As constructed, the Toronto Raptors are a playoff team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Much of the media agrees and the rationale is obvious. A .500 club with Rudy Gay playing with a sore back and Andrea Bargnani dragging this team backwards with his own injury and conditioning issues enters this season with Gay healthy and Tyler Hansbrough and Steve Novak replacing Bargnani. This isn’t a hard argument to make. Our own prediction has the Raptors in 7th with a plus .500 record and lists six reasons the Raptors make the playoffs.
However, there is a fly in this positive ointment to coin a phrase. The Raptors season hangs on the production and game closing ability of Gay to move them out of the 9-12 slot and into the realm of 5-8. Fifth only because the brittle Knicks are pretty much the most suspect sure-fire playoff team in living memory and have their own issues with the possibility Carmelo Anthony opts for free agency next summer.
As everyone is aware, Gay can opt out of his contract after this season and while Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has an easy decision to make if the Raptors season begins tanking on its own, he has a much tougher decision if the Raptors perform as expected right around the .500 mark or significantly overachieve early.
MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke hired Ujiri because of his track record of successfully dealing with just such difficult decisions in Denver as few general managers ever seem to handle this type of problem well – and certainly not in Toronto’s history.
Sometime this season Ujiri is going to address the elephant in the room. Does Gay want to stay in Toronto and will he prove it by either picking up his option for next season or signing an extension? Ujiri saved, nay improved the Denver Nuggets by sending Anthony to the Knicks for a boatload of assets when Anthony wanted to test free agency and someone who has done this before will not be afraid to do it again if push comes to shove.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean said recently, “Rudy Gay seems interested. He seems enthused. He is shooting free. I wonder if he is hoping that he gets traded at the deadline or if he actually likes it here. I hope he really likes it here and would like to stay.”
If a move has to be made to keep/make the Raptors franchise relevant in time for the 2016 NBA All-Star game to be hosted in Toronto for the first time there and the first time outside of the United States, Ujiri has to create an impact in Toronto similar to what he accomplished in Denver and he will have dance partners interested in Gay.
The Lakers, Mavericks, Wizards, Cavaliers and possibly even the Knicks could be among a long list of teams that could use and want to acquire Gay’s talents. Gay is the player who can push the Raptors into a playoff spot and he could have the same impact elsewhere. However, Leiweke and Ujiri have been dropping hints about the type of talent they would like to add and the word local – read Canadian – gets tossed around a lot.
The Lakers have Steve Nash and Robert Sacre, but neither of these Canadians would entice Ujiri on their own and the Lakers have very few other assets that provide anything but a salary dump opportunity. If a third team were to get involved, a deal could be possible. Ujiri doesn’t shy away from complicated transactions.
The more interesting opportunity lies directly across Lake Erie in Cleveland where there is an owner promising playoffs and a roster loaded with young talent that is likely still a year or two away on their own. If Andrew Bynum’s knees hold up as expected – his non-guaranteed contract makes him waive-able in January – Bynum becomes the filler owner Dan Gilbert could use to parlay a couple of young Canadians into a playoff roster with oomph.
Tristan Thompson looks like a solid player after 2 seasons, but not a star and Anthony Bennett was the first overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, but if 5 different teams had held that pick, there would have been 5 different players selected first. This past draft resembled the Andrea Bargnani draft class and being taken first overall last June is likely to become more of a curse than a blessing. However, both of these players meet the Raptors organizational goals. They will both be solid NBA players or better and could be the first Canadians to be impact players on the NBA’s only Canadian team.
A deal with Cleveland could look something like Bynum, Thompson and Bennett for Gay, Hansbrough and Acy with the possibility of a first round draft pick headed one way or the other.
A starting line-up of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Rudy Gay, Tyler Hansbrough and Anderson Varejao would be good enough to grab a lot of attention come playoff time. The arrival of Thompson and Bennett in Toronto would probably be enough to placate the fans and together with next year’s draft pick and some other savvy moves could end the rebuild in Toronto fairly quickly.
At this point, Gay is playing this situation like Ujiri with a wait-and-see approach, but this is not something the Raptors can ignore past the trade deadline and end up stuck in the worst of all possible worlds like in 2010 with Chris Bosh. A decision one way or the other is in the cards this season. A lot of people are hoping Gay really does want to stay in Toronto.
However, Ujiri’s wait-and-see approach is the right way to go for now. December 15 is the date most free agents signed during the summer become available to trade and after 6 weeks, teams are starting to face the reality of where their 2013-14 season is actually headed. Ujiri is hoping for the best that the Raptors are overachieving and Gay wants to stay, but he has to be preparing for every eventuality – it’s his job!