1. Masai Ujiri, Raptors
Few things are harder to balance in an NBA front office than boldness and caution. And nobody has done that better than Ujiri. He has ascended up the executive ladder with precision—every decision he’s made feels like it has a clear purpose behind it, including the one not to leave Toronto after last season’s success.
Masai not only traded for Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018, he also furnished the rest of the team with ideal complementary pieces, created the perfect environment for Kawhi to feel comfortable, and put the franchise in the position to capitalize on its situation and win its first title. Kawhi bolted after one season, but Ujiri stayed, and the Raptors are somehow legitimate East contenders this season, too. With Giannis’s free agency on the horizon and Pascal Siakam only getting better, Masai and the Raptors don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
1. Nick Nurse, Raptors
There’s no NBA coach hotter right now than Nurse, which is a pretty funny thing to say about a guy who spent a decade coaching in the British Basketball League. But Nurse managed to grind his way to the top of his profession, eventually leaving England for an assistant coaching gig in the United States Basketball League. He was able to parlay that opportunity into becoming the head coach of the then–D-League’s Iowa Energy in 2007. Six years later, he got the call from Dwane Casey to become an assistant on an NBA bench.
Nurse didn’t waste the long-awaited opportunity. He helped the Raptors reach the playoffs in each of his five years as an assistant. In 2017-18, he became the team’s unofficial offensive coordinator and helped fuel a franchise-best 59 wins behind more pace and space.
When Casey was fired in the offseason for not advancing further in the playoffs, Nurse inherited a strong playoff team—but his tweaks (and the trade for that Kawhi guy) led to newfound success in Toronto. Known as an offensive wizard willing to push even the furthest of boundaries, Nurse helped the Raptors realize their potential, ranking in the top five in both offense and defense in 2018-19, and eventually going on a postseason run for the history books, culminating in the first championship in franchise history.
When Leonard left in the summer, everyone (yes, everyone) assumed the team would take a massive step back. Instead, the Raptors have gone 46-18 this season, earning a .719 winning percentage that’s actually higher than the Raptors’ mark with Kawhi last season. Whether it was unlocking Pascal Siakam, giving Fred VanVleet even more freedom, or discovering gold on the bench like Terence Davis, Nurse has given the rest of the league a new blueprint to work off. His .712 winning percentage is the highest all time of any NBA head coach. That’s a long, long way from the BBL.
Much to his chagrin, Ujiri is the only Black team president in the NBA. What’s more, there are only eight other Black general managers across the league. “I might be one of two Black presidents in all of sports,” said Ujiri on the pod. “How is that possible? That distinction is disgraceful. It’s embarrassing. it’s not something that I should even be talking about.”
With the league composed of predominantly Black rosters, the NBA comprised itself of 81.9 percent of Black or players of colour last season alone, but only a third of the leagues head coaches are people of colour — a league high since 2014. “We have to look at ourselves, and how we hire,” Ujiri added. “There is institutional and systemic racism, it happens, and you don’t even see it.”
The numbers reveal a problem not only in sports, but much of the greater world — opportunity still does not come equally, and neither does justice. With the league set to return to action in just over a month’s time, much of the players are divided on whether a return to play is even appropriate.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to take shape around the world, the return to action in Orlando has been seen by some players — and by fans — as a potential distraction to the cause. But Ujiri is certain that whichever direction the NBA takes, the conversation won’t stop there.
“I’ve heard everyone’s opinion on whether to play or not play. We have to use this opportunity, and it starts in Orlando. We have to continue this conversation. We can’t stop, this cannot stop in Orlando.”
However, there are several concerns that may derail the NBA’s plans. For one, Florida has become a hotspot for COVID-19 as there were an additional 7,543 confirmed cases over the weekend, to bring the number of active cases to 97,291. Fortunately, there are only 3,556 active cases in Lee County, where the Raptors are staying in the meantime.
There is also a faction of players, led by Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, who may sit out in an act of solidarity with the ongoing protests across the world against police brutality and anti-Black racism. There are also other players, such as Davis Bertans of the Washington Wizards, who plan to sit out for fear of suffering an injury that could jeopardize future earnings.
For the Raptors, there are no indications that anyone on the roster is inclined to sit out. Players can skip the restart without any punishment other than not making the prorated remainder of their salaries for this season, but they do have to make a final decision and alert their teams by June 24.
TSN Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg joins Kayla Grey to discuss the Raptors’ move to Florida for training camp, what the team will be able to do together and when they can ramp things up.
For the Raptors, the calculus right now appears to be simple: follow the rules, accept the league protocol, and make a good-faith attempt at participating in this season addendum so as to properly defend their 2019 NBA title. The question regarding potential future cases of coronavirus inside the Disney World bubble looks to still be pushed off for another day, a bridge to cross when we all come to it together.
But of course, we won’t come to it together — it’ll be left to the players and staff sequestered in a vacant sports and hotel complex in the middle of an American state that seems ready to let the virus kill people with impunity. They’ll have to deal with it as best they can.
In that case, there’s not much we can say or do now, except worry.
The Raptors will not hold team workouts in Fort Myers, those the NBA has mandated must wait until they get on to the Orlando campus, but will continue their individual workouts at a Alico Arena, home to the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles.
Testing for the coronavirus for all Orlando-bound NBA personnel begins Tuesday and will be repeated every other day. Tuesday will also see the players and travelling party — all teams are limited to a total of 35 people to enter the Orlando bubble — subjected to antibody testing. That will only be repeated if a person tests positive for the virus.
The entire process all but accepts that there are going to be positive tests. It’s inevitable. But with testing beginning today (Tuesday), that gives a player who does initially test positive a minimum of two full weeks to recover in time to enter the bubble.
The hope and the expectation is that all the precautions the league has taken and will take once that campus opens will mitigate the risks as much as possible but the reality is no one will really know until they’re all in the bubble.
There are plenty of concerns going forward, including what had been a continually rising number of COVID-19 cases in Orange County where Orlando resides. That rise finally was halted Sunday but the numbers remain high in an area the league will be drawing workers from on a daily basis and bringing into the bubble.
For now the majority of players seem to be on board with the plan to resume, but that too could change at any moment.
What we do know is the Raptors have already taken the first step towards seeing how effective that plan can be.
We kick off another week of hypothetical trades for the LA Clippers by making the transition to the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. Today, we attempt to find a trade with the division-leading, NBA defending champion Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors are having an incredible season, currently sitting as the second seed in the East with a record of 46-18. Toronto has been able to overachieve expectations after losing superstar Kawhi Leonard to none other than the LA Clippers last offseason. They have succeeded with a mix of great defense, depth, and team play as well as the emergence of Paskal Siakam as a bonafide star.
The Raptors make an interesting and difficult trade partner for the Clippers, as both teams are well-set in their rotations and should feel confident in the way their rosters have been constructed headed into the playoffs. There aren’t any obvious holes in either team’s roster or quick and easy fits that mutually benefit both teams.
However, we tried to put something together to give the Clippers another top-of-the-line two-way star while giving Toronto some extra depth a little bit of youth in return.
Why we suggest this trade for the LA Clippers:
Kyle Lowry would give the Clippers another All-Star caliber player to add to their rotation. The 34-year-old point guard is a “win-now” option in the final year of his contract, however, the Clippers would most likely be able to retain him after the season for far less than his current $34.9million price tag.
Retaining Lowry at a lower price could help them hold onto Montrezl Harrell, which should be their main concern going into this offseason.