Steady as she grows.
It’s boring, but by now Toronto Raptors fans are used to it, and given the progress made by the club since Masai Ujiri arrived as president and general manager, it’s tough to argue.
Ujiri let his third straight NBA trade deadline pass without making a meaningful move of any kind. By now it should be recognized as a preference as opposed to a coincidence.
“You are always looking to make your team better, but it’s something you are looking to do more in the summer, that if you are trying to build long term, in my opinion,” Ujiri said after the 3 p.m. deadline passed without incident on Thursday.
Ujiri was motivated to deal. He sees the same things everyone else does – a relatively wide-open Eastern Conference and a chance to make a beeline to the conference finals, where almost any team is a LeBron James back spasm away from the NBA Finals.
He knows he has more draft picks coming (four over the next two years) than he’ll ever use. He knows his team – as solid as it has been in running up a 35-17 record through 52 games – is at minimum an elite power forward away from moving into the NBA’s championship class.
The temptation to try and force the action was there. Cash in those chips. Start moving bodies. Just thinking about it gets the juices flowing. But then he stops and checks himself.
“You play with that in your mind a little bit [going for it],” he said. “But I just don’t think we’re there yet as a team, as a ball club. We have good momentum coming in here, we’re a good team in the East and we want to keep plugging along and figure out the playoffs, but if you want to make that big jump it means you are going to have to give up something and one, there was no deal that really came to us in that calibre and secondly it would be tough to mortgage our future.”
He’s not under-selling his team; he just believes that shoring up a weakness by reducing a strength probably doesn’t vault this club past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East and certainly doesn’t get it to the level of the Big Three in the West: Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.
At which point he cycles back to his slow growth strategy. If the Raptors are going to be a championship contender they have to maintain their current strengths and address their weaknesses.
“I think we can add in the summer, with what we have,” he said. “We can see what we lack a little bit and our core will pretty much stay the same and you can add.”
Any move that would have been made on Thursday or in the days leading up to it almost certainly would have cost the Raptors not only draft picks that they can use in deals in the future, but players that are helping the team at the moment.
League sources made it clear the Raptors kicked all the right tires. They inquired about deep shooting New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson and the Brooklyn Nets’ Thaddeus Young, but dropped out when the asking price would have included the likes of Luis Scola, James Johnson and Pat Patterson to make salaries match and a first-round pick in addition.
In Anderson’s case it was deemed too high a price for a defensively challenged rental – he’s a pending free agent – and in Young’s case there were concerns about how his lack of three-point range would create spacing issues.
In both cases there were grave concerns about reducing the Raptors’ depth, a strength all season.
The Atlanta Hawks’ Al Horford and the Chicago Bulls’ Pau Gasol have all-star pedigrees, but even if the opportunity to acquire them presented themselves, there was the question of how they could fit alongside Jonas Valanciunas.
Given the Raptors do have a five-game lead over third-place Boston in the East, they didn’t feel the need to take on risk. The Washington Wizards are outside the playoffs looking in from 10th place, which explains why they were willing to give up a first-round pick for disgruntled Phoenix Suns power forward Markieff Morris, who is in the midst of a career-worst season and comes with some considerable character baggage as well.
Similarly, while Houston Rockets power forward Donatas Motiejunas might have been a nice upgrade on the aging Scola – who just happens to be shooting 43 per cent from three, it should be remembered – sending the unprotected first-rounder the Raptors will get from the New York Knicks (via Denver) this summer would have been a big spend for a restricted free agent coming off season-ending back surgery last spring and who has played 188 minutes this season.
The Pistons, in ninth, were comfortable sending a first-round pick that was protected only through the top eight spots in the draft.
And on and on. There were options presented and considered, but Ujiri kept returning to the same conclusion: improving one position by weakening another didn’t necessarily make the Raptors a better team and spending future assets to do it doesn’t make the Raptors a stronger organization.
So the existing group will get a chance to prove how close they really are to being an elite team and then it will be Ujiri’s job to figure out how to fix what ails them over the summer.
But there is a bonus to all of this steady-as-she-goes thinking.
As DeMar DeRozan heads into free agency – with Kyle Lowry likely to follow a year later – the all-star backcourt will get a chance to prove they can lift a team out of the first round and beyond. If DeRozan and Lowry are a potential championship core waiting to be built around then getting through a playoff round or two would go a long way towards proving it.
And if they can’t?
That may be the most important trade deadline acquisition of all: insight into what the Raptors really have.