Great White Sharks are apparently like serial killers. They don’t just rush in and attack the first thing they see, rather they like to stalk their prey, from just out of sight, waiting until it’s dark, and their victim is alone, and then, with a sudden rush, they attack.
Masai Ujiri has a bit of that shark in him.
After what seemed like years of aimless swimming, the Raptors president oversaw a sudden assault this week that had the NBA reeling.
Even the vaunted Shams Charania got spooked, accidentally releasing an X-cretion into the wild.
The fact that the Raps’ play for Damian Lillard didn’t ultimately work doesn’t keep it from being another example of the sort of bold move that Ujiri has been famous for in his career.
In the words of a different star who now seems unlikely to be available to the Raptors, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the deal wasn’t a failure. Rather it was part of the: ‘steps to success’.
Because, if nothing else, the Raptors again surfacing to take a bite at a star player nobody thought they had any business being in on is a reminder to the league, players, and hopefully the fans in Toronto, that this front office is dedicated to winning at the highest level.
If Masai’s patience in waiting for a shot at a player like Lillard to come available shows he won’t be sped up, no matter how loud the fanbase brays, the fact he was willing to go for the move also shows that the Raps’ braintrust is fully aware that the team, as presently constructed, isn’t good enough to win at that highest level.
So now, absent Dame, where does the shark swim from here?
HUNT FOR THE NEXT STAR
In many ways you get the feeling that this is Masai Ujiri’s preferred course. He’s never really indulged in a full teardown. Ujiri has instead show an uncommon willingness to sit in the middle, patiently waiting for something to shake loose while keeping the combination of “right now” and “future assets” to make a play.
The past two weeks have shown why that’s not such a bad strategy. It’s not just that the Raptors were close to acquiring Lillard, it was because of the team that DID make the deal. Milwaukee was terrified that Giannis would leave, and if this season had gone badly, Toronto would have, for several reasons, been a team firmly in the mix to acquire him.
The problem with the Giannis theory is the same problem that the Masai now faces in the theoretical quest for the next disgruntled star (Luka? Embiid? Zion?). Timing.
Dame didn’t just make potential sense on Toronto because of his fit, it was because he was available now - while Toronto still had pieces like OG Anunoby, Garry Trent Jr., and Precious Achiuwa on reasonable deals, and a legit number two in Pascal Siakam, around to pair Dame with.
It was theoretically possible that Giannis might bail on the Bucks after just one more disappointing season, just like it’s theoretically possible Luka or another star may want out this year, but it doesn’t feel likely.
That means if Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster want to keep all their best assets for both a trade and for the infrastructure necessary to scaffold a new star they need to extend Pascal Siakam, Anunoby and Trent Jr. (and perhaps Precious Achiuwa). However, as we saw with Tyler Herro, the league looks at a player’s flaws much more closely once they get paid. Anunoby will always be desirable, but will the nit-picking over his lack of handle and poor court vision as a $25-$30m player dramatically reduce his value?
Of course, those deals would also fling Toronto into the luxury tax. Can Ujiri and Webster convince MLSE to pay that tax, even for a short time, in the name of roster flexibility?
TL;DR: If there is a big swing to be made this season, expect Ujiri to strongly consider it - it may be his last chance to do so without a major remodelling - but it seems unlikely another significant piece that fits so well will shake loose.
TEAR IT DOWN TO THE STUDS
It seems more likely now than ever, that Toronto will be forced to pivot to something the fan base has been calling for - a full on rebuild. If that happens Toronto has four key assets to move.
While the ‘O.G. Anunoby is worth five first round picks’ take will likely be proven as nonsense, he’s still easily the most valuable player the Raptors have. You can sell him for a good return, no problem.
Gary Trent Jr. is similar to Anunoby as far as a guy who will be easy to trade. Every team could use more young shooting, especially when it comes with a dash of defense. If the D becomes more than a dash, or if Trent Jr.’s playmaking progresses in what will presumably be an offense with a lot more ball movement, GTJ could get Toronto an interesting return. Especially as negotiating a contract extenstion with Trent Jr. seems very possible for an acquiring team. However, there is a world where GTJ continues last year’s middling efficiency and ends up being more of a ‘couple of seconds’ type asset.
Jakob Poeltl will have a lot of value, and for those who don’t think an Ujiri led front office would trade a guy they just signed, look no further than to his Nuggets days, when he signed Nene Jr. to a five-year deal, only to flip him three months later. If the tear down is happening, Poeltl is too valuable an asset to hold on to.
Pascal Siakam is the best player of the four, but also the trickiest to deal. Siakam, an impending free-agent has made it clear he’d like to test out the market if he’s not a Toronto Raptor. How much does a team offer for a guy who says he’ll strongly consider leaving? Now of course many players say things, and then presented with the fact to make, or lose money, do the other (see: ‘Lillard, Damian’), but it will potentially thaw the market, as could the fact, that as brilliant as Siakam is, he doesn’t fit on every team, given that he isn’t a floor spacer, or a rim protector.
Could Siakam prove to be an upgrade say for the Sacramento Kings over Damontas Sabonis? Definitely. Would he perhaps make sense in Boston if Porzingis gets hurt, allowing Jaylen Brown to thrive more as a spot-up shooter and taking the secondary playmaking responsibilites off his hands? Sure. What about as an overall upgrade on Draymond Green in the Bay? I can see it.
There are a bunch of teams that you can make arguments for (maybe the Suns want to pivot from Beal to a player like Siakam who adds size and defense?), but its a smaller list, and requires more effort to see the fit. A home-run return is possible for Spicy P., but perhaps not something to be expected.
Beyond that, a healthy Otto Porter could be the: ‘veteran you’re shocked gets moved for a first’, Chris Boucher is an odd player but a useful one - he too could find a new home, but its hard to see a great return. Dennis Schroeder probably has some sort of market as a 3rd/4th guard, especially for a team that may be starved for offense. Achiuwa seems likely to play himself off the trade block, one way or the other. He’ll either pop, and be part of the future, or play down to his most aimless instincts and lose value.
Gradey Dick ain’t going nowhere in this scenario, and neither is Scottie Barnes. In this world, you’re probably moving forward with some sort of odd Koloko-Achiuwa-Barnes-Dick-Jeff Dotwin kind of configuration with Jalen McDaniels as your 6th man... so San Antonio don’t count that pick quite yet.
TL;DR: If Masai and Bobby want to sell this could be a bloodbath, but... ‘more likely than ever still’ doesn’t mean it’s likely. Besides, does selling all at once give you the chance to properly figure out what you’ll need?
THE TWO PATHS AT ONCE APPROACH
This is the one that would probably drive the most people nuts. In concept it’s not too different from the ‘Hunt’ approach, but in practice it is a little different.
Because of that San Antonio deal, Ujiri and Webster will be cautious about a teardown that misses. One that leave the Raptors bad, but not so bad that the Spurs still don’t grab a plumb pick. It’s also worth noting that this draft is not considered to have truly elite talent at the top. I.e., if the Raps were to bottom out now, they aren’t necessarily getting anything that dramatically changes their long-term projections. If Ujiri and Webster didn’t try to tank to get Victor Wembenyama or Scoot Henderson, they ain’t doing it for Ron Holland or Alexandre Sarr.
There is also the like it or not fact that Ujiri sees value in staying flexible - while he may acknowledge that cashing in on, say O.G. Anunoby, makes sense (especially if Achiuwa does pop), it just doesn’t feel on brand for Ujiri to throw everything over board.
Given the Raps lack of shooting, is it insane to imagine Trent Jr. get extended? I’d also argue that Siakam is more likely to get extended that not, if only because his value on a defined contract will be greater - even if it comes with some sticker shock (although, with the expected rising cap, fans would do well to remember that $50m is the new $30).
Whatever the Raps want to be, having a competent centre is a massive security blanket for younger players, so in this scenario, I imagine Poeltl is here until Christian Koloko, or someone yet to be on the roster, makes him expendable.
If I were a betting man, I’d expect to see Anunoby, a healthy Porter (please, oh please), and perhaps pieces like Schroeder and Boucher moved — largely because their value will be highest this season. Although you can make a case that the last two guys are more valuable when they become expiring players.
As for someone Toronto might be interested in acquiring? What about Collin Sexton? Yes he’s an undersized guard who’s defense is limited, but he very quietly put up a near elite offensive season. Per Cleaning The Glass, Sexton was in the 79th percentile or higher for usage, points scored per shot, and effective field goal percentage. He shoots the three at a high-rate and while he is still mediocre as a play-maker, he’s not yet 25.
Sexton won’t be Dame Lillard, but he’d bring the three-level scoring ability Toronto currently lacks. Right now he’s comfortably ensconced as the Utah Jazz’s sixth man, and Danny Ainge doesn’t give away his toys, but if Utah is again better than expected, could an Anunoby for Sexton and picks deal make sense for both sides?
TL;DR: Toronto will make some moves, but, because Ujiri values the ability to pivot, it will keep Toronto closer to the middle than most people are comfortable with.
So, given all that which one is the most likely path?
Given the shark metaphor I’m trying to beat into the ground, another patient hunting period is the call. It seems very unlikely that Luka or Embiid or someone else who matters is going to shake lose before Ujiri has to make hard decisions about who to pay on this roster.
Because of those decisions, it seems clear that this hunt is going to have a little more near term action. Ujiri, after failing on gambles that he could bring back Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet (for varying reasons of foreseeability), will be loath to walk any more players to free-agency.
Expect a quiet stretch until at least the trade deadline, so Ujiri and Webster can figure out what they have under a new system, and, ideally better vibes. Does Barnes pop to the level that moving Siakam for less than he’d be worth on an extension make sense for purposes of on-court clarity? Or does Barnes pop in a way where it seems the two can play together? Does Achiuwa take a leap, making it easier to move off of Anunoby? Is there a world where Barnes could stagnate enough on and off court, that Ujiri decides to cash in on what is supposed to be ‘the future’?
Whatever moves Ujiri makes, expect them to be strategic, and maybe even controversial, but also expect them to leave Toronto with enough teeth to make other teams nervous.