In the past, Masai Ujiri fell on the wrong side of risk with the best of intentions. As general manager in Denver, the array of talented players returning in his Carmelo Anthony trade couldn’t amount to the caliber of Melo’s singular talent. In 2014, Paul Pierce ricocheted Ujiri’s “wrong choice of words” back at him.
He’s a general manager boasting the brazenness of Danny Ainge without the essential stroke of good fortune. Now, he has ramped up the stakes yet again by acquiring that tier of a spectacular wing. His acquisition of Kawhi Leonard is an unprecedented blockbuster in relinquishing a player beloved to his fanbase while receiving no assurance of the incoming star re-signing. The earliest reports were quite the opposite.
It’s a risky proposition. If Leonard walks, the Raptors could be looking at a lengthy rebuild. Their team hasn’t always been relevant as a winner but since invigorating Canada with Vince Carter, they’ve always courted a star through Chris Bosh and DeMar DeRozan, who departed in last week’s deal. Ujiri is leaping off the cliff they climbed to try and grasp a new height, unconcerned with what lies below.
In Ujiri’s way? The Celtics’ projected death lineup. It figures to be a difficult task for any team to grapple with, even Golden State. However, with this bold move by Toronto, Boston’s monopoly in the East could be over before it started.
Toronto’s enormously successful regular season roster could’ve rested on LeBron James’ exodus as assurance for a 2018 leap to the NBA Finals. Instead, Ujiri transformed their core for one year by adding a player that — at peak form — arguably supersedes any on Boston’s roster. He casually committed to the high stakes while shooting hoops with Barack Obama in Africa.
“If” is the the defining term in this deal. If Leonard stays. If his quad’s healthy. If he wants to be there.
Leonard’s rumored desire to play for a Los Angeles team is widely noted. In a scenario where he departs Toronto for nothing they immediately become a rebuilding team. That was the exit strategy embedded in controversially trading DeRozan’s long term contract. It’s a one year bet to rejuvenate a plateaued product not exactly worth blowing up.
If his chips get taken again it will not take Ujiri long to detonate the table. Kyle Lowry’s pricey deal expires outright after 2020. So does Serge Ibaka’s, and both Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles own player options for the 19-20 season. They have only committed to the young trio of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell beyond 2020. Ujiri surprisingly retained them in favor of a 1-20 protected first-round pick and Jakob Poetl in the Spurs deal.
That temporary emphasis could become a roadblock for the Celtics, set on contending this season before Kyrie Irving’s contract expires. Even noting their deficient 2013-14 roster, a small Isaiah Thomas-led back court and an injury-plagued 2017-18 — Brad Stevens’ Celts has lost 7-of-20 against Toronto. Somehow through their coinciding runs of success they met in zero playoff games. That figures to change as it becomes the marquee match up in the East.
“I think they’re going to try to keep their same motion offense,” said Sean Woodley of Raptors HQ on the CelticsBlog Podcast. “Nick Nurse, he was the architect of the offense last year and now he’s the head coach. So I don’t think we’ll see too much change there. We might see Lowry have the ball in his hands more often ... and in terms of the matchup between the Celtics and Raptors, it’s going to be kind of like the Spiderman meme pointing at each other. Because it’s just two teams with very good teams and a million wings, and good big men who can pass and play-make.”
Flipping DeRozan for Leonard elicited critical reception around the league from other players and eventually forced Ujiri to apologize for lack of communication. The parallels to Ainge’s difficult parting with Thomas shine brightly despite their differences contractually. The greatest run of consistent seasons in Toronto history did not satisfy Ujiri since they weren’t playing at a championship level.
The move to transform the core of who they are — rather than highlighting the margins of the roster — presents the greatest opportunity for change.
They targeted the right time frame for their minuscule window with the Celts and 76ers as their only elite competition returning from last season, given who the Cavaliers lost. Little changed elsewhere in the conference unless Giannis Antetokounmpo takes another quantum leap and the Pacers’ minor moves prove fruitful.
Guard play no longer drives Toronto. They can court wings across three positions to defend interchangeably. That allows them to both stagger and rest their rotation of big men and turn away from Ibaka if his play collapses as it did last postseason.
All they can do to argue their case for Leonard remaining is to contend and they positioned themselves to do so. If he dips out Ujiri can plead a lack of complacency on his own part.
If they can re-sign Leonard, while toppling the Celts, it sets the table for a summer where Danny Ainge could confront the free agencies of Irving, Terry Rozier and Al Horford simultaneously.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ultimately provide the C’s the opportunity to contend in the conference for years, but if Toronto can chip off the iceberg of their consolidated power the conference share moves more in the Raptors’ favor — making this a worthwhile and timely gamble.