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Musings on Kevin Durant and the Philosophy of Masai Ujiri

I have no idea where I stand on Kevin Durant as a potential Toronto Raptor. I do know where I stand on Masai Ujiri and his vision. And that might be all that matters.

13 mins read
Original photos via Sports Illustrated and TSN

Yes, musings.

Musings are allowed, it’s summer for goodness sakes. Besides, last year it was rantings.

I’m improving.

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Durant requested/pled(?)/misdirected(?)/issued a ‘Kyrie-or-Me’-ultimatum(?) that Brooklyn cast him free from #NetsClusterF 2.0.

Normally, I’d refrain from the hubbub. No one – not even Woj or Shams – knows what the Hell’s going on. No point speculating.

But the dilemma of pursuing KD versus preserving the entirety of a core and future draft picks is one spicy meatball of a dilemma worth discussing.

I don’t envy [I do] Masai having to, ultimately, decide. Nor do I, exactly, know where I’d land either. 

What I do know is that this isn’t as simple as “what’s KD going to cost?”. For Masai, this is an inflection point: to indulge the allure and possible discount of the great Kevin Durant or to march on past with a Master Plan well under way.

MUSING ONE: Kevin Durant is not Kawhi Leonard; Toronto is not Toronto of Olde.

It’s fitting, with all this recent KD trade talk, that Monday was the 4th anniversary of Masai Ujiri trading our faithful and beloved All-Star, DeMar DeRozan, for an unpredictable, laconic, and [at the time] hobbled Superstar, Kawhi Leonard.

Some argue KD is Toronto’s 2022 version of Kawhi Leonard. Maybe at first glance: a spunky, competitive Raptors core desirous for someone to single-handedly drag their offence to the NBA Finals.

And while Kevin Durant’s value is much higher now than Kawhi’s at the time – Kawhi had not played an entire season due to mysterious quadriceps stuff (Read: disgruntlement) – KD’s stock has dropped significantly from a combination of age (34), poor health (90 games played in 3 years), moolah (4 years/$194,219,320), and Brooklyn’s avaricious asking price.

Go no further, Comparisonists. The corollaries stop there.

Kawhi was cheap. KD is not cheap.

Kawhi’s silence, stubbornness, and unwillingness to sign an extension, soured teams. You recall, Boston refused to give up a raw Jaylen Brown; other teams, too, were unwilling to part with anything substantial – current or future.

For Toronto, casting the die on Kawhi was worth a pick, a young Jakob Pöltl, and DeMar, who’s trade value was already slipping. Danny Green, and some cash made the trade a more digestible venture. Should the trade have gone awry, the Raptors had a safety net of salary flexibility, future picks, and a young core.

You’ll get none of that in a KD trade.

It’s quite the bind.

Of course, KD is deserving of that value, on paper. We just saw what Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gobert fetched. Soon Donovan Mitchell will command that or, apparently, more.

It’s justified. KD, more than all of those players, transforms any team into a Finals contender.

But all of it comes with an immense amount of volatility. Not only must a team kiss “buh bye” to its distant-future equity. With a presumably-depleted roster, it must walk a terrifyingly tight rope of good health and good vibes in the immediate-future too.

It takes only one health-measure teetotaller or one hamstring pull for everything to topple over with nothing and no one to soften the fall.

That Toronto was primed for change. This Toronto is not primed for change.

From 2013-2018, Toronto clawed its way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. A wondrous accomplishment for a team that sputtered for so long.

Yet, all that growth and success mattered little come Playoffs. In those five years, the Raps lost twice in the 1st round, twice in the 2nd round, and once in the Conference Finals.

The ultimate Playoff attempt in the DeMar-era – arguably, instigating Toronto’s realization that change was necessary – stifled by a LeBron-James-led sweep in the 2nd round. The “FINISH THEM”Mortal Kombat voice sternly commanded LeBron to rip the beating heart out of all of Canada. He obliged.

Conversely, however you feel about this young, wonderful, vivacious, blossoming Raptors team [I think it’s clear how I feel], you can agree that their journey has only just begun.

The two years following the championship were transitional. Toronto slowly shed its older core while enduring all the fuckery of COVID, the Bubble, and Tampa.

Only last year did the newest rendition of the Toronto Raptors truly commence:

Year number one for Freddy and Pascal as primary options and undisputed leaders of the team.

Year number one for Gary Trent Jr. in a high-volume role.

Year number one for Precious Achiuwa learning how to dribble.

Year number one for Scottie Barnes to play in the NBA.

And, arguably, and most importantly, year number one for Masai and Nick Nurse to finally enact a vision they’ve likely had for quite a long, long time.

MUSING TWO: Masai the Purveyor of Patience

There is no alchemy to building a championship team. Each carves its own path. Sure, Pat Riley, LeBron James, Bob Myers, and Phil Jackson would tell you otherwise, but all is fallible. 

Masai Ujiri, too, has a methodology he, rightfully, deems best. For him, roster building demands meticulousness, dedication, and, most importantly, patience. Which more than anything speaks to Toronto’s reliance upon internal development.

Sure, transactions are integral, but they’re tangential to the overarching strategy. All of what Masai and his executives do – the ideology (“strength + length”), the player-types and personas, the 905, the drafting, the comradery, the player development staff and so on – is tied to a primary focus on building a champion from within. 

That doesn’t happen over night. It doesn’t stop just because of one, two, or three failures. It doesn’t change course because of a hiccup or expectations are, disappointingly, unmet. Growth and excellence is not linear. There will be ups and downs. And all of that is accounted for.

Not everything will turn out. It seldom does. But if the conviction is strong, and you trust the person with the conviction, you have to abide by it. And also trust they’re humble enough to know when it’s over. Just ask DeMar and Dwayne Casey.

This [Masai’s] patience is so definably unique to the Toronto Raptors. Few other teams boast such dedication to an ideology and a surrounding institution unitedly supporting it.  

Some, like Golden State, Miami, and, I’d say most similarly, Denver (surprise, surprise, Masai’s previous stop) have demonstrated a similar approach. Each have drafted and developed their core and fringes; signings and trades are parallel or subsidiary to the process (Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler both, despite being superstars, fit Golden State and Miami’s profile). 

But it is Toronto who has taken players few teams coveted – even Scottie Barnes, to a much much much lesser degree – and transformed them into All-NBA and All-Defensive calibre.

Slowly building, building, building…

MUSING THREE: There’s no Innovation without Experimentation

I know, I’m starting to get a little Tech bro-y, but hear me out – especially all you who’ve begged for Richaun Holmes, Myles Turner,  Rudy Gobert, or, to a lesser extent, DeAndre Ayton over the last little while.

There’s a reason why, for the third season in a row, Toronto has forgone any major commitment to an alternative archetype.

All of what we’ve seen over the past 18 months – from drafting Scottie and Dalano Banton to trading for Precious to testing guys like Yuta Watanabe and Isaac Bonga to acquiring Thaddeus Young to drafting Christian Koloko to signing Otto Porter Jr. – is part of Masai’s grander vision.

It’s been talked about ad nauseum over the course of the season, so I’ll go no further other than to remind us all that Masai is steadfastly creating a team the NBA has never seen before.

Guys like Pascal, Scottie, OG, and Precious are integral to that plan. Without their strength, size, agility, and offensive versatility, there is no vision. There is nothing for Masai to build towards. He’d have to tear it all down and start anew.

That’s why we’ve not seen a trade for a big who demands touches and requires a certain style of defence. It’s why we’ve not seen a free agent signing of a scoring guard unable to reliably defend.

They don’t fit the mould.

Enter KD who fits Masai’s ideal in the most tantalizing way.

Thus, the conundrum: forego all that Masai has worked towards and all the remaining potential for this one near-optimal acquisition or let the older, “declining” scoring God waltz his fickle way south or west, just not north, and continue to build towards the ultimate ideal?

My inkling?

All of what I’ve just discussed tells me it ain’t gonna happen. The only way it will is if it’s one Hell of a bargain. One in which Brooklyn is very, very unlikely to proffer.

Masai’s waited too long and is too close to the pinnacle of all that he’s created to venture astray now.

Barring an unavoidable opportunity (a Kawhi-like superstar-franchise hostage crisis) or an irreparably troubling event (player angst or major injury), I’d say we’re riding this one out.

So hold on tight, baby!

(BTW: you can apply all this logic to Donovan Mitchell rumours too.)

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