This is part of a series of player review from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here.
Masai Ujiri is a man of mystery. Nobody has any idea what’s going through his mind at any given moment. With that being said, he probably has a killer poker face. Had the Dos Equis beer company not found Jonathan Goldsmith, Ujiri would’ve been a great option for their “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign. If he’s still using his Blackberry, kudos to him. Not just for staying loyal to them for all these years, but for establishing himself as one of the smartest sports executives in the world today.
Although he’s known best for making something out of nothing (the Andrea Bargnani-trade led to a domino effect that resulted in the team’s first championship and I will never… EVER, get over it), this season was one where Masai was relatively quiet. It was only during a year in which the Raps played away from Toronto, that the effects of losing three key rotation players, along with a top-five superstar, became too much to overcome. That he replaced Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka with Aron Baynes and Alex Len, was a total oversight. I admit, I was surprised when Ibaka left. Gasol was used less than he ever has been during his first season with the Lakers and he’s no longer a perennial DPoY candidate, so his departure didn’t sting as much. Regardless of who came in and who left, injuries and COVID protocols decimated the Dinos all season.
Inconsistency & (lack of) chemistry
The Raps have set numerous franchise records since 2014 and that’s largely because it’s been the best seven-year-run in the teams existence. This year was another that consisted of a record-setting high with 38 starting lineups – the most ever used in a single season. And, well… it was because Baynes didn’t pan out and Len, who was waived on January 19, underwhelmed after just seven games. Signing the latter to a one-year deal was a minor move for Masai, who definitely had it in his mind that Len could be let go at anytime throughout the season, which would clear a roster spot in the event that someone better became available via trade.
There wasn’t a single player out there that Ujiri could’ve made a play for without giving up more than he was getting back. I wrote about how no trade would be the best trade in February and the idea behind it was that there were no reinforcements that could be made without disrupting team chemistry. To be fair, the team didn’t show much chemistry but when you consider the inconsistency in lineups (and even with the coaching staff missing some time), it’s likely that gelling as a cohesive unit was never even a reality.
Shipping out Norman Powell
Even though Ujiri didn’t make any significant moves to address the center position, trading Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood was essential to retaining any salary cap flexibility this summer. First, Powell had established himself as a capable scorer and a solid defender and based on the league’s justified infatuation with three-and-D players, he was going to command north of $20 million. Toronto already has Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby locked into big money deals that span through the 2023-24 season and extending Norm for his desired and well-deserved raise just didn’t seem like something Ujiri and Toronto were going to do. As much as I enjoyed watching Stormin’ Norman, I can’t see a core-four of him, Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby leading the next era of Raptors basketball and raising championship banner number two.
So, he did what he always does and made a well-calculated move that preserves cap flexibility going forward without sacrificing too much. It worked out because Trent Jr. should command no more than $17 million annually and Rodney Hood has a $10 million team option which Ujiri will almost certainly decline.
Center of attention
It wasn’t until a few days in early April that Toronto signed Freddie Gillespie and Khem Birch to beef-up the frontcourt, effectively ending the Baynes-era for the 2021 season. While Gillespie was a project from the G-League, he provided energy off the bench that was otherwise hard to find for a rotation with more turnover than my old retail jobs. Birch was bought out by Orlando, which allowed the countryman to sign with the Raps and because of the opportunity available, he showcased what he wasn’t able to with the Magic, averaging career-highs in nearly every category over just 19 appearances.
Although tanking was never his objective, Ujiri knew he was better served throwing in the towel somewhere along his teams seven-game losing streak, as they closed out their 2021 campaign before the playoffs began – the first time it happened since he rejoined the franchise.
Ujiri has always stated that his intention is to win, dismissing any possible speculation that he ever intends to take on a tanking project. His past off-seasons have resulted in some radical changes and when you consider the draft assets, cap flexibility, and the culture we’ve come to know over the last several years, this summer will be another franchise-defining spectacle and it starts with Ujiri.