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Two Big Moves To Make The Raptors Real Contenders

As we watch the Golden State Warriors dismantling the highest priced opponent in the NBA, it’s easy to forget just how good LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers really are. Sure they could be looking at what might be considered major tinkering this summer, but the Cavs are the “Beasts of the East” and the Raptors as constructed will still be considered just the next best team despite their youth and success this year.

President and general manager Masai Ujiri Ujiri has performed nothing less than miracle moves since his arrival in Toronto. An opportunist par excellence, he’ll need what might look like another miracle or two this summer in order to get his team over the hump against a Cavs team that will always be the heavy favorite as long as King James sticks around.

Ujiri needs to make a big splash like he did as the Nuggets GM when trading for Andre Iguodala. A second or third tier star player who can take a good team to the next level, but the NBA draft comes first, so player oriented trades might have to wait.

Heading into this year’s draft, Ujiri is preparing to select 9th and 27th overall, but even he was adamant that his team can’t afford to get any younger. He needs to trade up, trade out, and/or trade some of young guys he already has stashed on his roster. There is only so much room for players under development on a Conference Finals team and the Raptors already have too many.

Trade target Minnesota Timberwolves

Ideally Ujiri would talk the Lakers into trading the number two pick in the draft for the 9th, 27th, Terrence Ross and one of Delon Wright or Lucas Nogueira, but those kinds of deals are rare – even if the Lakers have so many holes in that roster that they should seriously consider it.

However, Minnesota, who picks at five, has been looking for what Ujiri could offer for years and now they are actually ready to take advantage of the shooting they’ve been seeking.

Proven three-point bomber Terrence Ross and the 9th pick for the Timberwolves 5th pick gives Minnesota a shooter ready to stretch the floor next season for all those young athletic guards.

For the Raptors, it’ll let them target SF Jaylen Brown, PF Marquese Chriss or Canadian guard Jamal Murray, any of whom are likely more NBA ready with a higher upside than a player they’ll be able to get at 9th. Plus, this move would free up the salary cap space to re-sign Bismack Biyombo.

Trade target Oklahoma City Thunder

Once again Thunder GM Sam Presti will be feeling the heat and he can see it coming. Kevin Durant likely signs a 1+1 contract that will earn him $35 million per season a year from now. Russell Westbrook is a free agent next year and likely signs a similar deal to Durant and will be inking +$35 million two years from now. Then, like James Harden, Jeff Green and Reggie Jackson before him, Serge Ibaka will be a free agent next summer and Presti must know by now, he isn’t getting three players on big contracts in OKC, he needs to re-jig his roster again.

Ibaka needs a change of scenery. His once feared percentage of shots blocked in 2011-12 is now half of what it once was and his scoring, rebounding and three-point shooting has dipped noticeably in each of the past two seasons as well. However, he’s still putting up good numbers for a starting power forward and it shouldn’t be hard to convince oneself he’ll bounce-back big in a contract year.

Therein lies Presti’s biggest problem, if he doesn’t make his move during this summer, he knows players on expiring deals are fetching nothing at the trade deadline and a good season by Ibaka likely prices him right off the Thunder roster in free agency.

Durant should be expected to re-sign this summer only to be a free agent again next summer with Westbrook. Presti needs to have a roster these guys can feel comfortable coming back to or the 2017-18 Thunder could be a lottery team with no big stars.

If he is willing to take the risk that could elevate the Raptors from pretenders to contenders, Ujiri could solve Presti’s problem.

Patrick Patterson and Nogueira for Ibaka straight up with the possibility of the 27th 2016 first round draft pick being put on the table should get Presti’s attention.

However, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will be reluctant to let Ujiri trade Patterson for anyone as the 27-year-old stretch-four is a key part of Toronto’s solid perimeter defense. Also, Patterson made 46 more threes than Ibaka last year and he hit them at a much better percentage.

Still, even Casey would have to admit Ibaka is the better offensive player, rebounder and rim protector. This deal would only be possible because Patterson is the much cheaper version of a “3-and D” power forward and once again Presti is looking for ways to pay Durant and Westbrook true max money while surrounding them with the complimentary talent the Thunder can afford to hang onto.

Raptors are Ahead of Schedule

Ujiri and Casey are quick to point out their program is ahead of schedule. They didn’t expect the Raptors to be in the Eastern Conference Finals this quickly, but they can’t put that Genie back in the bottle now. Expectations have been set. Their players are ahead of projections, so now Ujiri has to look at what he can do to take his team to the next level.

For three years in a row Ujiri has pulled off the unexpected trade or signing that has elevated his team. Nothing less than that is expected this summer.



Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.