One of the drawbacks to covering and/or rooting for a professional sports team is that it can engender short-term thinking. The NBA season is a long 82-game slog, drawn out over 6 months; and yet, too often we hang on the results of every game, and sometimes every quarter. We -- both writers and the readership (we're interchangeable, of course) -- can't help but draw conclusions based on small sample sizes, to swing back and forth on young prospects depending on how they look on a given night; and to play the somewhat futile game of 'read the mind of the executive who's impossible to read'.
But let's try the latter...
That executive, the man in charge of proceedings -- the man whose decisions over the next few months will go a long way to deciding the outlook of the franchise for the next few years -- waits patiently. He examines the NBA landscape and projects where he see his team fitting in. While taking stock of every bit of organizational minutiae, he's able to look at the season month-by-month, able to pick through the highs and lows of a random Wednesday night game in the Association -- to dismiss what needs to be dismissed, and to absorb what needs to be absorbed. He understands regression to the mean, but also that players can have a bad nights, even bad weeks.
We speculate. He makes trades that we didn't see coming -- trades that don't get out to the press until they are done and dusted (or until the other team leaks them).
We guess. He knows.
He sees the big picture. He is Masai Ujiri. And we believe in Masai.
Ujiri's approach to NBA business has been a breath of fresh air to fans of the Toronto Raptors. After suffering through the knee-jerk, short-sighted, decision-making of Bryan Colangelo, it's hard not to be in awe of a general manager who seems to be able to plan for the long-term. A general manager who understands the importance of flexibility -- the importance of thinking a few moves ahead, so to speak. Ujiri, although things may change as teams wise up to his seemingly Kissingerian negotiating skills, strikes a hard bargain. He gets draft picks in return for expensive Italian amnesty candidates; cheap moveable contracts back for 19 million dollar player options.
Yes, that's right, just over a week ago Ujiri was able to move the man with that 19 million dollar option. Trading Gay to the Kings represented the last major piece of dismantling to the house that Colangelo built -- a very poorly built house on very unstable ground. But, as much as that trade seems to have signified the start of a Raptors roster reconstruction, the result on the court hasn't been what you'd usually expect when a team trades away its highest paid, and most talented (in theory, at least), basketball player.
Those who don't watch the Raptors (everyone south of the 49th parallel, except for Zach Lowe) may be surprised to know that they're looking like a reinvigorated basketball team. But Raptors fans knew that losing Gay would be addition by subtraction. The sample size is small, but where there was once pointless dribbling, a waving off of screens, and 22-foot jump-shots; we now see something resembling an NBA offense. Ball movement, sweet ball movement!
The Raptors are 3-1 in the post-Gay era, but here's the thing; some of the fan-base is now a little worried.
Sure, we want to see good basketball -- basketball played the right way -- but given all that's at stake in the summer of 2014 (Wiggins, Randle, Parker, Exum, Smart, and more) winning too many of these games, played the right way or otherwise, seems counter-productive. The Raptors, more so than most other teams, desperately need to build through the draft. And there are drafts pick in 2014 that you can absolutely build a team around.
After the Gay trade Ujiri was quoted as saying that the Raptors would not end up in the middle of the pack. As currently constructed, however, the middle of the pack is right about where this team will end up. As much improved as this team may be, post Gay trade, it goes without saying that they're far from an upper echelon conference contender. At the same time, however, with the putrid cesspool that is most of the Eastern Conference, the current incarnation of the Raps are much too good to fall into the dark depths of the lottery.
If the Raps, as Ujiri promises, are not to end up in the middle of the pack -- in the dreaded NBA no man's land -- then there are more trades to come; trades that will lower the short-term ceiling of the team, but brighten it's long-term outlook.
And Kyle Lowry will be the first to go.
Given his expiring contract, and his current form (very good), he should be the easiest to move. The Knicks were interested just a few days ago -- and boy do they need a competent point-guard -- but James Dolan seems to have realized (much too late, of course.) that giving away draft picks, and even picking up the phone when Ujiri calls, is an exercise is masochism.
The Nets and Warriors are both apparently interested in Lowry's services, while the Lakers and Bulls would be good fits, as both teams desperately need some back-court scoring. And while one of the goals of moving Lowry would simply be to make the Raptors decidedly more incompetent, and therefore much more likely to get a high draft pick, Ujiri will also be looking to get something of value back. A 2014 1st round pick would be extremely unlikely, especially as Lowry might be nothing more than a rental for any team that trades for him; but some talented young players, on rookie contracts, might be in the offing.
And then things become trickier.
After Lowry the most obvious players for Ujiri to move if he wants to send his team hurtling towards a top-5 draft pick, are DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson. But yet, both players are fan-favourites (Amir especially) and both would contribute positively in a rebuild. DeRozan, although we've been teased before, appears to have made a jump this season, while Johnson continues to be one of the most underrated, and underappreciated, big-men in the NBA. Both men are low maintenance, high-character locker-room guys who love the city of Toronto and seem to take pride in playing for the Raptors (not always a given).
But if the goal is a top prospect in the 2014 draft, trading Johnson and/or DeRozan could unfortunately represent the proverbial eggs that need to be cracked in order to make that omelette.
While DeRozan has improved this season, he's still somewhat one-dimensional. He's not a good defender, nor is he a notable passer or rebounder at the shooting-guard position. Parting with him now might be a case of selling high. If Ujiri decides to trade DeRozan he'll undoubtedly try to snare a 1st round pick; although, even if he's able to achieve that goal, that pick is likely to be low, as it'll probably come via a contender.
Trading Amir Johnson, as mentioned, would be a tough pill for Raptors fans to swallow considering how loved he is among the fan-base; but again, it might be a necessary step to take. One team that would be a perfect trade partner is the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers desperately need to improve their big-man rotation. After Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, there's a monumental drop-off in quality. Johnson would be the ideal first big off the bench for Doc Rivers' team and would represent a huge upgrade over Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins. Johnson can defend, set screens, rebound, catch and finish at the rim, and even hit from mid-range. I don't want to say that Amir would propel the Clippers to championship contendership, but they'd be closer than they are now with him on the roster.
And considering that their pick is likely to be towards the end of the 1st round, it might be something that they'd be willing to trade in exchange for the services of a quality, high energy big-man like Johnson.
Otherwise, the Raptors are probably open to trading other serviceable rotation pieces -- the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak -- to teams looking to fill specific voids on their roster as we move closer to the February deadline.
Once again, as presently constructed, the Raptors could quite easily make the the playoffs given how bad the Eastern Conference is. But that would likely result in a first-round exit and a scenario in which the team enters next season without a top prospect from a loaded draft, and in a conference that is bound to be significantly better, post Tankapalooza 2014. Masai Ujiri understands this. He won't be selling the house for nothing -- he'll fight for picks, young assets, and flexibility -- but he will sell.
As nice as it's been to see the team play fun, quality, basketball over the last few games, it's important to keep the big picture in mind. Ujiri certainly won't be thinking in terms of small, short-term improvements, and that's why the Raptors are open for business. And it will have be the kind of business where you take a hit in the present to make a profit in the future.