Wait, are we supposed to be surprised that the Raptors are better without Rudy Gay?
Ever since the Raptors blew-out the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night to improve their post-trade record to 3-1 there has been a cavalcade of backlash against the supposedly-tanking squad. At some point, everyone decided that the Raptors were going to be worse after trading away their biggest black hole and adding much-needed depth to their frontcourt and backcourt, and now the Raptors are being raked over the coals for sucking at tanking, just like they suck at everything else.
I’ve always said that the best way to describe Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was ‘opportunistic’. He is not someone who dogmatically adheres to one kind of rebuilding strategy because he is smart enough to know that there are too many moving pieces to make that work. He was never going to toss away assets in the name of collecting vast amounts of losses. Look at what he did in his trade of Gay: he shored up the backup point guard position by acquiring what might now be the best backup point guard in the Eastern Conference, he upgraded his stretch-four with Patrick Patterson, who does a lot more with the position than Steve Novak can, he got three-point shooting point-forward type in John Salmons to add wing depth and he got one of the premier post defenders in the NBA in Chuck Hayes. That is not the kind of haul you prioritize if you are looking to make your team worse, and making the team worse is probably never going to be the endgame for any trade that Ujiri makes this season or any season going forward.
The Raptors wanted out from under Rudy Gay’s contract because his option year was giving Ujiri agita. It wasn’t because Gay was so good and so productive that the Raptors needed him gone in order to start piling up the losses. Ujiri made a quick move with Gay because he knew that in order to get the ball rolling the future he needed out from under Gay’s $19.3-million option in 2013-14. All he needed was a palatable offer to pull the trigger on and it wasn’t until he got one that he put Gay on the next flight out of town.
You can see a similar train of thought at work in the trade scenarios circling Kyle Lowry. There have been several teams linked to Lowry, and several trade scenarios that would quickly make the Raptors demonstrably worse than they are today (hello Ray Felton and Metta World Peace). That isn’t Ujiri’s style, though. If he is going to make the team worse today, he’s only going to do it if he can reap a coveted asset or two in return for that sacrifice (hence demanding Tim Hardaway Jr. and/or a 2018 first round pick from New York). If he can secure a young asset and a draft pick, he’ll probably swallow the fact that his team might have to take a productivity hit in the near-term.
There is an important distinction buried in there, though. He isn’t chasing a trade that will make his team worse and then seeing if there is something of value he can maybe sock away for the future, he is chasing a trade for something of value and if that makes his team worse then he’s willing to swallow that pill (he is smart enough to understand the benefits of losing in the NBA). There must be balance there. The piece he gets has to justify his team getting a little worse, which is why a Lowry trade hasn’t happened yet.
There is a train of thought floating out there in Raptor-ville that the club needs to get Lowry gone as quickly as possible because he is a big part of why the club has been so good since Gay’s departure. Even though his stats are generally down across the board since the trade, Lowry looks far more comfortable and in command on the floor, playing the role of on-court leader with far more poise and control than he did when he was flanking Gay. He keeps the ball moving, puts his teammates in positions to succeed and looks far more engaged with every possession since he’s now a bigger part of each play that’s run.
If Ujiri was concerned with loss totals on the season, he’d have pulled the trigger on that Felton/World Peace deal last week, without any sweeteners like Hardaway Jr., or a first round pick. Ujiri, though, is thinking assets first, losses second. Lowry is a piece that Ujiri knows opposing teams will pay for. This isn’t even like trying to unload Gay, who had been playing sub-par basketball and possessed a massive salary that would be hard for most teams to swallow. Lowry is playing on a cap-friendly expiring contract and he is playing basketball at an increasingly-productive level. Ujiri is not just going to give a player like that away because he knows he can use him to pry something of real value away from the team that ultimately secures him. If that means that Lowry continues to suit up for the Raptors and the Raptors continue to win while Ujiri waits out the best trade possible, so be it. You don’t get very far in the NBA by devaluing your own assets. If there has been one constant in Ujiri’s brief tenure as an NBA general manager, it’s that he will wait to extract maximum value from what he has. He’s opportunistic that way. He’ll wait out the best trade and then pounce when it arrives. That trend has held true since arriving in Toronto and there is no reason to expect it to abate any time soon.
That’s especially true with Lowry because his quality of play has been on an upswing since Gay’s departure, and Ujiri may ride this out just to see how much Lowry can raise his stock over the next few days and weeks. Not only is Lowry reminding everyone about his ability to lead a team, but there also hasn’t been a peep about a clash with his coach, he’s visibly active in mentoring out on the court (especially with Jonas Valanciunas of late) and by playing alongside Greivis Vasquez he’s showing his ability to be productive off of the ball, as well. All of those attributes only make him look more appealing to a greater variety of teams, which plays right in to Ujiri’s hands because the more teams he can get to sniff around Lowry the higher he can drive his price with the clubs that have assets he actually covets.
All of that takes time, though, and that doesn’t seem to bother Ujiri one bit. His Raptors may continue to notch more wins than the tankers want, but if that drives up the price of his existing assets he’ll swallow that as the cost of doing business in the NBA.