai Ujiri stayed in-house to replace the winningest coach in franchise history, promoting assistant coach Nick Nurse to the first seat on the bench.

Nurse had been Casey’s offensive coordinator, so to speak, and this will be his first head coaching opportunity in the NBA after five years as an assistant.

Prior to coming to the Raptors in 2013, Nurse, 51, coached for six years in the G League, four with the Iowa Energy and two with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His other head coaching experience in a career that dates back to serving as a graduate assistant at Northern Iowa University in 1989-90 came in Europe, with five seasons coaching three different clubs in England and part of one season in Belgium.

Nurse did get his first head coaching gig early, being named to lead the program at what was then known as Grand View College in Iowa in 1991, a couple of months before his 24th birthday. He spent two seasons in that role.

On July 18, the Raptors shook up their rotation in a big way, sending the franchise’s career leader in … well, just about everything … out in a blockbuster trade.

DeMar DeRozan, a four-time All-Star and nine-year veteran, went to the San Antonio Spurs along with Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick, with former Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard heading to Toronto alogn with Danny Green.

So, no, not your ordinary offseason, by any means.

Adding to the pressure amidst the changes up North was Casey being named Coach of the Year at the NBA Awards on June 25,

That put Casey on a short list of coaches to be fired immediately following the season in which they won the award, joining Dolph Schayes (1965-66 Philadelphia 76ers) and George Karl (2012-13 Denver Nuggets).

It’s worth pointing out Ujiri was also Denver’s GM at the time, but he was on his way to Toronto shortly after the Karl firing, which was made by ownership.

The Leonard trade is an extremely risk move.

Not only did Ujiri trade away an extremely popular player in DeRozan, he did so for a player in Leonard who had a public-relations nightmare of a season in San Antonio, playing only nine games, and one who can opt out of his contract next summer.

But in the game of championships, you win or you adapt.

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