Masai Ujiri has had his share of emotional moments. He yelled “Fuck Brooklyn” to a frenzied Jurassic Park crowd in 2014, a year later proclaimed that he didn’t give a shit about it when Paul Pierce said the Toronto Raptors didn’t quite possess… well, it. He was also handed a $25,000 USD fine for walking onto the court at halftime of Game 3 of the 2018 East semis against Cleveland to berate officials.
These incidents have had little to no bearing on the big picture, and when it comes to maintaining that perspective on the task at hand, Ujiri has been cool—cold even—calm, and collected. He has always been a man with a plan, but surgically changes direction when the situation demands it and keeps the Raptors machine smoothly chugging along.
Entering 2020’s free agency window, the plan was about doing whatever it took to ensure the Raptors could be serious players for star free agents in 2021—two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo among them. This hasn’t been a new idea, of course—it’s the best they could make of the cards they were dealt when Kawhi Leonard opted for the Clippers instead of re-signing with the Raptors.
So, it should come as no surprise that in the light of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka seeking what they perceived to be greener pastures in Los Angeles, Toronto’s front office didn’t deviate. They didn’t hit the panic button and give either big man greater tenure. Instead, they left emotion out of it and were able to secure depth at the centre position in the form of new faces in Aron Baynes and Alex Len while re-signing Chris Boucher, all while maintaining the plan for 2021. All three contracts come with a non-guaranteed second year. Fred VanVleet signed a four-year deal worth $85 million and even that includes a salary decrease for the 2021-22 season.
The Raptors have spent years manufacturing the opportunity to secure a top-tier talent from the free agent class of 2021 that could be headed by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they weren’t about to let their hearts get in the way of what their minds have earnestly put forth.
When he first arrived as general manager, Ujiri wanted to clean house and began the process by trading Andrea Bargnani for expiring contracts and future picks. Trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for role players was supposed to firmly establish course. Kyle Lowry was on the verge of being traded, but James Dolan ensured the Knicks balked and the Raptors suddenly found chemistry. Ujiri let them keep at it and even rewarded the coaching staff that seemed on their way out with job security. Now the Raptors have seven straight playoff appearances, two conference finals, and an NBA title.
Nothing is guaranteed, but you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. The Raptors have spent years manufacturing the opportunity to secure a top-tier talent from the free agent class of 2021 that could be headed by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and they weren’t about to let their hearts get in the way of what their minds have earnestly put forth. Remember, DeMar DeRozan could well have been picking up his $27.7 million player option as a member of the Raptors, not the Spurs. They would be right where they are now but with a dramatically different backdrop: licking their wounds wondering why they couldn’t get to the NBA Finals after LeBron James headed west.
But Kawhi Leonard’s unhappiness in San Antonio became Toronto’s joy; it was too good an opportunity to pass up and Ujiri was able to pivot. The Larry O’Brien trophy followed and in a perfect world, Leonard would have re-signed. The beauty of Ujiri’s pivot, though, is that Leonard’s departure brought the Raptors back to the original plan. When asking whether it’s worth it for the Raptors to try and swing for the fences in 2021, it needs to be remembered that the alternatives were likely either maintaining Gasol and Ibaka while going into the luxury tax for a team that doesn’t quite have a championship ceiling or staring down a roster that still includes DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, and Delon Wright as well as an organization that remains trophy-less.
Now, Toronto will continue to remain very competitive in the East—perhaps not quite at the level of Miami, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia, but they should be right in the mix with that next tier. Boston replaced Gordon Hayward with Tristan Thompson and have Kemba Walker’s wonky knee to deal with. Brooklyn has several questions to answer with Kevin Durant returning from an injury that usually spells doom for NBA careers, Kyrie Irving’s injury and team leadership history, as well as a first-year head coach in Steve Nash looking to put all the pieces together. Finally, the Indiana Pacers reportedly have two disgruntled stars in Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner.
Come what may over the course of the 2020-21 season and playoffs, Toronto will offer a core of Pascal Siakam, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and a champion head coach in Nick Nurse to free agents in 2021. If all goes to plan, the best front office in the business will also remain intact with new extensions for Ujiri and Bobby Webster. This is a far cry from the Knicks clearing cap space with nothing else to offer. For a superstar considering new options, the Raptors’ situation should prove extremely enticing.
And if the plan doesn’t work out, it happens. Sometimes you draft Bruno Caboclo, other times you get Siakam. The bottom line is this: the Raptors front office has proven it knows how to pivot with precision as well. They are thinking and hoping fastball but have shown time and again that they won’t be made to look silly by a curveball—there will be a Plan B. Either way, they have certainly built up the equity to try.