Raptors’ Ujiri to count on Colangelo’s players

Bryan Colangelo is gone, but the Raptors’ future—and the difficulty of Masai Ujiri’s task ahead—depends on the players the former GM got fired for bringing in (Chris Young/CP)

Bryan Colangelo has left the building. Well, he got kicked out in the end, and rather unceremoniously at that, by the incoming MLSE president and chief executive officer back in the tumultuous days of May.

But the former general manager’s basketball team hasn’t left the Air Canada Centre.

His replacement, Masai Ujiri, has left it largely untouched, save for trading Andrea Bargnani, which was on Colangelo’s to-do list anyway. Ujiri got a decent return in a deal that netted a first-round pick and sharpshooter Steve Novak, who is otherwise limited. His only free agent signing of note was Tyler Hansbrough, who bangs and crashes, but is not suited to being the first big man off the bench on a playoff team.

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But the lack of action, so far, has been interpreted as Ujiri playing possum, waiting to show his hand, this during an off-season when franchises like the Boston Celtics (who the Raptors open their season against Wednesday night), have turned themselves upside down just two years after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.

"We have to see what we have. We don’t really know. We added a little bit of shooting, a bit of toughness maybe, but we need to see what the main guys have because we don’t really know," says Ujiri. "The timing of the [Rudy Gay] trade last year, the bad start, the strong finish. What does that mean? We have to evaluate all of that and you can’t give away young, talented players."

Wait-and-see is a hell of an approach to take in any business, let alone as it relates to professional sports and the Raptors in particular, where for most of the past decade there hasn’t been much worth looking at. But it’s the tack Ujiri has decided on, as opposed to simply sabotaging a season in pursuit of landing a top-three pick in a 2014 draft headlined by Thornhill, Ontario’s Andrew Wiggins and is purported to be as deep a class as any in the past decade or more.

There’s some honour in that. That teams might be tempted to lose with purpose, if not on purpose, is a major flaw in the way the NBA is structured.

But if Ujiri is going to benefit from staying the course—as opposed to tanking—he better hope that Colangelo was more right than wrong in assembling the team that eventually got him pushed out, which was Tim Leiweke’s first order of business when he joined MLSE in May.

In hiring a new general manager the hope is that he’ll be able to outsmart his peers, at least some of the time. The challenge in the NBA is that it’s a very public market with a limited number of assets. The notion that an executive can consistently "win" trades doesn’t make a lot of sense given that the assets in question are out there on display for fans, scouts and executives to see, night after night. Most of them have been since they were freshmen in college, for that matter.

Ujiri justifiably gets credit for his smart work in Denver and in particular for the way he was able to get a good return for Carmelo Anthony, who he traded in the 2010–11 season. That he managed to average 51 wins a season while trading the franchise’s top talent and turning over 12 of the 13 players he inherited suggests Ujiri was justified in winning the NBA’s executive of the year award for the Nuggets’ 57 wins in 2012–13.

But looked at another way: He merely got fair value for the assets he traded. He didn’t "win" any trades in the sense that he took players that were capable of winning 50-plus games a year and turned them into players that could win 60-plus games a year. In the three seasons before Ujiri arrived in Denver, the Nuggets’ winning percentage was .638. In the three seasons Ujiri was on the job their winning percentage was .627. Neither collection of teams advanced past the first round of the playoffs.

In Toronto now, Ujiri is trying to turn a collection of players that won 34 games in 2012–13 into a roster that can eventually churn out 50-win seasons—the baseline for teams that can realistically think about calling themselves championship contenders. It’s a much steeper hill to climb, which is why the argument to step backwards and reload is so compelling.

So if Ujiri is going to do the former with any measure of success, he’ll need his predecessor’s hand-picked assets to perform. Which yields the ultimate irony: The key to the Raptors’ long-term championship vision may be if Colangelo wasn’t at all wrong in assembling and valuing the current roster. It’s easier to trade good players for good players, after all.

In that sense, there may be some hope and perhaps the ultimate reckoning for Colangelo’s legacy.

A year ago DeMar DeRozan was signed to a four-year, $38-million contract extension while in the layup line for the Raptors’ home opener. It seemed another example of Colangelo’s largesse then, but given DeRozan’s steady character and continued incremental improvement it’s seeming less so every day—kind of like the five-year, $34-million deal Colangelo signed Amir Johnson to in the summer of 2010.

Similarly, if a fit, committed and focused Kyle Lowry can play to his potential he’ll far exceed the value of the $6 million he’s earning this season. A bounce-back year by Rudy Gay—and he did shoot 40 per cent from the three-point line in the pre-season—would also help the market for his services.

Combined they have the potential to help the Raptors become a playoff team, which should give Ujiri a stronger platform to build from should he stay the course or be more valuable assets in the trade market should he go that route.

A further irony: If the Raptors do stumble this year, chances are it will be because they have a woefully weak bench—the one area that Ujiri did address this off-season.

What Ujiri eventually decides to do remains a mystery. He’s been an expert so far in not tipping his hand. But as the Raptors set to start the season, Ujiri’s task will be infinitely easier if the players Colangelo got fired for bringing in deliver on the promise the former general manager saw in them in the first place.

Failing that, Ujiri’s only logical move will be to blow the whole thing up, pray for lottery balls and start over. And any old GM can do that.

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