Following Rudy Gay’s departure, NBA analysts and media pundits immediately jumped to the assumption this trade signalled Ujiri’s tossing of the white flag to enter full on tank mode, and yet again, another rebuild in Toronto. Since I’m one of those people who won’t eat everything on my plate just because it’s put there, you’ll pardon my musings on why I think Masai literally has a full vernacular of “T” verbs other than tank such as tease, think and triumph.
Granted, I’m taking a completely different view of the Raptors’ direction than the masses and may in fact find myself with egg all over my face should Lowry literally be traded as I write this. (Of note: I wrote my initial draft prior to Friday’s game vs. Philly; the Raptors have gone on to win two straight games including a thrashing of 2nd best defensive team, Chicago). Regardless, I’m committed to my Ujiri theory with or without Kyle here, so this post will endeavor to explain why I’m convinced we aren’t fully committed to tank or at the very least open a dialogue on the possibilities.
Entering our sixth season without playoff basketball, it’s understandable why many Raptor faithful are open to tanking, especially with the prospect of a bonafide franchise player who happens to hail from our fair city and better still, has earmarked Toronto as his desired destination. The problem is, aiming for abject failure and delivering on that promise isn’t as simple as it seems.
First, even if Ujiri wanted to bail there are no guarantees of a top, or rather bottom 3 finish, which would be the desired result to obtain one of Wiggins, Parker, Randale or Joel Embiid who might actually end up being better than all of them; especially given the East’s feebleness this season.
Moreover, trading away all of the Raptors top talent won’t guarantee one of the coveted top 3 selections since almost every team with picks to spare in a trade scenario have the caveat of top 12 draft pick protection. While teams positioned to select those precious first three to five picks won’t want to part with them having tanked themselves. Nor will it ensure a future of rapid ascent if all we’re left with is one or two core players surrounded by a mediocre cast. Remember Seattle/OKC took several years to get to the promised land and although James brought Cleveland to the postseason he was never able to deliver the Holy Grail because the Cavs didn’t surround him with enough talent.
So, let’s assume the Rudy Gay trade was not a signal of a blow-out sale but a move made to accomplish several team objectives:
- Create cap space.
- Improve team chemistry via on court ball movement while simultaneously increasing touches in the paint.
- Allow additional playing time for Ross and Valanciunas to gauge their long term potential.
- Move DeRozan up to assume the “closer” role and diminish redundancy on the wings via better spacing, since Ross will either take 3’s or slash to the bucket for dunks.
- Vastly improve team depth, specifically off the bench.
- Gauge the success of new squad during a busy January then revisit team’s position prior to February trade deadline when upper seeded teams will be more desperate (i.e. willing to offer more) to fill gaps in their squads.
Looking at the new team, immediate upgrades are obvious with ball movement drastically improved and it’s resulting in increased assists. Prior to the trade, Toronto sat at a league worst 18 APG but the four games since the trade have resulted in a steady increase of 19, 23, 24 and 26. In fact, the assists in the two games Toronto has played with the newly acquired players would have us ranking second in the Association! Obviously Gay’s departure helped in this regard, however better ball movement, floor spacing, Lowry controlling the ball more and multiple players utilizing the pass has produced this impressive leap.
Meanwhile, social media has been blowing up with Lowry trade speculation involving one of Brooklyn, New York, LAL or GSW but given the brief success of the new squad I believe Ujiri won’t make any significant moves until the end of January. December offers a brief window to view the potential of the new squad as they face solid Western Teams: Dallas, San Antonio and my pick to win the West: OKC and will close out the month with a critical back to back vs. New York. January brings 17 contests but only 5 are against the West, while Boston plays 9 Western foes with most of these matches featuring seeded teams. In fact, by the end of December, Toronto only has 18 games remaining out of 53 vs. Western teams while most of our Division have 25 remaining; given the disparity of conferences this season those 7 additional contests could prove to be pivotal in the race to claim the division.
To that end, my “Ujiri Theory” involves him keeping the masses wondering (i.e. everyone from fans, media and most importantly the competition) what his intentions are while he assembles a team who can win the division/a top playoff seed and still work the phones to not only make the current squad better but also pick up some valuable additional draft picks in the process.
As I outlined earlier, trading away core assets won’t result in a top 3 pick unless Ujiri can convince cellar teams like Utah, Philly or Milwaukee to give away their own first round pick. The odds of that happening are slim to none even for Masai the Magician. Therefore, his best bet might involve trading “specialist” players who’ll improve upper seeds to amass multiple picks and in turn package those to garner one of those coveted picks.
I’d be surprised to see Masai trade Lowry to a team within his own division; especially considering any move he makes could help that team past this season. Therefore I think his plan has been to create the illusion of a team on the precipice of tanking. Brilliantly this has resulted in New York and Brooklyn trying to outbid each other and shifting their focus from the product on the floor that is currently losing. Simultaneously, Ujiri can work with other teams to fulfill their pressing needs with players who Toronto can afford to lose, especially now that he’s improved their depth.
To wit; Golden State has not performed as expected and now find their front court somewhat thin, losing O’Neal to wrist surgery while both Ezeli and Kuzmic are out another 4 weeks. The addition of Patterson who can rebound and hit from the field allows for the option of trading Hansbrough who only signed a 1 year deal. Certainly GSW offers a talent base much more appealing than either New York borough and better still they’re in the West.
If my theory is correct, Ujiri will bide his time, observing the newly formed team and await the February trade deadline where we might see him pull a trade involving multiple teams. The ideal scenario would feature involvement with Phoenix who has publicly said they’re willing to part with a couple of their 4 first round picks. As mentioned these picks won’t kick in until the 12th round, however if Ujiri could manage to grab two of these picks or amass two picks from different teams then he could barter with the bottom teams to trade these two or three picks to grab one of those coveted first three picks. This option in my opinion presents the best case for Toronto to get Wiggins and it also keeps most of the core intact.
Masai is a patient, charming and intelligent GM who has amassed an impressive resume specifically when it comes to ridding his team of albatross salaries. We remember the Carmelo, Bargnani and Gay trades but don’t forget he also was able to rid Denver of Nene’s contract; one that had more years and more money on it than Andrea’s and Nene is three years older!
Given Ujiri’s penchant for ridding his team of unwanted contracts I think he may actually spend some time trying to oust Landry Fields’ contract either in a straight up trade or married in a package. To be honest I think that feat would impress me more than his Bargnani or Gay achievements.
The other factor to remember is while Toronto has pinned their future hopes on Jonas, ridding the team of Lowry, DeRozan and specifically Johnson actually serves to set back his progress since they are the players Valanciunas has worked beside since the onset. Even if the Raptors falter I wouldn’t expect to see all three traded, it’s more likely only one would depart. Obviously Lowry is that player given he’s in the final year of his contract but losing him means the Raptors once again become weak at the point even if Vasquez steps into his starting shoes. Conversely, if the Raptors improve, having two quality guards who can run the offense and finish games on the court together makes more sense.
Bottom line; simply blowing up the team won’t deliver a top 3 pick and crossing our fingers we get Wiggins won’t translate into a guaranteed top seed next season.
I expect we’ll see some changes moving forward but the only one I’m willing to count on is Masai the Magician improving the current squad, driving other GM’s crazy guessing what he’ll do and ultimately putting the most important “T” front and center: TEAM.
In closing, I’m thrilled to be writing for Raptors Republic and look forward to talking hoops. You can follow me on Twitter: @TTOTambz.
Tipping Off to another exciting Raptor Week!
- Morning Coffee: December 16th Edition
- Today at the Small Sample Size Theatre: Pre-Gay vs Post-Gay Numbers