Masai didn’t draft the core of the team. He didn’t trade for them, or sign them via free agency. But he did do something that tends to define the best GM’s in the league: he knew what dead weight to remove from the team’s roster, and when to leave the rest, well enough alone. To that end Ujiri got rid of not one, but two of the team’s biggest headaches, and two players in fact that seemed virtually untradeable, Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani. For that reason alone he gets an A. It was addition by subtraction but on top of that, Ujiri also ended up with some very useful pieces in return, both current (Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Steve Novak etc) and future (the Knicks’ beloved draft picks.) Whether Ujiri made the moves expecting to send his club to the lottery, or if he secretly knew things would turn around is up for debate. But after the reported Kyle Lowry deal with the Knicks fell through and the team began to take off, Masai put down the phone, not forcing through a move that could have not only ruined the club’s present, but also its near future. Add in his small tweaks like Nando De Colo and his offseason bargain-basement signings like Tyler Hansbrough and it’s hard to find much to pick at in Masai Ujiri’s first season. His fifth-place finish in this season’s NBA Executive of the Year race was probably too low in fact.
There is little doubt what kind of player Ujiri might be looking for. He spoke this week of needed size and speed on the wing and an inside presence. It’s doubtful he will find at No. 20 the kind of player who can step in and contribute to a playoff team immediately but the long-term needs would suggest he’ll try to fill either of those gaps. Joining Ennis in the ever-growing list of potential Canadian draftees are guard Nik Stauskas of Michigan, forwards Dwight Powell of Stanford, Melvin Ejim of Iowa State and big men Khem Birch of UNLV and Jordan Bachynski of Arizona State. Ennis and Stauskas are seen as virtual first-round locks in the draft; the others will have to impress GMs at the combine and in any of the follow-up private workouts that may be scheduled after this week.
“Imagine if we get KD, Kevin Durant in 2016 and he leads us to a championship,” the Raptors’ point guard added, unprompted in an interview with Bryan Hayes on TSN 1050 the following day. “I think he’d have statues right outside the ACC.” Well played, sir. Vasquez, the quote that keeps on quoting, is angling for a new deal and with the offseason barely a week old, he has positioned himself favourably. In case you haven’t heard, Vasquez is quite fond of being in Toronto. A week ago, on a day in which Kyle Lowry’s impending free agency took centre stage, it was his backup, Vasquez, that stole the show delivering an emotional 19-minute soliloquy, with the occasional question sprinkled in. He thanked the city, its fans, his teammates, coaches and general manager. He thanked the Toronto school board. “My son cannot wake up at 8:00 in the morning, he wakes up at six because he’s excited to go to school.” He thanked his waiter at the local all-you-can-eat Brazilian steak house.
The Raptors had team chemistry, a mysterious quality, but one missed greatly when not on hand. Masai Ujiri has emphasized its importance to our side’s success, which I’m happy about. Presumably he’ll retain the services of as many of our guys as he can, particularly those (like Amir, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson) who’ve made it clear they want to return. Not all was beer & skittles for our guys. A 1-6 record in overtime was damaging, and of course starting the season 6-12 before turfing Mr. Gay overboard didn’t help. The Raps showed a marked lack of interest in wiping the floor with bad teams. For example, we were 8-0 against the dismal outfits from Philadelphia and Milwaukee. On the surface that’s fine, I suppose, but the largest margin of victory was 11 points over Philly, and 12 over the Bucks. Before our team can truly frighten anyone, we’ll need to prove our ability to destroy the injured, tanking or just plain bad opponents we face.
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