Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri began his end-of-season news conference the exact right way, pointing out that any early-May meeting with the media to discuss his team’s offseason plans could only be characterized as “BS,” due to the fact that the NBA’s 2017 offseason hasn’t truly begun yet.
He’s not wrong. Kyle Lowry will become a free agent this summer, but only after opting out of his contract on July 1. Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson will also remain Raptors employees until that date, and the earliest Ujiri can do anything with tradable starting assets like DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas is right before the NBA draft on June 22.
Until then, any on-record statements would seem to be premature and somewhat weightless, in the face of an offseason that can’t begin for another seven weeks in earnest.
Ujiri allowed for all that, prior to committing to as deep a committing to gutting as one can create, as the general manager of a pro basketball club:
“After that performance, we need a culture reset here,” Ujiri said today at his annual end-of-the season media session.
He continued, discussing the team’s four-game loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semis, a loss that can’t be explained away merely by referencing the injury woes of All-Star Lowry:
“The end of the year was disappointing. Let’s call a spade a spade. The end of the year was disappointing for us. That series was disappointing for us. We thought we could do better. I don’t know what it is. We’ve started to study it, and I can’t tell exactly what it is. At a point, we looked wide-eyed. We didn’t make shots, I understand. But I sometimes feel that wasn’t our team that we saw out there, to be honest.”
One can read deeper into Ujiri in-game realization (“that wasn’t our team”) if you want, he inherited Lowry, DeRozan, coach Dwane Casey and center Jonas Valanciunas from former GM Bryan Colangelo, and Ujiri has never had the chance to rebuild the Raptors as he saw fit. Four seasons of winning, playoff basketball thankfully got in the way of as much.
With the Raptors banging their heads against the wall, falling to a Cleveland Cavaliers team for the second straight postseason while giving every indication available that the Raptors are as aware of the LeBron Issue as the rest of us, it would appear the perfect setting for Ujiri to either lay into his club, or peel off a few road markers to warn of the construction ahead.
After sharing the disappointment with the way the Cleveland series ran out, with the doughy Cav defense still finding its wind long enough to stay in front of a Raptors offense that was far too easy to load up on, Ujiri discussed his interactions with the fifth-year Raptors coach on the record:
“One of the things that I discussed with Coach Casey is how we play. We’ve done it the same time over and over again. Is it going to work the next time? We have to figure that out. The one-on-one basketball we play, we have to question that.
“The style of play is something that we need to change. I’ve made it clear, and Coach has acknowledged it, and he’s already thought about it. Just some of the things that we do, it’s not working anymore.”
It isn’t, but with Casey signed through 2019 and the team rubbing up against the luxury tax in its attempts to retain Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in the same backcourt, it’s clear that internal development has to be in order.
It will have to be in place whether the GM sets fire to the 2016-17 roster, or if he continues apace (at great cost).
“I’ve just made it clear that it’s going to be difficult for me to keep changing players,” Ujiri said on Tuesday, following a 2016 offseason that saw the Raptors add two first-round picks, re-sign DeMar DeRozan for $139 million over five years, sign a free agent in the since-traded Jared Sullinger, while inking both Casey and Ujiri to contract extensions. Ujiri, via trade, then dealt for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker near the February transaction deadline.
If the Raptors do rebuild, however, Uriri’s initial interests will be in more than just “changing players.”
The culture change, even, would have to wait if Masai decided to refigure the team entirely, passing on retaining Lowry at just about any price while looking to deal DeRozan to a team willing to clamp onto the shooting guard’s prime. If the Raptors do rebuild this offseason the club will be stuck in a hole to work out of, likely committing to a lottery season without the added benefit of a 2017 lottery pick to season during the lean times in 2017-18. Unless Ujiri thinks he can somehow make a trade with a lottery club feasible should it involve DeRozan, who gums up the cap with his $27 million salary for next season.
He also gums up a team with 25 to 30 points a night, and he’s about to work through the best years of his career. So DeMar had a few bad days in the presence of J.R. Smith’s withering defense in the conference semis, what’s the guarantee that such a roadblock will be in place next season? LeBron will be back, as Lowry reminded us once the Cavs went up 3-0 on Toronto, but also at age 33 and after leading the NBA in minutes per game in 2016-17.
Kyle Lowry nearly took the minutes title from James this year, a few more healthy games would have helped with that, and though the point guard has proven dogged and at times inspirational during his career as a Raptor, Lowry’s flaps-out style has made the 31-year-old All-Star (freak) injury prone almost since the outset of his career. The guy is going to give you his heart, but he’s also going to give your training staff a bum wrist to look at after yet another rebound and pell mell drive.
Retaining the whole crew and relying on internal development would only bring back the (year older) core of a 51-game winner, with young helpers like Norman Powell and Cory Joseph relied upon to take a major jump. Younger participants like 21-year-old Jakob Poeltl (26 postseason minutes), 22-year-old Bruno Caboclo (nine appearances all season) would also be asked to take on a larger role should Masai Ujiri decide to thin out that crowded frontcourt.
While 51 wins is no guarantee in 2017-18, the 209-win run for the Raps between 2013 and 2017 counts as the 22-year-old franchise’s best grouping of consecutive winning seasons by a wide margin. To take this team apart would be to take apart the best thing that Toronto Raptors fans have ever had.
A rebuild offers absolutely no assurances, either, outside of the reliability of Ujiri’s ability to acclimate.
No obvious trading partner exists for any of these Raptors, and though nobody on this team is putting up a trade demand, it’s a hard sell to any fanbase and/or ownership group to move in on a full rebuild without a young, lottery-bred prospect in place to settle things down. Work without one of those, and you’re going to remind of the Orlando Magic team that was forced into dealing Dwight Howard back in 2013. We saw where that franchise headed in the years that followed.
Masai Ujiri saw all of that, and he saw what we saw with the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors. This was a team that failed to think on the fly, and one that looked outclassed by the league’s elite even during its finest moments. The Raptors lost in each of their nine attempts against the Warriors and Cavaliers this season, and championship contenders in-waiting tend to do a little bit better than that in real action. Especially in what was supposed to be The Year Where It All Came Together.
Now Ujiri has to make it, whatever “it” turns out to be, coalesce alongside coach Dwane Casey. The options beyond that can wait until July. Until then, the GM has to determine just what sorts of players he wants on his side moving forward.
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