My, what a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, the Raps were mired in some of the most depressing basketball you could ever hope to (not) see, the team seemed rudderless, and the DeMar DeRozan/Rudy Gay duo were getting syndromes named after them by Bill Simmons. It was boring to watch, soul-sucking to cover, and even though you knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel, you couldn’t even see it yet. It was just miles and miles of… not exactly darkness, but greyness. It was blah.
Finally, though, with the aforementioned Gay shipped out of town for eminently more moveable (and arguably more useful) pieces, the Raptors as a franchise have finally turned a corner to where the light is visible, albeit faintly (and yes, I know I made a train analogy in my Rudy Gay trade reaction, too). On the court, the team looks better, or at least more watchable. Our youngsters are getting minutes – and touches – that they weren’t getting before the move.
Most importantly, though, the front office has apparently placed a large “clearance sale!!!” sign on the front door of the ACC. The tank is on, say the various Raptor commentators/bloggers/analysts/Doug Smith. The front office seems to have acknowledged it too, if not overtly, and, as fans, we’re left to wait and see who the next player is to be shipped out the door for prospects, picks, cap relief, or some combination of the three.
On its face, it seems like an easy assignment for Raptor management: lose the useful players, lose the games, get Andrew Wiggins (or one of the many exciting consolation prizes). In reality, though, nothing is that simple. Yes, Rudy Gay (and his contract) were a dark cloud hanging over the franchise, and that cloud has been lifted. But just because it’s easier to see doesn’t mean the landscape’s changed. Nobody thought Gay was a long-term solution for the Raps, and so, for Masai, the real work begins now.
See, the problem with building a franchise is that your best players – AKA your most tradeable assets (and, in the case of the Raptors, quite possibly your only tradeable assets) – are also the players most likely to be part of a successful team moving forward (again, in the case of the Raptors, quite possibly the only players who can be part of a successful team moving forward). The conundrum for management of a rebuilding team is to decide how to balance the team’s future on the court with the success of the “tank” today. I mean, Andrew Wiggins is good, but one great player does not a champion make.
Essentially, Masai and his team are still in the evaluation stages. What’s changed since the Gay trade is that the evaluation is no longer focused on the core group as a whole, but on each player individually – balancing the success he could have as a part of the Raptor franchise with the return he’s likely to get on the open market. Without commenting on the four new faces coming to town, I’d imagine there are only six Raptors that the jury’s still out on in this regard: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Jonas Valanciunas, and Terrence Ross. These players are the condundrums, the enigmas; the only Raptors good enough to both command significant return on the open market and hurt a potential “tank,” and also the only ones who could reasonably expect to be part of this franchise post-rebuild. What management decides to do with this group will effectively determine the course of this franchise up until the end of the season (though I no longer doubt Masai’s abilities – I wouldn’t be shocked if we woke up tomorrow and found that he’d flipped Landry Fields for a first-rounder and season tickets to Cirque de Soleil).
On paper, I think this group breaks up into three reasonably distinguishable categories. The first of these is the players most likely to stay put – Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. Both of these guys are young, have shown flashes of considerable potential, and are on rookie deals. Both have proven they can contribute on the court in meaningful ways. And both aren’t good enough now to significantly affect the team’s win/loss total in the short term. There’s been a lot of talk about how nobody – not even Jonas – is “untouchable” in this stage of the rebuild, but I’d be pretty shocked if not just Val, but Ross as well, were moved for anything besides players at a similar stage in their careers for positional fit. In a nutshell, there aren’t a whole lot of guys on the team who have a chance to outplay their contracts, and these two do – essential for a successful team. Luckily, for the Raps, it doesn’t appear like that’s going to happen this year, which works perfectly with the Raptors’ unstated intention to snag a high draft pick in 2014.
The second of this group is the guys most likely to be headed out of town in the near future – Tyler Hansbrough and Kyle Lowry. On first glance, these guys are about as dissimilar as you can get: one’s an established starter, one’s a bench guy; one’s on an expiring deal and due for a raise in free agency, one has another year to go. Where these two are similar, though, is in their relative value on the open market. Both of these players are clearly more valuable to contending teams than to a franchise focused on the future like the Raptors. Hansbrough, who’s seemingly bounced back from a disastrous season last year in Indiana, could be brought on to fortify the end of a playoff team’s bench at a miminal cost, and his departure from the Raptors won’t swing the needle either way in terms of wins, as evidenced by the team’s recent performances following his injury.
Lowry’s case is even more clear-cut. On a very reasonable expiring contract, and with a proven track record as a starting point guard, he could very easily slide in as a major contributor to a team with aspirations to make a move this season (Chicago? Indiana?). If he stays on the Raptors, though, he’s very likely to lead the team to a few wins just by his presence alone. For a team that’s unlikely to re-sign him to the type of deal he’s looking for once he hits free agency in the summer, that’s a net negative, and so it’d be very surprising if Masai and crew don’t flip him for assets now, while they can.
The final group – Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan – is the most intriguing. Along with Lowry, these two players are inarguably the most valuable on Toronto’s roster, and trading them would likely bring the biggest haul of assets while most dramatically affecting the team’s win total. Both are young and signed to reasonable contracts past this season (Johnson might be one of the best values in the league – if he gets traded, expect the gushing articles to follow as soon as he departs the blind spot NBA writers seem to have when it comes to Toronto). However, both have plenty of potential to positively affect the next iteration of the Raptor franchise, and so, for Ujiri and co., it’s decision time. Making calls on players like Johnson and DeRozan is why guys like Masai get paid the big bucks.
In a perfect world, it’d be great if both of these guys came down with mysterious “injuries” at some point this year – keeping their value for the future with the Raptor franchise but mitigating their impact on the court this year. Don’t rule this out, especially near the end of the season, though it’s a bit slimy and the league will likely be on high alert with so many teams in tank mode. However, the far more likely course of action is that the next few months for Raptor management will be spent heavily evaluating the contributions of DeRozan and Johnson (and the rest of the team, but especially these two), and weighing their value tomorrow against it today. Don’t expect these guys to get moved in the summer. If they’re here after the deadline, they’re here to stay.
Basically, now that the first big – and most obvious – step has been taken, the real decision-making can begin for Raptor management. Things are about to get interesting again for Raptor fans. Just expect the excitement to come off the court, rather than on it.