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3 Lessons: On Masai “No Bluff” Ujiri, the perception of Lowry, and life as the seller

The Toronto Raptors at the trade deadline declined to pull off the really big Kyle Lowry move we thought was coming. But we learned some other lessons as a result.

Toronto Raptors Open Practice Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s finally done. Whether you’re happy with the Raptors’ trade deadline moves or suddenly have the trying-too-hard-to-be-a-smart-fan take that “Masai Ujiri got too sappy”, at least we can all move on. The biggest move, the Norman Powell-for-Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood trade, was clearly made with an eye towards the future, while the biggest potential move, a Kyle Lowry trade, was avoided because the future benefits simply did not outweigh those of the present in Masai’s eyes.

While I believe a proactive Lowry trade made sense with the right offer (so chill out, “now we lose him for nothing!” crowd), I certainly won’t be storming Tampa with a torch and pitchfork demanding answers for the lack of assets in Toronto’s war chest. You won’t have to convince me to enjoy Lowry’s stretch run with the team.

Anyways, here is what we learned in this bizarre past week.

1) Masai does not bluff

*Now… which Kenny Rogers lyric shall I use here? Ah, yes there we go*

As Kenny Rogers once crooned, “Every gambler knows that the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” Well, Masai made that assessment, and we will see if his gambles paid off.

I think this is a lesson for the rest of the league as much as it is one for us. With all three main Lowry suitors — the Miami Heat, the Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Lakers — Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office set a specific asking price. When those teams refused to meet it, he did not budge. Masai and Bobby Webster clearly went in with a plan and did not allow the countdown to 3:00 PM and an elevated heart rate to suck them in to a trade that they had assessed as below fair value.

Didn’t somebody tell them? Masai Ujiri does not lose trades.

Did we really think that he was going to sell-off the greatest and most important player in franchise history for a guard averaging seven points a game and a late first-round draft pick? It is not like he was suddenly overcome with nostalgia and sentimentality. The Raptors surveyed the board and decided there was more value in keeping him around, with the potential of doing so for even longer, provided the price is right. If not, a sign-and-trade remains on the table for Lowry in the offseason.

And if Lowry signs to a team that can pay him without a sign-and-trade next year, which appears to be the least likely Lowry scenario this offseason, then we’ll be ok. Duncan Robinson (who we’d have to pay) was not going to change the trajectory of the franchise. Nor was Tyrese Maxey.

I do believe this deadline impacts negotiations with the Raptors going forward. Teams know that they’ll have to pony up to make a trade with the team. Waiting them out and relying on the pressure of the fanbase just is not going to cut it. Whether or not the aforementioned teams will regret balking (you only use the word balk in baseball or when a sports team doesn’t like a trade offer) at the deal remains to be seen. That said…

2) The Kyle Lowry value disparity persists

Convincing those south of the border of Kyle Lowry’s value is ever the plight of the Torontonian. From fans to media members alike, Lowry possesses the intangible qualities that both parties beg for from their basketball players — grit, a team-oriented approach and a “winning > numbers” mentality — yet, when a player like Lowry embodies those qualities, they suddenly undervalue him because of lack of flash and individual achievement (which, he frankly has plenty of). It is an absurd paradox, but, at this point, it appears it will endure for the entirety of Lowry’s career.

As the trade deadline neared yesterday, I thought it was inevitable that one of the teams in pursuit of Lowry would finally put in the pieces that Masai wanted to make a deal. Nope. Talen Horton-Tucker was not added, nor was Tyler Herro or the Philly package that would have certainly got it done. I mean, I understand the value of these guys, they’re the reason we could have left happy with a Lowry trade. But to eschew a significantly improved shot at a title right now to keep them? Frankly, I was a bit surprised.

While I believe the Lakers are still a strong contender and the favourite in my eyes, I was particularly surprised by Miami and Philly’s unwillingness to make it work. Jimmy Butler is 31 years old and a Jimmy Butler minute is similar to a Kyle Lowry minute in that it is played about three times harder than the average NBA player. Their window won’t stay open forever.

Daryl Morey has long preached doing what it takes to get a star and worrying about fit later. Well, how about a star that’s a perfect fit, one that Morey has long pined for?

Scour the voices of these teams and their fans, and the prevailing thought was that they did not need Lowry, or that he didn’t add the requisite value.

Sure. I can’t wait to watch Philly and Miami lose to the Milwaukee Bucks or Brooklyn Nets in a series that they could have won. Trust me when I say this, I don’t root for the Nets or Bucks teams lightly. The dream scenario, as has been bandied about on Twitter, is that the Raptors find themselves, sneak into the playoffs and hand either the Heat or the Sixers an upset with a transcendent Lowry series. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but impossible? I would not say so.

3) Playing the seller is a slog

As Toronto’s COVID-19 stretch and subsequent losing streak walloped the team and flipped the switch, at least in the eyes of many fans, from “see how it goes” to “get value while you can”, the team suddenly rose to the forefront of the national conversation. The constant discourse around the Raptors became exhausting awfully quick, and I was soon more excited to just put the deadline behind this team than I was to see any potential deals.

It felt like a garage sale, with detached people rummaging thoughtlessly through your possessions which, though they are on the market, still hold meaning to you. It was the first time in a while that the team has been in this position, and personally, I hope the Raptors can stay out of this spot for some time.

It certainly cast a cloud over the team, and every game felt like it could function as a pseudo goodbye. But it is done now. Going back to focusing solely on basketball will be a wonderful reprieve. There was even some interesting stuff last week! Pascal Siakam had a nice bounce back after his reported spat with Nick Nurse. OG Anunoby’s case as the most impactful non-star in the NBA continues to build. The Denver game was the most fun I’ve had watching basketball in a month, in no small part due to the excellent all-women’s broadcast from the game.

Seriously, Kia Nurse was awesome. In an ideal world, the end to her illustrious playing career coincides with the moment that Jack Armstrong hangs up the headset and we get 20 years or so of Nurse performing colour commentary for the Raptors, provided that’s in her plans.

It’s time to go back to fully enjoying all of those things, and I am here for it.

Now, let’s see if these guys can get out of the play-in and make life hell for an ambitious Eastern Conference team in the playoffs.