Whether it’s Masai Ujiri or someone else, whoever takes over as general manager of the Toronto Raptors doesn’t have to look far to find a franchise model to emulate – he can just turn on the TV.

The Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers don’t have any players who score 20-or-more points per game. They don’t have lights-out three-point shooters or perennial all-stars. Both teams finished in the bottom 10 in payroll this year.

Yet both teams are currently playing for their respective conference championships.

The Grizzlies and Pacers are among a number of franchises that are proving that it is possible to build a winner without spending billions on superstars. The Grizz, who spent $63 million in salaries this year, finished fifth in the Western Conference with a 56-26 record. The Pacers had a $66 million payroll and finished third in the East with a 49-32 record. That’s $30 million less than the star-studded Miami Heat spent this year, and almost $40 million less than the embarrassing L.A. Lakers did. Yet only the most ardent fans can name more than three players on either team.

After 18 years of futility and endless failed rebuilding projects, new MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke is right – the Raptors desperately need a rebrand. Not a new team name or logo, but a cultural change. And the recent changes we’ve seen in Memphis, Indiana, Golden State and yes, even Ujiri’s Denver Nuggets show what can be done without parking a Brinks truck outside a superstar’s home. Winning franchises can, in fact, be built through smart drafting, solid coaching and trades based on need rather than name.

The marquee franchise for this philosophy, of course, is the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has won four championships, has made the playoffs for the past 16 straight seasons and is likely going to represent the West once again in this year’s Finals. Over those 16 seasons the franchise has had dozens of players come and go, but it has had only one coach, one general manager, one team captain and it has never had the league’s highest payroll. In San Antonio there is a culture of winning, excellence and stability, and it’s a model other franchises who can’t afford a Big Three of stars are now looking to emulate.

The problem, of course, is that it takes a long time to establish that kind of program, and not every team has a patient owner or fan base that will allow slow growth. And it also requires some luck – clearly it’s much easier to build a winning franchise when you hit the draft jackpot with a player like Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving.

And that’s where the Raptors are in trouble. Former GM Bryan Colangelo has put this team into a position where they’re actually worse off than your average rebuilding team.

The Raptors have no picks in this summer’s draft, on account of Colangelo’s acquisition of Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay. Not that the first-rounder would have been a game-changer anyways, at the 12th spot. But the team also has a staggering $65 million in salary commitments for next season, most notably $11 million to Colangelo’s only first-overall draft pick, Andrea Bargnani – who has played himself out of being a viable trade piece – and $18 million to Gay, who was deemed too expensive by Memphis and is probably making double what he’s worth.

Beyond that, the Raptors have some unspectacular bit players, the result of years of middle-round draft picks and poor trades.

No, the Raptors’ next GM will have a difficult uphill climb ahead of him just to get back to respectability, let alone create the foundation to become San Antonio North. And for Raptor fans, the short-term looks like things will have to get worse before they get better.

But it can be done — the models are there.

Related >> Time for Raptors to Rebrand

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