There’s a reason Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri can joke about his upcoming contract negotiations and say he’s not focused on the money. It’s easy when you know the money is going to be there. That’s now what this contract negotiation with Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment is going to hinge on. Ujiri knows he’s going to get the financial terms he wants, it’s all the other things that he’s going to have to fight for.
If things go well, MLSE will oblige to all his requests and this will be a happy marriage for at least the next few years. That’s the price of doing business with arguably the best executive in the NBA, a man with an unwavering focus on reaching the pinnacle of the sport. But as the Raptors found out this past season, even Ujiri is fallible.
The Raptors’ top priorities heading into the 2020 offseason were re-signing Fred VanVleet, keeping Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in town, and maintaining flexibility for what at that time seemed like it could be a franchise-altering 2021 offseason. The first and biggest priority of those three was the easiest. VanVleet knew all along he was coming back to Toronto and that deal was signed with little trouble.
It was the frontcourt rotation where things got a little dicy. The Raptors had a chance to bring back Ibaka, but their continued pursuit of Gasol reportedly frustrated the Congolese centre, leading to his eventual departure for Los Angeles, as Michael Grange reported.
That’s when things really went sideways for Toronto.
Ujiri had just seen how well the Raptors had played in the playoffs with their small-ball, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby in the frontcourt lineup. That group has a Net Rating of +5.7 in 68 mostly crunchtime possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. It was enough to pique Ujiri’s interest coming out of the Bubble and potentially guide the path forward.
But once Ibaka and Gasol signed elsewhere, Ujiri didn’t follow his instincts by adding a versatile, switchable, and maybe undersized big to bolster that small-ball lineup, instead he signed a pair of very traditional, immobile bigs in Aron Baynes and Alex Len.
“I think on my part, I failed to see what we were looking for, maybe the type of bigs we were looking for should have maybe have been a different type of player,” Ujiri said Wednesday during his season-ending media availability. “That’s on me.”
It took 27 games for the Raptors to pivot away from Baynes and Len. By the time they did Toronto was 12-15, sitting in the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Eventually the Raptors righted the centre rotation later in the season by signing Freddie Gillespie on April 8 and Khem Birch on April 10. Prior to their signings, Toronto was last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing offensive rebounds on 28.1% of opponents’ live-ball misses. After their signings, the Raptors jumped to 18th, per Cleaning the Glass.
It’s fair to wonder why the Raptors didn’t make a move earlier. Toronto had already accepted that their offseason signings hadn’t worked out by the time the trade deadline rolled around and yet Ujiri and the Raptors made no frontcourt changes until well after the deadline.
While Ujiri wouldn’t — and couldn’t — say it explicitly, maybe by that point Toronto had its eyes on a different prize.
“You have to weigh your options,” he said. “What’s the value of that? Picking in the top 10 versus picking further out if you played in a play-in game.
“I have to weigh that. Sometimes people don’t want to talk about it because that word, nobody wants to use. I don’t look at it like that, I look at it like this was a one-year situation that we were faced with. Lots of challenges and moments where we had to adjust on the fly and that’s not easy to do.”
The Raptors were dealt a blow like no other team in the NBA this season. They were forced to relocate just before the year started and then had a COVID-19 outbreak impact them worse than anyone else in the league. Could things have gone better this season had the offseason not been such a disaster? Yes. Could the Raptors have pivoted away from Baynes and Len earlier in the season and added another big before mid-April? Yes. Could the Raptors have made the play-in tournament if they wanted to? Also yes. But Ujiri made the decisions he made. He admitted the early ones were a mistake. It happens, even for him. Next month Toronto will find out if his other decision was a mistake. He has a 31.9% chance of looking like a genius and landing a top-four pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.