It’s been just over four years since Masai Ujiri’s introductory press conference in Toronto, which means it’s been just over four years since I fell in love with Masai Ujiri. What can I say, I’m a sucker for pandering and was hooked the moment Masai talked about coming home to Toronto.
The Raptors were free from Bryan Colangelo and his love of Bargnani, and all indications seemed to point towards a new direction for the franchise. I believed from that opening press conference that Masai intended to tear down a broken roster and start a rebuild.
And oh how close we came. If it weren’t for James Dolan’s fear of all things Masai, Kyle Lowry would have been shipped to Toronto in late 2013 following the Rudy Gay trade with Sacramento.
Everyone knows it, but the current Raptors’ team is a happy little accident. Instead of looking at a complete rebuild the Raptors have instead had the four most successful seasons in their history, have won 50+ games the last two years (having never done that even once before), and even advanced to an Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual champs in six games.
If you had told any Raptors’ fan in July 2013 that this would be their future they would have called you a liar and may have never spoken with you again.
Life has been good under Masai Ujiri. From Fuck Brooklyn, to We Don’t Give a Shit about It, and so much more, Masai has been the rallying cry for fans. Management that could finally be trusted.
Time and time again Masai Ujiri has double-down on this happy accident, and has opened up a three year window for this current group. Unlike years in the past the Raptors now have a self-destruct deadline, with Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka all expiring in 2020, with the option still available for Masai (and Bobby Webster) to push the self-destruct button early if things go sour.
All of this makes it very difficult to write a season preview for Ujiri, as the current roster is largely locked in. He has simultaneously built a core of veterans who are aiming at winning now, while also stocking the back 2/3rds of the roster with young talent to develop, and the success of the next few years is entirely dependent upon those two groups hitting their stride at the same time.
Trading DeMarre Carroll this summer indicates that the Raptors are hoping to avoid paying the tax this season. If Toronto carries only 14 players on the roster and Lowry and DeRozan don’t hit all of their unlikely incentives the Raptors will barely be below the tax line, meaning that adding salary this season is unlikely.
If a roster move is to be made this season it will almost assuredly be of the minor variety (think Bebe for an equal or lesser paid wing). Other than the final decision on Alfonzo McKinnie and KJ McDaniels, the roster we see today will likely be the roster we see at the end of the season.
His end of the year press conference last season created a sound bite when Masai talked about creating a new culture. We’ve seen glimpses of it through three games of pre-season, as the Raptors are playing a faster pace, shooting more threes, and largely ignoring the mid-range shot which has been a staple for them.
And although I think Masai is beyond reproach when it comes to his job, he still has key decisions to make this season that will shape the future of the team. What’s to be done with Dwane Casey, he of repeated lame-duck status that has only two years left on his contract? What future do Bruno Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira, and Fred VanVleet have with the Raptors as all will be free agents next summer? Is there anyone who is willing to take Jonas Valanciunas without incentive, and how what is the value assessment for trading him rather than keeping him? How should the Raptors’ value the development of young players like Delon Wright and OG Anunoby compared to the current pressure of an aging core?
Up until now Masai Ujiri has handled the difficult task of building two timelines simultaneously as well as possible. Since the Raptors have already signed Norman Powell to an extension there is very little active work left to do. Now we can sit back and wait to see what team Masai chooses to swear at next.