Masai Ujiri has become surprisingly content with the status quo. He has barely touched the young core that he inherited from Bryan Colangelo when he took over the club. He has likewise kept the controversial coach Colangelo left for him. His most recent transaction was to lucratively extend the contract of a slow-footed post player, another Colangelo holdover. His team was bounced from the first round of the Playoffs in two consecutive years and yet the biggest import he’s made during this tenure is for a 3-and-D role player to help augment his pre-existing core.
Basically, Ujiri has done as little as possible to upset the status quo of the Toronto Raptors since he took over the club just over two years ago, and yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who’d criticize him for the totality of that strategy.
That has a lot to do with the aforementioned Colangelo and the wild swings he would take to try and push the team forwards by leaps, often face-planting in the process. Those inside and outside the organization watched as he tried to chase every name player that hit free agency or the trade market, and so its no wonder that Ujiri’s willingness to mostly ride the same wave year-in and year-out has been met with a certain amount of calm-induced acceptance.
That said, heading into year three as GM of the Raptors, it’s hard to say that the team has meaningfully improved since the one major trade Ujiri pulled off in the first months of his tenure, the one that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento for an impressive haul of role players (the one that accidentally put the team on the course it’s on now). Ujiri has mostly looked to tweak the fringes of a roster that sits decidedly below the elite in the NBA — that is when he’s not re-signing his own free agents to new deals — and the moves he’s made this offseason seem to imply that he’s further hitching his wagon to this version of the club rather than looking at how to significantly improve it.
Take a look at this summer’s transactions: he replaced Amir Johnson with Luis Scola, he replaced Tyler Hansbrough with Bismack Biyombo, he replaced Grievis Vasquez and Lou Williams with Delon Wright and Corey Joseph and he tacked four additional years onto Jonas Valanciunas’ contract. On the whole there isn’t a lot of improvement there, just a redistribution of skills (lose some offence, gain some defence). Of course, he also brought in DeMarre Carroll, and Carroll will sort of replace Terrence Ross by doing what the team wanted Ross to do but do it better, while Ross will be asked to do what Lou Williams did off of the bench but will likely do it worse.
Now, the idea here is not be willfully obtuse. Obviously this is a team that struggled at the defensive end last season and so Ujiri attempted to balance out the roster by importing some defensive options, expecting that DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Valanciunas can help more or less approximate the offensive output of a year ago. This is not a weak strategy and, in truth, it is the kind of iterative approach to filling in holes that Colangelo steadfastly refused to employ, and that went a long way towards sealing Colangelo’s fate two years ago.
But is the team better? After all, DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas struggled on defence last year, but they’ll still be getting the bulk of the minutes for the club at their respective positions. Patrick Patterson is expected to slide into the starting five to replace Johnson, but his defensive bona fides aren’t really anything to write home about, either. So is the idea here that Carroll starting, Joseph backing up the 1 and the 2, and Biyombo playing spot minutes is all going to amount to a defensive turnaround for the club? Are they meant to vault the Raptors from the basement back into the top ten, or just into the middle-of-the-pack defensively?
Put it this way: I think that the club has improved, that the fit of these players will work out to be stronger than the fit the club had last year, but when it comes to the record or the Playoffs I can’t say that this club is meaningfully better year-over-year.
Ujiri has always been an opportunistic GM. He doesn’t wildly overplay his hand, he doesn’t try and take shortcuts when building a team and he rarely makes bad moves. It’s a strategy that netted him a stellar (likely) lottery pick in next year’s draft from New York, it’s a strategy that allowed him to nab Andre Iguodala for Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington when he was running the Nuggets and it’s a strategy that makes him feared by opposing GM’s because he won’t make big mistakes.
However, it’s also a strategy that has kept his teams from advancing past the first round of the Playoffs in five attempts. It’s a conservatism that keeps him nimble enough to execute any trade at any time, but it’s also one that can leave him lying in wait while other, bolder (and, perhaps, more reckless) executives gobble up the bulk of the prey.
Under Ujiri, there is always a sense of ‘yeah, but wait to see what he does next summer!’ Last summer he mostly just re-signed his own players, while everyone looked forward to this summer, when the club would have gobs of cap space to play with. Then, this summer he spent that cap space on role players to augment his controversial core, and so everyone is now looking towards that lottery pick next year and the options made possible by the skyrocketing salary cap. There’s always one eye on the future with Ujiri, which is a great quality, but sometimes the future can look so tantalizing you forget that you still have a present to take care of.
The Raptors being a perennial Playoff team would be nothing to sneeze at, given their history. If this club is going to spend the first years under Ujiri making iterative progress inside of that reality, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. It’s just that, when the growth is too iterative you actually stop improving, you just change. Eventually players just get older, or contracts just expire, and nothing meaningful ever winds up getting accomplished. That’s what it is to maintain the status quo, to accept things more or less as they are. The belief is that Ujiri would make a bold move when compelled to, it’s just a question of what it takes for that compulsion to boil up in him.
There is nothing wrong with this summer’s transactions, just like there was little wrong with Ujiri’s transactions in Denver. It’s just that now that we have five years of data on how he likes to run things a broader pattern has begun to emerge. He likes to massage the fringes of his rosters. He’s never hired or fired a head coach. He likes to maintain rather than discontinue. Year three was his most successful in Denver, but it still resulted in a first round exit and we never got to see how he would have handled that disappointment. For an executive that has never liked to overcommit he’s one DeMar DeRozan extension from doing that with this particular Toronto Raptors roster. I’m not sure if it’s meaningfully better than the one he fielded last year, and if I’m right I wonder if we’re on the verge of seeing the first cracks in Ujiri’s longstanding tradition of maintaining the status quo.