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Masai Ujiri: Vindicated

Nine months ago, Masai Ujiri had had enough. Yes, his Raptors had finished the season with the best record in the east, and head coach Dwane Casey was on his way to winning the Coach of the Year award, but after another embarrassing ouster by the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers, Ujiri reached had his breaking point. He had seen this exact scenario play out one too many times before, and he decided to blow apart the most successful version of the Toronto Raptors while they were arguably at the peak of their success.

What followed were three moves, each met with dismissiveness and each essential for where the Raptors find themselves todaym, heading to the NBA Finals. Even if the Raptors fail to win a title this season, each of these moves has proven to be a masterstroke in what will go down as the greatest season in Raptors history.

Let’s take a look at each of these moves, and how they contributed to the team’s success this year.

Ujiri Fires Dwane Casey, Hires Nick Nurse

The criticisms outside of Toronto were loud and frequent when Ujiri decided to fire Casey after his most successful regular season, winning 59-games and finishing with the best record in the east.

Ujiri, though, has never been impressed by regular seasons. He’s seen organizations overvalue their achievements in the regular season and how it pollutes their assessments of what they actually have on hand. He’s watched franchise eras wither away while pointing to their regular season success as a justification annually running it back.

Casey was, for lack of a better descriptor, a “regular season coach”. He organized his squad in a way that made the grind of the regular season work to his advantage, at the expense of preparing them for the crucible of the Playoffs. His schemes became predictable and he was slow to adjust to adversity. When people would point out that he’d only really lost to LeBron, they were willfully ignoring how he lost to LeBron, which was often in an embarrassingly ill-prepared fashion.

When Ujiri elevated Nick Nurse to the top spot on the bench, he was selling one thing: a coach willing to experiment. Nurse spoke openly about using the regular season as an opportunity to try every idea that came into his head —- schemes, rotations, attack styles —- so that when the Playoffs arrived, the Raptors could adapt on the fly to the various looks they were going to get from opponents. Nurse was willing to punt the regular season (trusting that his talent would prevent them from falling out of the Playoffs) in the name of being adequately prepared for what awaited them in the postseason.

Nurse proved to be true to his word. He experimented often: platooning his starting centre position, trying all kinds of combinations of starters and bench players, and running all sorts of different actions that at times made it look like the team was a little too disorganized to make it all work. The only consistent themes Nurse preached were effort and intensity. As injuries and load management kept his roster in flux, Nurse returned to the themes of effort and intensity as the unifying factors to get them through their 82-game training camp.

All of that tinkering has paid off in spades in the Playoffs. It wasn’t that Nurse would start calling on specific strategies from the October-through-April warm-up, it’s that he had trained his group to be comfortable with discomfort. When he decided to start using B-I-G lineups against Philadelphia, it wasn’t because he had seen it work in the regular season, instead he had trained the minds of his players to know how to adapt to wildly different approaches so that when he did made a radical change it wouldn’t throw off their execution. Where Casey trained his players to lean into one consistent rhythm, Nurse trained them to be ready to play any rhythm. While it is easy to say that Nurse had the better players, his mandate was made clear well before Ujiri starting tinkering with the roster. Of course, that roster tinkering certainly helped make Nurse’s job a lot easier.

Ujiri Trades DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green

There was obviously no bigger move that Ujiri was made with the Raptors than this one. In hindsight this looks like the most obvious of moves: if you can make it, you make it ten times out of ten. However, there was no shortage of raised eyebrows at this one last summer. DeRozan was a beloved figure in Toronto, famously the first star that wanted to play his whole career in Toronto. That meant something to fans used to being spurned and dismissed. Then, to trade him for a player that had just missed all but nine games from the previous season and was less than a year away from becoming a free agent, and one that was almost guaranteed to leave, made the sting of the trade all the most potent.

There was a time, in the immediate aftermath of the trade, that many expected Leonard not to report to the Raptors. So certain was the rabble that Leonard was just biding time before he could sign in LA, some wondered if he might just sit out another season and wait for free agency to arrive. This sentiment was so popular it became front page news when the Raptors posted a photo after Leonard’s physical that showed him smiling (as though he may actually be okay playing a year in Toronto).

What’s happened since then has become borderline-legendary. Leonard did report to the Raptors, was engaged from day one, and (despite the controversial load management days) won fans over with his overwhelming talent and iconic ‘fun guy’ personality. In the Playoffs, he’s put on an historic run that has many calling him the best two-way player in the NBA again, and possibly elevating his status higher than it ever was in San Antonio because he doesn’t have Gregg Popovich’s legend overshadowing his greatness.

https://twitter.com/BillSimmons/status/1131930353789071361

As an offensive player, Leonard does some of the same stuff DeRozan did, just better. His isolations are more effective, his change-of-pace game makes him harder to guard, and obviously his three-point shooting makes him a much more dangerous weapon from more spots on the floor. On defence, Leonard is just in a completely different sport than DeRozan. He is an all-time perimeter defender, the kind that gets compared to Scottie Pippin, and his versatility allows him to guard multiple positions, including the opposing team’s best player (what he’s done against Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo is remarkable).

It’s gotten to the point where, even if Leonard chooses to leave for the Clippers on July 1st, this trade was still worth it. For this one season alone, if this is all there is, Leonard gave Raptors fans the ride of their lives. It is highly unlikely that someone as results-oriented as Ujiri would have kept a DeRozan-led Raptors team together after DeRozan’s upcoming free agency, and so if the choice had to be made to have two more seasons of DeRozan’s Raptors or one season of Leonard’s, I think most Raptors fans would gladly take what has transpired over the last nine months and their first trip to the Finals.

Ujiri Trades Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, and CJ Miles for Marc Gasol

It remains unclear if people realize how important this trade was. Valanciunas, like DeRozan, was a popular figure in Toronto, and his exploits on a rebuilding Grizzlies team had many feeling like the Raptors had gotten the worse end of this deal, but they didn’t. And it’s not even close.

First there is the obvious: Marc Gasol smothered All-Star Nikola Vucivic in round 1, which completely neutered Orlando, and then made life miserable for All-NBA centre Joel Embiid in round 2. Without him they do not win against Philadelphia.

It’s not just his individual defence, either. Gasol is able to handle his one-on-one matchups while also being fully present and aware of the needs of the team defence. Valanciunas can have good defensive games against big, burly centres, but he falls apart when asked to do that and play as part of a five-man string. Gasol is the conductor of the team’s defence, calling out assignments and what he sees from the crows nest of an NBA defence. His ability to contain the pick-and-roll, react to three-point shooters, and recover to protect his space is essential for how these Raptors want to guard opposing teams.

It goes beyond that for Gasol, though. Putting him in the starting five, alongside Kyle Lowry, Green, and Leonard gives Toronto one of the highest-IQ starting units in the NBA. One of the biggest reasons for the drop-off you’d sometimes see from the bench is that the starting five is so smart that it’s just hard to replicate that kind of intelligence. Gasol gave the Raptors another way to set their offence (after Lowry’s probing, Leonard’s isolations, and Pascal Siakam’s work attacking off of the dribble), which makes them that much harder to guard, and so even when he isn’t hitting his shots he’s positively impacting the offensive flow.

This deal was also key because it allowed the Raptors to package Wright into a deal that returned value (it was highly unlikely that they were going to pay to re-sign him) and it gave Miles a chance turn his season around in a lower-pressure environment. Some complained that it crippled Toronto’s depth, but Ujiri saw last season how much value that depth offered in the Playoffs (answer: not much) and decided that he’d rather parlay it into as much top-shelf talent as he could acquire. The things that separate Gasol from Valanciunas are not always superficially apparent, especially when Gasol is missing shots, but the combined intelligence of Gasol, Lowry, and Leonard is not additive, it’s multiplicative. Add that to the fact that he’s another player who’s played in enough big games to not be phased by things like an 0-2 deficit in the Conference Finals and you see all the ways that his addition has empowered the Raptors to achieve the heights that they’ve reached this year.

Masai Ujiri is not the kind of guy that needs to be publicly vindicated, but he has been, regardless. He took bold swings this year, and it could be argued that no one of those swings works as well on its own as it does when combined with the other two. Hiring Nurse to coach last year’s Raptors probably does not make a huge difference in the postseason. Trade for Leonard to play under Casey, or these Playoffs without Gasol by his side, and Kawhi’s efforts are probably not nearly as impactful as they’ve been this spring. Then, without those first two moves, Ujiri probably doesn’t even bother to bring in Gasol.

When the Raptors hired Ujiri, this is the kind of success they had in mind. They paid him a lot of money to come to Toronto, and then paid him even more to stay. They brought him in to replace someone who got too high on his own successes and was too blind to his failures. This season especially, Ujiri proved to be the opposite: dismissive of his successes and obsessed with his failures. With three moves he took a very good team and made it great. If this only lasts for one season, and one trip to the Finals, it will be a season that Raptors fans never forget, and one that Ujiri can hang his hat on the next time he wants to make a series of big, controversial moves.

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