Facing last call at this year’s NBA bar, Masai Ujiri had to make a choice. It’s helpful to think of it as a Goldilocks situation, really. Doing nothing: was that too cool? The Toronto Raptors had already acquired Serge Ibaka, a premier power forward. They had one last hole to fill, but they could have stayed cool.
What about going bigger and getting a wing player that came with salary beyond this season, that required more pieces and a bigger bet? Well, that could have happened, sure. There were discussions. Wilson Chandler, say, from Denver. It would have meant something much closer to going all-in with LeBron James still in his prime, and with less of a safety net. Too hot.
For a few years, Ujiri has tried to have it both ways. Built around a core of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors won 48 games, 49 games, 56 games. They won two playoff series, though by the skin of their knuckles. They stood next to LeBron in the playoffs. Not bad at all.
Meanwhile, Ujiri tried to build a parallel architecture. Norm Powell, Lucas (Bebe) Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo — look, not every egg hatches — Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet. A team, and a shadow team. Assets, and future assets. It’s hard to win and develop at the same time, and the Raptors have had some success in both camps. Of the calls they fielded Thursday, the vast majority were asking about Powell, Bebe and Wright.
“They trade me yet? No? If they do, make sure they get a lot of picks, because I think I deserve them,” said Nogueira, ducking his head into the media room before the deadline.
And when the trade deadline came, Ujiri tried to find something that was just right. He needed a wing, but he could wait. He had a first-round pick he wanted to keep. The Raptors talked to Denver, talked to a pile of teams, took calls and made calls. In the final minutes before the trade deadline, Phoenix called and accepted the offer: two second-round picks and Jared Sullinger’s expiring salary for small forward P.J. Tucker.
Tucker is 31. He can defend multiple positions, he can play sandpaper basketball, he can play physical basketball, and he can shoot some. He’s one of those guys who knows how to foul on every play without being called for a foul. Tucker isn’t the defender he once was, but he’s strong enough to bang with LeBron and will be a designated wing stopper, which when combined with Patterson and Ibaka up front gives coach Dwane Casey a front line full of defenders who can surround Lowry and DeRozan, and shoot. It’s a nice idea.
So, these are the Raptors. They have all the pieces you could reasonably ask for. They have options, and versatility. Between Ibaka and Tucker for Ross and a first-rounder and flotsam, other than New Orleans acquiring human unstable nuclear warhead DeMarcus Cousins, no team added more talent. Nobody plugged more holes. And the Raptors still have a first-round pick next year, and their youngsters. Pretty good week’s work.
“Everything always looks pretty on paper. Now we have to go out and play, and execute,” said Ujiri. “I think we needed it. I think this team . . . deserved this chance to see, you know?”
“I think we had to consider that. Considering the players we have now, maybe where we found ourselves last year. It’s important that we — hey, let’s do it till we fail. This team, the coaches, the players, the fans the organization — I think they deserve it, you know? And you know what, if we gave it our best shot, we gave it our best shot. In the East, there’s Cleveland at the top, and then there’s five, six, seven teams that could catch steam at any time. Whoever does at the right time, maybe you find yourselves there. We want to give ourselves the best shot to be there.”
And in the East, they were alone. Boston, with their arsenal of assets, didn’t make a deal for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, the only two real stars on the market: The Celtics are clearly waiting to use their two future top-five picks from Brooklyn to dominate the post-LeBron era, assuming there is one.
Nobody else went anywhere close to big. Everyone else is content with what they have. The Raptors, though, went big. They could still lose to Washington or Boston or whomever in a playoff series. They have pre-break problems that need to be put right.
Earlier this season, the Raptors pulled their analytics guys into a room and tried to pinpoint their slender odds of upsetting Cleveland. It was full of educated guesswork: It was like trying to peer into the fog and guess where the road goes, even if you probably know. Cleveland’s Kevin Love has since undergone knee surgery. Cleveland may add bought-out veterans Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut. Having LeBron James is hard to beat. Nobody in the room thought otherwise.
“We all know he’s the best player in the world,” said Ujiri.
But the Toronto Raptors are going to see if they can, with all the pieces they can muster, deliver one hell of a lucky punch. What did Ujiri say? “Let’s do it till we fail.” Here they go.
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