Less than two years ago, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri escaped an overaggressive Alameda County sheriff seeking his identification and was pulled onto the Oracle Arena floor by Kyle Lowry, and the two embraced like long-lost relatives as Toronto won a long-awaited NBA championship.
It was the signature moment in Ujiri’s tenure in Toronto. He built a championship team, he made the risky move to acquire impending free agent Kawhi Leonard, he re-upped Lowry, drafted Fred VanVleet, and brought in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
Age and attrition are constants in the NBA, and today Ujiri finds himself in the midst of retooling his roster. Ibaka and Gasol were allowed to leave via free agency, and Leonard signed with the Clippers. This past week, Ujiri dismantled his club even more by moving Norman Powell to Portland and trading reserves Matt Thomas and Terence Davis.
Yet those moves were overshadowed by the one he didn’t make.
Ujiri decided to hold on to Lowry, a 35-year-old impending free agent who was ready to be traded to a contender. The Raptors aren’t contenders anymore. They will struggle to make the play-in tournament and Ujiri would have had every right to move Lowry for younger pieces as the Raptors begin their reshuffling.
But he held on to Lowry. The 76ers, Heat, and Lakers couldn’t come up with a satisfactory package. So Lowry stayed in Toronto, but it appears unlikely at best the club will re-sign him long term.
The fact that Ujiri is breaking up a title team less than two years later is not lost on him. The Raptors likely weren’t going to repeat with Leonard gone, while Lowry and Powell were impending free agents who will draw plenty of attention on the open market.
“You can see from last summer, we still feel it,” Ujiri said about breaking up the title team. “Serge and Marc were very dear to us and you can see it takes a toll. You have to figure what your growth is and your core is. We believe in Fred, we believe in OG [Anunoby], we believe in Pascal [Siakam]. We feel that it’s a core that will continue to grow and get better and, hopefully, we all get back to some type of normal life soon and get back to really enjoying what we do and being who we are, because the whole world has suffered that. It is the challenge of the job.
“If it comes with winning a championship, we’ll face that challenge.”
The Raptors are a franchise in transition. They have some intriguing pieces in their prime, but also realized that they couldn’t afford Powell, who was moved to Portland for Rodney Hood and Gary Trent Jr.
“We didn’t know which way it was going to go, because we really talked about looking at this team in every direction that it could go, and we were comfortable with any direction that it went,” Ujiri said. “Honestly to see all the circus [Wednesday] I thought maybe that wasn’t the right way to go. We came at it looking both possible ways.”
He would not commit to re-signing Lowry.
“We will talk about that when the time comes,” Ujiri said. “We all know the respect and the sentiment about Kyle on this ball club and what he has done, not only for the city but the team and the country, the league. He signifies plenty. We will visit that at the end of the season.”
Toronto entered this season as an Eastern Conference contender, but a 2-8 start hinted at major weaknesses. The Raptors then won 14 of 21, got hit hard by COVID-19 protocols, and recently lost nine in a row. They started the weekend in 11th place in the conference.
“We had climbed all the way back to possible fifth or fourth position and then we find ourselves in this position again,” Ujiri said. “Everybody has fought, being displaced. We went through the health and safety protocols. It’s been a challenging year, but there’s no complaining. Just go out and play. We’ve played all road games, basically. People have families and many things they have to think about. How does that factor into us? Well, you see it. How do you judge a team from that?
“There are different ways I think we could get better. The trade deadline is such an event. There are 1 million things we talk about and you do one and sometimes you do none. Did we come close to doing something? You don’t even know.”
Lowry’s situation is a testament to the difficulty of veteran players retiring with their longtime teams. Paul Pierce wanted to stay in Boston, but he wasn’t part of the Celtics’ future. Neither was Kevin Garnett. LaMarcus Aldridge bolted from the Spurs because he wasn’t part of their plans.
“We’re lucky that we’ve been a winning organization,” Ujiri said. “The overall culture, we need to keep going. With Kyle, I’m extremely biased because of what he does and what he stands for.
“Kyle has grown in our organization and become such an unbelievable person and player. If we were going to do something, we were going to do something right by Kyle. That limits the teams that we can do something with and that’s the respect we have for him. He’s just been the strength, the backbone of this team. There have been times where we could have given up, collapsed.”
Powell is an emerging star who wanted a bigger role but likely wasn’t going to get it in Toronto with VanVleet as the starting shooting guard and posting career numbers.
“With Norman, [the trade was] the most difficult thing to do,” Ujiri said. “We raised them here. Norm has been very incredible to our organization, but I think he’s got many more opportunities for him out there to realize, to express himself a little bit more. Impending free agency is going to be huge for him.”
Ujiri would not even say he if would be back as team president. The Raptors are a team in limbo, and Ujiri is OK with that.
“This organization could be in a different place at that time,” he said. “You’ll never know when you’re going through, I don’t want to call it a rebuild.”
Orlando knew it was time to start rebuild
The Magic conducted their version of a fire sale Thursday, moving their top three players: Nikola Vucevic to Chicago, Aaron Gordon to Denver, and Evan Fournier to Boston.
General manager Jeff Weltman said injuries and expiring contracts forced him to make difficult decisions. The Magic had been mediocre for years and it was time for a restart.
“We didn’t set out on this path once we came into the season,” he said. “We felt we would be a playoff team this season for the third straight year. I actually thought we could be a home-court team, and it’s funny, now that I see the way the season’s playing out in the East, I’m even more of that mind and this is the year we could advance in the playoffs.
“We started out 6-2, but stuff happens. We got punched in the nose by a historic wave of NBA injuries. It changes everything. It changes the mind-set.”
Former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz was lost to a torn ACL early in the season. Forward Jonathan Isaac tore his ACL in the bubble. Gordon missed a month with an ankle sprain. Rookie Cole Anthony had a fractured rib. It was time for changes.
“We went into this trade deadline with the dual tasks of trying to improve our team or try to look for opportunities to restart it,” Weltman said. “So we’re on a new path now and I’m really excited about where we’re headed.
“We got two first-round picks, which are very coveted assets in today’s NBA. We’re really excited about that trade and to be able to turn Vucevic into three assets.”
The Magic were able to bring back former lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr., swingman Otto Porter (who may be bought out), guard Gary Harris, and former first-round pick R.J. Hampton. It’s a complete reboot. The Magic are now painfully young.
“We are a team that has been patient and we believe in continuity,” Weltman said. “We will not put a timeline on anything. We will do this the right way. We’re looking to build a sustainable winning team.”
That wasn’t going to happen with their previous core and Weltman knew it. So he got out from under some expiring contracts and moved his best asset (Vucevic) for draft capital.
“It’s hard when you’re on the phone and you’re backed up against the tax and your contracts are expiring. We’re now in a position of much greater flexibility,” Weltman said. “This ain’t fantasy league. Contracts get shorter, players get older. You just don’t get to run it back.
“I don’t look at it as being a hard decision, I look at it as being the right decision. Frankly, our plan had been to build on that team. We have to also accept the fact that our core was aging, our contracts were shortening, and was this a team that was going to win a championship?”
It’s realistic thinking. While Vucevic, Gordon, and Fournier were coveted around the league, they didn’t accomplish much together. When that’s the case, a breakup is the best option.
“We can start to think about how we can build this out toward winning a title,” Weltman said. “Vucevic is 30, all of the guys, I think was a feeling of it is getting a little stagnant. There was a sense of frustration and that factored in a little bit to the decision-making.
“Evan was on an expiring contract. He’ll play for [the Celtics] for two months and then he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. We were in the position at the beginning of the season where we valued Evan’s Bird Rights. He’s a good player and a good guy. It didn’t make any sense to make those other two trades and not move Evan. The theory was, ‘Let’s get what we can for Evan.’ ”
The next task for Weltman is turning the draft pick into stars. The Magic have been perhaps the worst team in the NBA at developing draft picks. Isaac, Gordon, Mo Bamba, Mario Hezonja, and Andrew Nicholson were first-rounders with zero All-Star appearances. Victor Oladipo was traded for Ibaka. Anthony (15th overall, 2020) and Chuma Okeke (16th, 2019) need seasoning.
“You don’t win titles without stars.” Weltman said. “Clearly top-five picks in this league are the most coveted of all. We’ll get to know these guys. R.J. is a multi-position player, a great worker. They can all play together. We are on a path now where we can dream big.”
Intriguing possibilities in buyout market
The trade deadline has passed, but there will be plenty of intrigue as the buyout market develops. There will be a handful of veterans available to sign with any team and boost playoff runs. The Celtics opened a roster spot Thursday for the purpose of signing one of these veterans.
A look at some players who will possibly be available:
Andre Drummond — It seems like an odd fit, but the Celtics are expected to pursue the former Cavaliers big man. Drummond is an old-school center, a premium rebounder, and a decent rim protector. But he hasn’t always been in the greatest shape or played with great passion. Maybe a winning situation will help. The Lakers and Heat are also expected to pursue the UConn product, who is only 27.
LaMarcus Aldridge — The 35-year-old former Spur is likely headed to Miami, which needs a quality big man after they dealt Kelly Olynyk to the Rockets for Victor Oladipo. Aldridge brings a smooth midrange jump shot and the ability to stretch the floor. The Celtics don’t have much interest in Aldridge. The Lakers may also be knocking, as well as the Trail Blazers, his former team.
Gorgui Dieng — The athletic big man was waived by the Grizzlies on Friday and he’ll get snapped up quickly. He can run the floor and shoot from midrange. He fell out of favor in Memphis and it was time for a fresh start. The same group of teams will likely vie for Dieng when Drummond makes a decision. Charlotte is also in search of another quality big man.
Olynyk — Could Kelly O return to Boston? It’s not out of the question. He left Boston on good terms and the Celtics know what he can do. He can play center or power forward and stretch the floor, giving coach Brad Stevens more options. Olynyk’s 3-point numbers declined dramatically this season, but he’s more than a serviceable player and he enjoyed his time with the Celtics.
Otto Porter Jr. — The former Bull was moved to the Magic in the Nikola Vucevic deal and could be waived. If that’s the case, the 27-year-old forward will draw attention because of his ability to stretch the floor and defend. Porter was on the verge of being a standout a few years ago but never lived up to the billing in Washington and played just 54 games during three seasons in Chicago. But he shot 40 percent from the 3-point line in a small sample size this season and would be a good bench option for the Celtics, Hornets, or Nets, who signed Porter to an offer sheet a few years ago.
The Lakers showed how much they covet second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker, whom they refused to include in a deal for Kyle Lowry. The Lakers feel they need reinforcements to make another title run and Lowry would have been a perfect addition. But the Raptors wanted Horton-Tucker and the Lakers would not part with the former second-round pick, their shooting guard of the future. The Lakers are waiting for LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (Achilles’) to get healthy, but those injuries are likely costing them a chance at the No. 1 seed. The Lakers lost their fourth in a row Thursday and went into the weekend fourth in the West . . . A player who is moving up draft charts and perhaps pushing Cade Cunningham for the No. 1 overall pick is USC big man Evan Mobley, who was dominant in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament. Mobley committed to the Trojans to play with his brother, Isaiah, a sophomore forward . . . The Timberwolves have the worst record in the NBA and things could get worse because of the trade last February that brought D’Angelo Russell from the Warriors, a deal that included Andrew Wiggins going to Golden State. The Warriors own the Timberwolves’ first-round pick if it’s fourth or lower, meaning the Timberwolves need to tank to avoid giving up their first-round pick in what is considered a deep draft. With the revamped lottery odds, the Timberwolves have a 60 percent chance of finishing out of the top three, meaning the odds are greater in losing their first-round pick. Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse in Minnesota.