He didn’t have to be there, but he was.
As the Toronto Raptors arrived at what was the crescendo to their maiden NBA title — the playoffs — Jonas Valanciunas could have been anywhere he wanted. He had been traded to Memphis, a team that hadn’t made the post-season, and so he could have been on a beach, back home in Lithuania, or feet up on his couch spending some quality time with his family.
Instead, Valanciunas chose to be with his brothers, at least those who were still left, for Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round series against the Orlando Magic. He sat on the sidelines and rooted for his guys, was greeted by MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Superfan Nav Bhatia, and received a terrific applause from the Raptors faithful. Should that matter? No. What should matter is the events that led to him making that choice.
The Lithuanian selected fifth overall by the Raptors in the 2011 NBA Draft arrived in Toronto as a 20-year-old, shy so as not to embarrass himself with the media because of his broken English. Lonely because of all he had left behind. He learned as time went on, did his level-best to adapt his game as the tectonic plates of the centre position shifted, and rose to the occasion that is the post-season on several occasions.
For the sheer body of work, Valanciunas put himself in position to at least be asked the question. The Memphis Grizzlies centre, who devoted six-and-a-half seasons to Toronto, deserved to have the
ball ring in his court and make his own decision from there. And not just because of what he did during his time with the Raptors, but what the franchise itself has been about during its rise through the NBA ranks and now in its 25th season, as reigning champions.
Over the course of Masai Ujiri’s tenure as Raptors president, the team has made it a point to be a franchise that prioritizes culture and chemistry, and while that foundation of a feeling of family in the locker room began with Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Valanciunas grew into the role of a young leader, just as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are doing now.
At a time when the Raptors were looking to build cache as a credible franchise, the stability Valanciunas offered at the centre position was integral. When the team was struggling to get big performances from its two best players in a 2016 first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, it was Valanciunas who ended up being a difference maker with averages of 14.7 points and 16 rebounds in the first three games as the team took an early 2-1 lead before eking out the series in seven.
There is a championship-altering butterfly effect that could be made of what happens if he doesn’t help Toronto win that series. Yet another of his role in helping the team to a 23-7 record before injury and trade, a winning clip that assisted the team to 58 regular season wins, enough for Game 7 at home against the Philadelphia 76ers and home court advantage in the NBA Finals. Another still if he never develops to the point where he can be the centrepiece in a deal that returns Gasol. Context matters, and his consistent involvement in the big moments before the biggest moment illustrate the value of his tenure.
But Bobby Webster and the front office didn’t quite see it that way. They went and solicited advice on a decision that would ultimately be at their own discretion. Perhaps they felt that with Delon Wright, CJ Miles and Valanciunas being a part of the same deal, it had to be an all-or-nothing decision.
“We did our homework, we talked to teams and I think — I don’t remember — there was maybe one scenario where a team offered one. I think it was Anderson Varejao in Golden State but I think it was a really unique circumstance,” Webster told the Toronto Sun’s Mike Ganter.
“It’s obviously not a feel-good thing but I think that’s the way the league is,” he said.
Yet, the Raptors were willing to do the feel-good thing when it came to Superfan Nav Bhatia and uber famous fan Drake. A front office that has blazed its own trail in getting to this point has chosen, for this one decision, to get in line and conform with the established order. In a year when Toronto used its home games to honour those who have contributed in a meaningful way either to the Raptors or basketball in Canada as a whole, this comes across as a miss.
When the Raptors held their championship ceremony and gave out the rings, the players didn’t have their names called alphabetically. Eric Moreland was the first man up and Lowry was last and addressed the fans because he was the most important member in the building. It was one of many examples over the years that showed this organization is capable of understanding nuance and making the call that felt right, making it all the more puzzling why they failed to follow through here with JV.
On March 30, 2020, barring a trade, Valanciunas will make his first return to Toronto. Raptors fans will shower him with a thunderous applause by choice, but it won’t feel as good as it should.
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