HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Masai Ujiri is some kind of miracle worker.
How else do you explain how he was able to get rid of Andrea Bargnani less than a month after taking over as general manager of the Toronto Raptors and get three draft picks in return? When it comes to addition by subtraction, it’s hard to remember a better trade.
Bargnani is a no-D, tunnel-vision shooter who hasn’t shot well over the last three seasons and is owed more than $22 million over the next two. The Raptors should have been sending picks out to grease the deal, not getting picks in return.
So put another notch on Ujiri’s belt for the deal that netted Toronto a first-round pick and two second rounders from New York. After taking over in Denver, he turned Carmelo Anthony into a package that helped keep the Nuggets near the top of the Western Conference. Now, he’s turned Bargnani into assets that could be used to add another piece to the Raptors’ young core.
Is that other deal coming soon? Probably not.
Speaking with the media on Wednesday, Ujiri made it sound like he’s sticking with the team he has for now. The Raptors will likely head into training camp with a rotation that looks something like this…
PG: Kyle Lowry, Julyan Stone
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross
SF: Rudy Gay, Steve Novak
PF: Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough (reported deal, but not yet signed)
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Aaron Gray
The wing combination of DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay is not optimal, especially at $27 million a year. The way the league is going, you need shooters at those positions to space the floor. Neither DeRozan (28 percent from 3-point range last season) nor Gay (32 percent) is much of a threat from the perimeter, a situation made worse by the lack of a stretch four (that doesn’t mean they should have kept Bargnani).
It would be understandable if Ujiri wanted to make more moves to add shooting, make better use of his team’s capped-out payroll, or maybe even sacrifice the coming season for the sake of the future. But he seems content with fielding a team that will neither be terrible nor very good.
“We’re going to take it as it comes and see what comes our way,” Ujiri said Wednesday. “We’re going to be aggressive out there, but we also owe it to see what we have on our team instead of doing something stupid, like quickly. If something reasonable comes our way and we feel that it’s something that’s going to help the Toronto Raptors, then I will do it.”
Ujiri also said that its his job to put together a team that fits its coach. Dwane Casey is a defense-first guy and the Raptors were much improved defensively after the Gay trade. They allowed just 101.3 points per 100 possessions (a rate which would have ranked in the top 10) and were a plus-60 (despite the shooting issues) in 923 minutes with DeRozan and Gay on the floor together last season.
Furthermore, Ujiri has two second-year players — Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas — who could take major steps forward this season. The summer between a player’s first and second season is critical, and how much the pair has improved over these few months will certainly help determine the direction the Raptors go in.
Right now, Ujiri says, “I don’t know what direction that is.” He just knows that he doesn’t want to tank, because “winning is what you want to build around.”
There are some minor things Ujiri has to take care of. He needs to work out a trade or buyout for Marcus Camby, who has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be in Toronto. He has to decide if he’s going to waive Linas Kleiza via the amnesty clause. And he needs to find a back-up point guard. (Ujiri may like Julyan Stone, but he played a grand total of 27 minutes in Denver last season.)
This roster is basically what the Raptors will look like come October. And maybe that’s good enough to make the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that has experienced quite a bit of change over the last two weeks. Maybe it’s not.
Either way, Ujiri has already put his stamp on the franchise. And given his track record, it’s hard to question anything he does.