Masai Ujiri built up a championship roster better than any executive we’ve seen in recent memory, even if he only had the fourth most votes for Executive of the Year at the NBA awards. His ability to do more with less has been second to none, constantly flipping assets for better assets and knowing when to say goodbye at just the right time.
But Ujiri hasn’t had the chance to build a team from scratch. The timing — whether with the Denver Nuggets before or Toronto Raptors — always dictated a home makeover rather than a new build.
Right now, timing is everything.
On June 29, Kawhi Leonard turns 28. The next day the free-agency negotiating period will open up at 6 p.m. ET where he can evaluate where he wants to sign a new contract that can’t be made official until noon on July 6.
If Leonard does say goodbye, Ujiri should tear it all down.
Disagree? Here are six reasons why there is no other alternative.
1. Bird rights
If Leonard leaves the Raptors will get nothing back in return. The reason why he was so coveted from San Antonio was that his Bird rights came with him. That means the Raptors have the ability pay him more ($190 million) for longer (five years instead of four), and they can go above the salary cap to do it.
Not only can the Raptors not replace that level of talent in the free agent market, they don’t have the salary cap room to lure a top free agent even if they could.
2. Cap relief
The salary cap will rise to $109 million next season, with a luxury tax threshold of $132 million.
If Leonard returns, his first-year max salary of $32.7-million would put Toronto into the luxury tax but that’s a champagne problem for Ujiri and MLSE.
The Raptors would still have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9,246,000) and the bi-annual exception ($3,619,000) available to fill out the rest of the roster.
What can they buy with that? Names like Jeff Green, Marcus Morris, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Trevor Ariza and Reggie Bullock are some of the better options. Nothing close to the franchise altering talent Leonard provides.
Yes, they could move salary to create a max slot or two. But who would they be moving in order to do it?
3. Value of expiring deals
Gasol picked up his $25.6 million player option for next season. Kyle Lowry, at age 33, carries a cap hit of $35 million. Serge Ibaka has one year and $23.2 million left on his deal. If Leonard walks away all three are pieces that should be moved before they hit unrestricted free agency because there is a market for them.
The Charlotte Hornets will be looking for a lead guard if Kemba Walker leaves in free agency and the Hornets were Toronto’s main competition for Gasol at the trade deadline.
Conley has been to zero All-Star games. Lowry has been to five and just won an NBA championship. If Toronto were inclined to move him what would the return be given the haul for Conley?
Lowry averaged 14.2 points and 8.7 assists per game and shot 34.7 per cent from three last season. That’s great if he’s your third best player. But without Leonard that’s not the role Lowry would remain in.
Gasol will be 35 years old in January and is no longer an All-Star level player worthy of $25 million. But a title contender could talk themselves in to the fact that in the playoffs Joel Embiid shot 36 per cent and had as many turnovers as made field goals when matched up against Gasol.
So, running it back without Leonard is not a viable option. Not if the sole expressed goal is to win another Larry O’Brien trophy.
Don’t believe me? Just listen to the players. Why do you think Ibaka has been lobbying Leonard in jest all year? He knows that if Leonard leaves its scary hours for any veteran on the team making big money on an expiring deal.
Green has recently voiced a similar opinion. “We’ll find out when July 1 hits. I think his decision changes a lot of things for a lot of other people.”
Ujiri has already admitted that a Plan B without Leonard changes the equation. “We have spoken at length with them and their agents, and I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is,” Ujiri said at his season ending press availability.
4. Trading Leonard is still a negative outcome
Plan B’s could come in all shapes and sizes. Leonard could be convinced to do a sign and trade if he leaves so he wouldn’t have to leave $50 million on the table. But what players from the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets would have to be coming back to keep the Raptors in championship contention? Even if the Knicks started with a package including Canadian R.J. Barrett that lessens the blow of losing in the long term but not the short term. So, under that scenario it would still make sense to shed salary and stockpile future draft picks and young controllable players.
5. Clean books in 2020
That doesn’t mean you have to tear it all down to the studs.
With Lowry, Gasol, Ibaka and Fred VanVleet expiring, the Raptors could have $90 million coming off the books in the summer of 2020.
Most of the team’s players will have their contracts expire by the summer of 2020, except for Norman Powell (2022) and OG Anunoby (2021) and even Anunoby’s deal in the fourth year is a team option. The 25-year-old Pascal Siakam can become a restricted free agent in 2020 and is a steal now at $2.3 million. VanVleet is owed $8.65 million next season in the last year of his contract and will likely be offered an extension too.
The house Ujiri built has great foundation and a window to win again even without Leonard in the not too distant future because of the young core they’ll be able to sell to the 2020 and 2021 free agent classes.
6. Get in line for Giannis
The headliner of the 2021 class is Giannis Antetokounmpo who Ujiri has been enamored with since he tried to grab him in the draft in 2013. So much so that Antetokounmpo may have even impacted how Ujiri has approached the draft since.
Can Ujiri pitch a fellow descendant of Nigerian ancestry to come to Toronto where the Greek population already has wrapped their arms around him?
It might be the first free agent meeting held on Danforth Avenue (Greektown in Toronto).
If Milwaukee doesn’t win it all could Antetokounmpo be convinced to jump ship and become the league’s biggest international star in its most international city?
That’s just one potential example. The point is Ujiri will have a clean financial book, a young, improving, supporting cast and a Finals run not too far in the rear view to help him pitch a star on the fan base, his coach, and his ability to constantly assess and improve his roster.
The next few summers also offer less competition in the free agent market as a good portion of the league has long circled the 2019 off-season as the time to clear cap space and swing for the fences for a star. The projected cap space this summer for the Knicks ($70 million), Nets ($46 million), Clippers ($42.5 million), Pacers ($42 million) and Lakers ($32 million) has them all in now.
Those teams know what the Raptors will soon find out if Leonard leaves. It’s better to be rebuilding or reloading. The purgatory that is the murky middle is a treadmill of mediocrity. Once a team is caught in that it’s hard to get out.
Pride comes before the fall. The Raptors could bring back their big-ticket stars and try and swim upstream next year to defend their championship. Or they can retreat, regroup and set the franchise up for sustained success for the next few years. Ujiri has had to make cold but calculated decisions before. The difference this time is he has the honeymoon grace period that comes with winning a championship.
Hopefully Leonard chooses the Raptors so that Ujiri, who famously said “We will win in Toronto,” isn’t forced to tear it all down.