It was almost funny when Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri asked the media for ideas to improve his roster this summer, this guy hasn’t needed anyone’s help at team building since he fleeced the New York Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade as the GM in Denver just over five years ago. What everyone in Toronto wants to know now is what rabbits (impact players) can Ujiri pull out of his hat for a team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals but is so far over the anticipated 2016 NBA Salary Cap (counting cap holds) that landing a notable free agent from another team to take his squad to the next level seems remote.
As Basketball Insiders editor Steve Kyle said in a response to a query about the Raptors making a big splash,
Not sure there is a big splash to be made… They are going to struggle to keep this team together, let alone add to it.
The Raptors want to hold onto both of their own impact free agents, Bismack Biyombo and DeMar DeRozan, but while DeRozan has a manageable cap hold of just $15 million and will be easy to fit in even with a max dollar contract, the Raptors don’t hold Biyombo’s Bird Rights so they’ll have to clear cap space to keep him.
Kerr is right, the Raptors can’t keep everyone on the 2015-16 roster. If Ujiri keeps Biyombo, and there’s every indication that it’s a priority, then he’ll have to trade/dump a player like Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson to create the salary cap space to re-sign him. Even if Biyombo gives him the promised hometown discount, someone in the current rotation won’t be back next season.
The thing is, no one foresaw the previous moves Ujiri has been able to pull off during his tenure as a GM ahead of time and it’s almost a sure thing he’s got something up his sleeve for this summer.
Ujiri seems cautious, deliberate and thoughtful when it comes to the art of making a deal. The Knicks know this all to well. However, he has taken big risks when it comes to pushing his team over the top. In his last big move for the Nuggets he brought in Andre Iguodala for two players and two draft picks and Denver set an NBA franchise record with 57 wins that season.
His first big move in Toronto three years ago was to fleece the Knicks again by getting three draft picks including New York’s 2016 first round pick (9th overall) for the oft-injured Andrea Bargnani. It seems like Knicks owner James Dolan doesn’t even want his executives to answer Ujiri’s phone calls anymore.
Ujiri turned the Raptors fortunes from soft, weak lottery team fodder to Atlantic Division Champs in his first big trade before the calendar turned on his initial season with Toronto. Rudy Gay, along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray were foisted onto the Sacramento Kings for Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez. The Kings looked better but still weren’t competitive. The Raptors became a team that could win and salvaged a fading season to win a franchise record 48 games.
The next summer Ujiri struck again, taking advantage of a Hawks franchise that’s allergic to Luxury Tax by sending them the easily waived contract of John Salmons and getting soon-to-be 2014-15 NBA Sixth Man Lou Williams. It became a stop-gap-move for the Raptors as Williams wasn’t the best fit with a defensive-minded head coach, but Toronto set a new franchise record with 49 wins because of Williams’ offense. It could be argued in hindsight that Williams pushed head coach Dwane Casey out of his comfort zone and helped him grow as a coach, but is Ujiri really that good?
Think back to the days of Tim Leiweke’s arrival in Toronto, the announcement of the NBA All-Star Game for this city and what seemed like a three-year plan to peak on the court when the bright lights of the NBA would be focused on the Raptors. Two years later in the summer of 2015, Ujiri camped out on Bismack Biyombo and DeMarre Carroll’s doorsteps on the eve of free agency, swooped in on the Spurs Canadian free agent Cory Joseph, picked up veteran Luis Scola and the Raptors franchise changed again.
Ujiri used his close bond with Biyombo to convince the defensive-mined backup center from the Congo to take a contract for about half of what similar players were getting that summer and it worked out in spades for both of them. Biyombo proved he is one of the top young defensive centers in the NBA during the regular season and the playoffs and especially when he got his chances to start. He played so well that Ujiri is going to get a headache trying to re-sign him this summer even with both parties working hard to get a deal done.
Carroll played in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals and Ujiri was looking for an experienced player he knew could fill a role on the Raptors. In hindsight the signing shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. Ujiri had signed Carroll as a free agent in 2011 when he was the GM in Denver.
Carroll was injured for much of the regular season and struggled with injuries during the playoffs, so his impact on the season wasn’t as big as anticipated. However, the rational was sound and the impact on the team’s culture was there. Ujiri signed Carroll because he fit with how Casey wants to play – maybe the full benefit will show up on the court when Carroll returns healthy next season.
The Spurs couldn’t sign free agent LaMarcus Aldridge without giving up their rights to Joseph and Ujiri pounced on the opportunity. Joseph is a young up-and-coming point guard who plays defense and let the Raptors All-Star Kyle Lowry play off the ball on offense and on the weaker of the opposition’s guards on defense. A great addition who is expected to continue to get better for several more seasons.
The 36-year-old veteran power forward Luis Scola was better than anticipated. He hit 55 more three-pointers during the season than he had connected on during the rest of his NBA career combined providing a badly needed stretch four to start games in limited minutes. Scola couldn’t always give the Raptors what they needed on the court, but he was a positive influence on a relatively young team that was trying to establish a winning culture.
This summer is bound to be different as Ujiri doesn’t really have any wiggle room with his team’s cap situation.
There’s so little wiggle room that pursuing free agents other than DeRozan and Biyombo looks like a pipe dream. However, Ujiri has shown an ability to make the most out of every situation.
There will be deals made in Toronto this summer. Draft picks and/or young prospects that can be moved. Rotation players that could be traded to help take this team to the next level. It’s even possible Ujiri brings back someone like James Johnson or Jason Thompson as a key reserve to stabilize the rotation if and when someone gets hurt (again) and it should not come as a surprise if Euroleague MVP and restricted free agent Nando De Colo somehow finds his way back to Toronto.
The only thing that can be taken from Ujiri’s history is he’s an opportunist who is ready to take advantage of things that in hindsight might/should have been foreseeable. So, what’s out there that Ujiri can pounce on this off season that will look like another miracle move?