You can only control what you can control, and in the NBA… well, that ain’t much. It’s the lesson that Masai Ujiri seems to keep learning again and again.
The Toronto Raptors have the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference and currently hold the fourth-seed as a result of leading the putrid Atlantic Division. The Raptors’ front office had visions of losing enough games this season to get a prime seat at the draft table in June, but instead they are on a collision course with their first playoff appearance in five years and their second division title in a decade.
Oh, and this is after they traded away their supposed best player in what was widely seen as a tank-inducing move three weeks ago.
Suddenly no one knows how to read the Toronto Raptors. They are 7-3 since Rudy Gay was shipped off to Sacramento, a streak that includes five road wins, and with a three-week stretch of games coming up against the East it looks as though the team could keep the wins coming well into 2014. Despite a lot of chatter earlier in the month about Kyle Lowry and possibly DeMar DeRozan getting moved, the trade winds appear to have cooled while everyone takes a step back to assess what the hell is actually going on with this team right now.
If this were ten years ago, or maybe even five, the club’s management and fan base would be on cloud nine right about now. The team’s core rotation is playing beautifully together, the young players are improving and the primary veterans are playing the best basketball of their careers. The organization has max-level cap room coming their way and not a single player on the books is due more than $10-million in any upcoming season. Once upon a time this would have been reason enough to celebrate the trajectory of the Toronto Raptors, but teams don’t think that way anymore.
Team’s now tend to be focused far more on the future than on the present. With that in mind, here’s the problem that the Raptors face: while the team is playing their best basketball in years, they aren’t necessarily setup for a lot of growth beyond what they are right now. They’re good, but they don’t have that marquee talent that gets teams deep into the postseason and spurs Championship runs. That’s why everyone assumed that Ujiri was ready to tank-out the season to try and get a star in the upcoming draft. Bereft of other options, the draft was seen as his ticket to future glory. However, with so many teams playing such terrible basketball right now, and with so many teams facing major injury woes, there’s a legitimate question as to whether or not the Raptors could actually tank their way into a top pick even if they did start stripping the roster down to it’s bones.
Let’s say they tried it, though. Let’s say that Ujiri saw a potential 45-to-48-win club and decided with an eye to the future that gambling on the lottery was a smarter team-building strategy – what kind of psychic affect does that have on the organization? This wouldn’t be a case of taking a bad team and making it worse; this would be an example of taking what could wind up being the third- or fourth-best regular season in Raptors history (granted, that’s a very low bar to exceed) and tossing it away for another roll of the dice in the draft. Those kinds of decisions have ramifications. The club has spent years talking about changing the losing culture in its locker room, yet like a lingering infection it has refused to go away.
There is a chance, though, that they be turning that ever-elusive corner. To turn back now is a choice Ujiri may still decide to make, and it may even be the right decision down the road, but if he does go that route he has to face the fact that it might take a long time to get back to this point that the team is at right now.
Just look at the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve been living on a steady diet of high lottery picks (including two number-one-overall selections) and cap space. They’ve been living for the future ever since LeBron James up and left for Miami – and this was to be the year when all of the planning and asset acquisition paid off. To their surprise, however, the team is ten games under .500 and mired in a five-game losing streak. The years of losing have created a culture that is proving hard to escape, which is something that Raptors fans are all too familiar with. That’s why Ujiri would have to think long and hard about aborting what the team is doing right now because it’s impossible to say how long it might take to get back to this point.
Of course, maybe we’re also giving this roster a little too much credit too soon. After all, they’ve only really been playing this well for three weeks, and in that time they’ve played their fair share of bottom-feeders and also-rans. Besides, haven’t the Raptors had plenty of strong stretches in recent years only to succumb to a near-inevitable loss of momentum that sent them spiralling back down the Eastern Conference ladder? Maybe Ujiri can just wait this hot-streak out, wait for the Raptors to bottom-out like they almost always do and not have to endure the second-guessing that would come as a result of breaking up a team that finally looked ready to make some noise after five years of total irrelevance.
But all of a sudden this Raptors team is starting to carve out an identity that makes them look like more than a flash in the pan. In fact, in a funny way these Raptors have taken on the look – structurally, if not stylistically – of the old Nuggets teams that Ujiri used to oversee: a team devoid of stars but with lots of talented pieces that play well enough together to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. They aren’t close to Denver’s level, make no mistake, but the blueprint is starting to look familiar. Right now Ujiri is just hanging back and making moves that improve his team while giving himself assets and flexibility to make the next move down the line.
Ujiri knows he can’t control how bad the Eastern Conference is, just like he knows that he can’t control the fact that a sub-.500 record could win him the Atlantic Division whether he wants that distinction or not. He could still tear this team apart, but that idea may not seem as savvy as it did three weeks ago. He could keep this team together, too, but that idea might not seem like a savvy decision three weeks from now. Ujiri thought he’d be spending the season finding ways to improve the team’s lottery odds, but a dozen underachievers have made that plan a lot harder to execute.
The third seed in the East could be Toronto’s for the taking and no one knows if they even want it. It seems fitting that in a league where one can control so little that the one thing you can always control – what it is that you want – is the hardest thing to wrap your brain around.