Masai Ujiri may be selling the line that he kept this Toronto Raptors roster together as a reward for their improved play this season, but the truth is that Ujiri’s reluctance to deal had everything to do with the future and almost nothing to do with what has transpired this year.
What the Raptors have done this year is nice. A solid group of workers have taken advantage of a weak conference and positioned themselves just below the East’s elite duo of Indiana and Miami (and by just below we actually mean over ten games below, which is good for twelfth in the league). A winning culture has begun to seep into the bloodstream and after five fruitless seasons that’s an achievement worth recognizing. However, it is not the reason why this team was kept together last week.
A Championship-calibre club is built around a transcendent talent. The Raptors don’t have a transcendent talent. That is why this team was kept together last week. Period.
If the team is going to start making meaningful moves, like unloading key rotation players or draft picks, it has to be done with an eye towards the future. Right now the Raptors don’t know what their future is because they don’t know who it is that they’ll be building their team around. They don’t know what position their transcendent talent will play, they don’t know what style he’ll play and they don’t know how much he’ll cost because they don’t know who he is yet. All the club knows is that they’ll need a transcendent player if they want to start assembling the Championship-calibre club that Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri insist they’re interested in running.
That’s why the Raptors were kicking the tires on acquiring Rajon Rondo last week. He seemed like a gettable player who qualifies as a transcendent talent. There have been points over the last four years when Rondo looked like he might have been the best point guard in the NBA. Not everyone will agree with that assessment (Rondo is an incredibly divisive player), but for a club looking to get into the transcendent talent game he represented a player worth pursuing.
Had they managed to acquire Rondo, the Raptors might have been able to start the process of making secondary moves to surround him with the right kind of complimentary talent. After all, once you know who you want to pin your future on, you want to jumpstart the future as soon as possible. Plus, in today’s NBA part of the goal of securing one transcendent talent is the hope that he can help attract another transcendent talents while visions of Larry O’Brien trophies dance in their heads. Get Rondo now and see who he can attract to Toronto in the summertime.
Of course, the Raptors did not acquire Rondo last week, so they opted not to make any moves of significance at all. It was the smart play. That’s because the roster as constructed right now is doing a lot to help the damaged reputation of the Toronto Raptors franchise by winning more games than they lose and playing every game in a competitive manner. The club wants outside talent to look at the Raptors and believe that if they joined up the team could make some real noise in the NBA. Every recruiting tool helps in professional sports, and there is perhaps no better recruiting tool than a winning roster and that will help Ujiri when he starts this process up again heading into the draft and summer’s free agency period.
And make no mistake, when that process heats up again he’ll again be on the hunt for a transcendent talent and he will explore every avenue possible to find one. He’ll be looking to offer packages of players and picks to move up in the draft, he’ll be looking at packages of players and picks to swap for someone else’s transcendent talent and he’ll be looking at his cap space and the free agent market with an eye towards making a splash in July. Ujiri knows that he can’t really get to work until he has someone to build around, so he will be relentless in finding that player until he has one in a Raptors uniform.
There is one potential wrinkle in all of this, and his name is Jonas Valanciunas. Unlike Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, Valanciunas’ ceiling remains a bit of a mystery. He’s definitely shown flashes that he could something really special in the NBA, but he’s still searching for consistency at this level and so it’s hard to get a great read on him as a finished NBA player. At this point it doesn’t look like Ujiri is ready to start tailoring the roster to suit his talents, nor does Dwane Casey look ready to start tailoring his team’s attack around Valanciunas and his skill set. Still, no talk about Toronto’s search for a star would be complete without a least a reminder that there remains a lot of growth to come from Valanciunas, and that the solution to Ujiri’s problems may already man the post for his basketball club.
If that’s the case, though, it still isn’t why Ujiri walked away (nearly) empty handed at the deadline. Ever the pragmatist, Ujiri knew that if he couldn’t get a transcendent talent then there was no reason to start selling off his assets. There is an order to things. First Ujiri needed to rid the Raptors of its dead-weight, which he’s done. Now he’s got to try and find that piece that he can use as an anchor to build his club around. Until he finds that piece the Raptors will remain a competitive club with a very real ceiling below the NBA’s elite. As enjoyable as this squad is right now, it’s not the club that Ujiri wants to hang his hat on. He wants something more, and since he couldn’t find it last week he’ll take a step back and redouble his efforts in June and July. We’ll have to wait and see if he can have any greater luck then.