Over the last few years, there has been a sharp resurgence of professional sports teams in Canada, specifically in Toronto. With all due respect to the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, who have been rejuvenating the sports landscape in Alberta, it is Toronto that draws the national attention more regularly than any other market simply because it is the only Canadian city with an NBA and MLB team. This only has intensified as of late with the aforementioned avalanche of sudden Toronto sports success. The Raptors became an unlikely perennial playoff team following the trade of Rudy Gay, Alex Anthopoulos went for broke and had the entire country feeling Blue Jays’ fever, and after decades of incompetence and impatience, the ‘Shanaplan’ has reignited the fire in Leafs’ Nation.
However, it is the Raptors who can boast one thing; they got there first.
The architect of the Rudy Gay deal and the subsequent Jurassic takeover of both Toronto and the vast majority of the country was former General Manager and now-President of the Raptors, Masai Ujiri. After his second stint with the Denver Nuggets, the Nigerian quickly endeared himself to the fanbase with his charming personality and eye for the game. It was that endearment that ended up making Ujiri, for all intensive purposes, the face of the franchise, at least for a period of time.
After signing on May 31, 2013, Ujiri decided to keep lauded coach Dwane Casey behind the bench, and began compiling a track record of good moves. His first big roster decision was the trade of, to put it diplomatically, the very polarizing Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for three bench players (Quentin Richardson, Steve Novak & Marcus Camby), as well as two second round picks and a first round pick in 2016, which ended up being the 9th overall pick, which they used to select center Jakub Poeltl. Then, during the season where his team seemed to be on the fringe of the playoffs, Ujiri decided to go all-in on a much-needed rebuild effort, by trading the Raps’ star Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. In return, the Kings sent Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, and Chuck Hayes. What was not anticipated by Ujiri, Casey, the organization, or the fans, was that this deal would give the team the first legitimate bench in years. Salmons, Patterson, and Vasquez proved to be very valuable pieces in addition to Dwight Buycks, Amir Johnson, and Tyler Hansbrough. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the way, the team caught lightning in a bottle and, rather than falling to the bottom of the standings and going through a rebuild, the Raptors surged up the standings, finishing third in the Eastern conference. In the postseason, Maple Leafs square was painted red and the Raptors showed great promise, despite a heartbreaking game seven 102-98 defeat at the hands of the sixth place Brooklyn Nets. Despite the finish, fans were optimistic for the future, and Ujiri and his team did not disappoint.
In the off-season, they sent John Salmons to the Atlanta Hawks for Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira. While the young Nogueira is still trying to find his consistency in the NBA off the bench for the Raps, Williams took very little time to show fans the payoff of the deal. He soon acclimated himself to the lineup and became arguably the most reliable three-point shooter on the team until his departure in 2015. He would also end up moving Vasquez in 2015 for Norman Powell, who became a quality backup point guard behind Lowry.
However, for all the success the Raptors have had in the regular season, the team has repeatedly stubbed their toes in the playoffs. In 2014, fans were just happy to see any post-season action, so the negativity levels were very low after their first round exit. The following season, Raptors’ fans were left shocked and indescribably underwhelmed after the Raptors were swept in four games by the fifth place Washington Wizards in the first round. Throughout the four games, however, the biggest problem the team had was a lack of consistency from anyone on the team, especially DeRozan and Lowry, the former scoring at least 20 points only twice in the series, while the former reached the same plateau just once. The next season, it looked like the Raptors had figured out their issues from the previous year, going all the way to the Eastern finals, before losing to Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This gave fans renewed optimism in the team, hoping that in 2017, they may be able to go even further. This past season, the Raptors once again reached the 50-win mark in the regular season, however, found themselves outmatched yet again by James and the eventual NBA Champion Cavaliers in the second round. In addition, they also had serious difficulties getting past the sixth place Milwaukee Bucks, falling behind 2-1 early on in the series and playing very poorly, before eventually winning in six games.
Throughout all of this, both the highs in 2014 and in every regular season achieving very good records, and the lows of their playoff shortcomings, the loyal fanbase has always pointed out one member of the organization who has consistently performed; Ujiri. There have been trade rumblings surrounding virtually everyone who steps on the court, as well as questions about Casey’s coaching ability. However, not one person would dare suggest that Ujiri has failed to put a quality team on the court.
However, that undying love for Ujiri may be blinding Raptor fans from the biggest problem; the fact that Ujiri is their favorite member of the team.
Despite being voted an All-Star, Lowry and DeRozan, while being good players, are not a duo that could win a championship when you compare them to the duos that have won titles recently (James & Kyrie Irving in Cleveland and Steph Curry & Klay Thompson in Golden State). You could also make the argument when looking at their post-season inconsistencies that the two mainstays of the Raps’ starting lineup would not even have made the All-Star game had it not been for the Canada-wide movement on Twitter, with virtually everyone in Canada and on Twitter sending a vote for both guys. However, in a star-driven league, where the only way to win a championship is having at least one generational superstar in the same vein as James or Curry, and likely two other great players around them (the Cavs had Irving & Kevin Love; the Warriors have Thompson & Kevin Durant).
This begs the question; is Ujiri good at his job, and being let down and handcuffed
by his team, or is he the most overrated GM in the league?
I cannot definitively say that it is not the latter, however I am of the belief that the issues reside much more on the heads of the players.
Ujiri has showed that he understands basketball with his lineage of very good trades, as well as a very good track record of free agent signings. The teams he has put on the court have shown their ability to win 50+ games in the regular season, but have constantly fizzled out when the playoffs come around. This means that not only do they have a disappointing end to their season, but they also will not be in a position to get a high-end player in the NBA draft. This means that at some point, there has to be a decision made my Ujiri and his management team about if this group as it is currently constructed can be salvaged and turned into a championship contender, or if they have to tear it down and once again try to rebuild the franchise around a superstar player, much like one of their Toronto sports counterparts recently did.
It always has, is, and always will be important to have a great General Manager and Head Coach to run your team, however, no matter what sport you are in, if either of those pieces are your most valuable asset, you will not get very far, and unfortunately, if Ujiri and the rest of the management group don’t realize this, and shift their plans to finding a superstar to build around, it could mean that not only will this team continue to falter in the postseason, but all of the respect and admiration for the Raps’ GM could begin to vanish just like how Masai made Bargnani and Gay vanish many moons ago.