Last summer Raptors President Masai Ujiri pulled off a blockbuster trade to poach Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the Spurs on expiring contracts and they came thru with an NBA Championship. However, Ujiri knew the risks and both players have taken their talents to L.A. in free agency leaving Toronto without a superstar for next season.
The only real questions for Masai now are, after getting to the top of the mountain:
- Can he be happy with rebuilding,
- Is merely being good heading into next season acceptable, and,
- Is he willing to take some big risks again in an NBA without a clear-cut favorite for the title?
“The Raptors will focus on the future and continue our pursuit of a second championship,” Ujiri said in a formal release on July 6th.
A roster with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol should be good enough to easily secure a playoff spot, but will have few expectations beyond that and this isn’t a situation Ujiri has seemed satisfied with in the past.
However, Ujiri is $20 million below the luxury tax line, has the full Mid Level Exception to play with and has $90 million in expiring contracts to dangle.
There are some good options for Ujiri in free agency if he’s happy merely improving his chances for a second round exit next spring.
- Recently waived veteran guard Avery Bradley would be a solid addition.
- Marcus Morris still needs a contract and the Raptors need depth at forward.
- DeMarcus Cousins would be a good add if Ujiri trades Marc Gasol.
There is still talent available, but nothing that looks like it’d give the Raptors a chance of getting by the 76ers or Bucks next spring on its own.
If Ujiri wants to gamble yet again, there are some home run balls out there to go after.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Things haven’t gone as hoped for Wall and the Wizards and their superstar point guard isn’t expected to be back in action until after the All-Star Break as he sits out rehabbing a torn Achilles just as his four-year $170 million extension kicks in.
Arguably the 28-year-old has been one of the best point guards in the NBA averaging 19 points and 9.2 assists over 9 seasons, but his success hasn’t always translated into team success and it’s becoming obvious the Wizards would rather build around Bradley Beal than Wall.
The Wizards should be more than interested in taking on Kyle Lowry’s expiring deal to get Wall moved and Toronto should be demanding first round draft pick Rui Hachimura as compensation for taking on the risk. A high risk, high reward gamble Ujiri shouldn’t be afraid to explore.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
With the Paul George trade and more first round draft picks than any team could possibly want, the Thunder have moved solidly into demolish and rebuild territory with their future aspirations many years out. Plus, OKC remains in the luxury tax even after the George trade and the Raptors have the expiring contracts to help them move on.
Like Wall, Westbrook has four-years and $170 million left on his deal, so a trade for Lowry straight up would get the Thunder out from under this deal and with Westbrook about to turn 31-years-old in November, how much more Sam Presti can get is to be determined.
What would makes things really interesting would be adding a Marc Gasol for Steven Adams swap. A bigger trade just might entice Ujiri to add in a couple of draft picks and a young player like Anunoby.
These trades sound like a Thunder salary dump, but with Russell’s agent Thad Foucher apparently requesting a trade per ESPN, that’s where things are.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
The long coveted Canadian’s value hasn’t exactly been on the rise over the past two seasons and his max extension could be considered to have made Wiggins untradeable, but the combination of bad team chemistry, suspect player development and confusing/missing leadership from the top makes this former number one overall draft pick a prospect worthy of taking a gamble on. Plus the T-wolves can’t possibly have any reasonable expectations beyond merely off-loading Wiggins’ salary at the lowest possible cost.
Offer Serge Ibaka’s expiring deal straight up for Wiggins and see if the T-wolves are frustrated enough to take it. In the Raptors player development system, Wiggins has a chance to grow into his contract and become the player he was envisioned to be five years ago. In Minnesota, no one can see that happening.
Last summer Ujiri took a gamble on an unhappy “former” superstar and turned things into a championship. If he wants to defend that title or even just enjoy a deep playoff run, he’ll need find a way to repeat the process again.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at Scotiabank Arena and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.