Column

The Raptors Started Rebuilding Last Year

Come close, I have a secret for you: the Raptors are knee-deep in rebuilding. Shhhhhh. Keep it to yourself.

“But,” you yell into your computer, “they haven’t shed one monster contract! They should be tanking if they are rebuilding!” Well, yes, that would be true if they were rebuilding in 2007, but a) that isn’t the way Masai Ujiri rebuilds, and b) rebuilding doesn’t have to mean a full tear-down and tank job.

Think of it like the ‘Ship of Theseus’, the famous thought experiment that asks if Theseus’s ship was rebuilt slowly, as rotted planks are replaced by new ones, once all of the planks have been replaced, is it the same ship? The ship was never deconstructed wholesale, but one day you look up and all of the pieces are new. It’s rebuilt. (I won’t attempt to wade into the waters of whether or not it’s a new ship, which is the point of the thought experiment, because I’m not smart enough to enter that fray.) There is no rule that states that for a team to be rebuilt they must be deconstructed entirely, in one shot, they just need all of (or most of) their planks replaced.

Yes, by this logic, all teams are always being rebuilt, but that isn’t the point I’m trying to argue. The Raptors were definitely locked into an era defined by the presence of three key figures: DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Dwayne Casey, an era that most now feel concluded this June when the Raptors won the NBA title. I would contend, however, that that era actually ended a year ago, when the Raptors fired Casey and flipped DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. That’s when the rebuild started. In dismissing two of the three key figures of the past era, after years of Playoff disappointments, Raptors president Masai Ujiri kicked-off his first rebuilding project since returning to Toronto — it just so happened that his first moves resulted in the uncommon fortune of winning a Championship.

Those moves, though, were about ending the past era and rebuilding for the future of the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri was tired of the team’s predictable style of play, and wanted it overhauled by a more dynamic, modern coach. He wanted to move past the limitations in DeRozan’s game, so he traded him (something he had flirted with doing just about every summer). Moving past DeRozan was a symbolic gesture as well as a strategic one, though. DeRozan had been the face of the Raptors, the fan-favourite who chose to stay in Toronto not once but twice, and Ujiri had a big decision to make about DeRozan’s future with the club. DeRozan had a player option on his contract at the end of the 2019-20 season, and given his stature in Toronto, he was likely to opt out of the $27.7-million final year of his deal with the expectation of inking a new long term (and more lucrative) deal. Ujiri was no doubt loath to ink DeRozan to another pricey contract given his postseason struggles, but he also hates losing players for nothing, so he was working against the clock to move on from DeRozan and into whatever was next once he was gone.

That he was able to trade DeRozan and get Leonard in return was almost dumb luck. Right up until the deal was consummated, few believed Toronto was even a realistic suitor for the former (and now current) Finals MVP. Just because the Raptors kicked-off rebuilding and won a title doesn’t mean that they didn’t kick-off rebuilding last summer. Remember that at the deadline Ujiri was flirting with sending Lowry along with Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis in a deal that would have included Mike Conley as well as Marc Gasol. He was ready to move fully past Toronto’s previous era.

Which brings us to this summer. There were many sour faces when Raptors fans realized that not only was Leonard leaving for Los Angeles, but that after a week of waiting nearly every relevant free agent was also already taken. However, it is very unlikely the Raptors would have tried to replace Leonard with an expensive veteran (if that’s what they wanted to do, they could have just spent to keep Danny Green). Why was it unlikely? Because they are already knee deep into rebuilding, and pricey vets would have just served to take minutes away from developing younger players (like Patrick McCaw, their free agent that the DID re-sign). Ujiri is not running the Raptors like a mutual fund, parking his money in old, safe companies. He’s a running the club like a Silicon Valley incubator, looking to spread his limited capital around on a bunch of risky startups with the hope that just one of them hits.

His summer has been spent inking deals with “second draft” youngsters like Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Cameron Payne, as well as taking fliers on guys with potential (but also high-bust probability) like second round pick Dewan Hernandez, EuroLeague sharpshooter Matt Thomas, and Summer League standout Terrence Davis. The Raptors have invested heavily in their player development program, and after this summer it is going to be put to work like never before trying to make one of these guys the next Pascal Siakam or Fred Van Vleet.

So why then, if the Raptors are going into their second year of rebuilding, don’t they just go all-in, shed their vets, and tank right now? Well, one easy reason is they doesn’t have to. The Raptors are still good, possibly top-three in the East good. If Milwaukee or Philadelphia looks vulnerable, and the Raptors look capable, Ujiri has the assets to make a win-now move if one presents itself to make another run. If those teams look mighty and the Raptors look weak, he can try and flip his expiring vets for future-looking assets from needy teams looking for an edge (just like Memphis did with Gasol last winter). There is nothing to be gained making moves like that today because Ujiri is operating with only a part of the knowledge and sliver of the leverage he could have by December or January.

Another reason not to bother tanking is because they have Pascal Siakam. He’s already better than anyone on New York, Phoenix, Charlotte, Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans, and so racing to the bottom of the standings would be extremely difficult even if they committed to it. This is especially true because the Raptors would probably want to hold on to Fred Van Vleet, OG Anunonby, and Norm Powell, and Nick Nurse would still be coaching, so even in tear-down mode they can only get so bad, and it probably isn’t bad enough to justify the cost.

Perhaps the biggest reason to avoid tanking today, though, is the Raptors are defining an identity as a hellacious defensive team that plays very smart and competes very hard. When you tear a team down to the studs, it can be very hard to maintain an identity like that. Players just lose motivation to work that hard every night. Likewise, player development becomes a lot harder without smart veterans around to maintain a culture of accountability and professionalism. There is a reason teams like New York, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Minnesota lose perpetually despite being showered with high draft picks. Van Vleet often credits much of his growth to being in the constant presence of Lowry. It means something when coaches say you have to play a certain way to succeed, and then you see an All-Star teammate go out and prove the point. For a team that prizes internal development, that counts for a lot.

Rebuilding comes in many different forms. Oklahoma City was forced into a rebuilding phase, and with no young players to build around, they’re hoovering up draft picks for their next era. The Clippers, on the other hand, also totally rebuilt, and they never had to spend a season in the league’s basement before they re-emerged. Ujiri will rebuild at the pace he does everything else at: slowly and deliberately. He won’t make moves until he has to, either because they are too good to pass up or someone’s contract status dictates it. He’ll probably be so methodical about his rebuilding that it will just feel like nips and tucks until you realize that the whole team has been turned over, and he’ll keep at it until he feels he has a shot at a title and then he’ll strike quickly and aggressively to try and win it.

The Raptors are moving into year two of rebuilding the Raptors in a post-DeRozan direction. Keep it quiet, though, because if it happens slowly enough most people aren’t even going to notice that it’s happened.

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