After losing Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers, the defending champions are not viewed by the major oddsmakers as one of the top 10 teams to win the 2020 title. Never mind that they return a five-time all-star point guard, a rising star in Pascal Siakam and a pair of experienced interior defenders in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Never mind that their coach, Nick Nurse, proved to be an innovative quick thinker throughout the 2019 playoff run. Never mind that they play in the weaker Eastern Conference — which is even weaker than usual — or that they have advanced in the playoffs four straight years. Never mind that they went 17-5 without Leonard last season, which tracks to a 60-win pace over 82 games.
It’s natural for public reaction to swing hard against the jilted, especially because Leonard departed without a return in a high-stakes free agency battle. But writing off the Raptors requires betting against team president Masai Ujiri, and that’s a dangerous notion indeed.
Ujiri has had to cope with the loss of a franchise player before. In 2011, less than a year into his tenure leading the Nuggets, he traded Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks to satisfy the star forward’s wishes. The blockbuster deal did not decimate his organization. Instead, the Nuggets made the playoffs in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and they set an NBA franchise record with 57 wins in 2012-13, Ujiri’s final year.
How Ujiri handled the aftermath of the Anthony trade is instructive for the Raptors’ current predicament. His strategy featured two basic elements. First, he paid to retain talent rather than risk losing it for nothing, thereby ignoring the lure of a rebuilding effort. Second, he aggressively pursued trades, even if they got complicated or involved players he had recently signed to long-term deals.
In the 20 months after Anthony’s trade, Ujiri inked Arron Afflalo ($43 million over five years), Nene Hilario ($67 million over five years), Danilo Gallinari ($42 million over four years) and Ty Lawson ($48 million four years) to lucrative long-term deals. Some of those players turned into chips in short order. Nene was traded to the Washington Wizards for JaVale McGee in a three-team deal just three months after he re-signed. Afflalo was dealt to the Orlando Magic in a four-team trade that returned Andre Iguodala, one of the biggest drivers of Denver’s impressive 2012-13 season.
Those 2013 Nuggets had six players average double figures in scoring, a top-five offense and the second-highest-scoring bench in the league. They seemed to capture lightning in a bottle before flaming out against the young Golden State Warriors in the first round, a loss that precipitated the departures of Ujiri and coach George Karl.
Despite the messy ending, the top-line takeaway from that era of Nuggets basketball was that a balanced and deep roster could play exciting, winning basketball without a traditional franchise player like Anthony. The ugly and painful rebuilding years that followed Ujiri’s departure — five straight lottery trips — only confirmed the merits of his decision to retool rather than rebuild.
Ujiri is already returning to his old playbook in Toronto. This month, he inked Lowry to a one-year extension worth $31 million that should dampen trade speculation around the point guard. Then, he signed Siakam to a four-year, $130 million max extension this past weekend, locking in the Cameroonian forward and reigning Most Improved Player Award recipient as a foundational piece.
As in Denver, Ujiri’s first instinct when confronted by a franchise-shaking situation was to steady the ship. The Lowry and Siakam deals should remove some of the transition stress that is bound to hang over this season’s Raptors, given that Gasol, Ibaka and postseason hero Fred VanVleet are in contract years. The message to Toronto’s impending free agents is simple: Ujiri isn’t racing into a teardown.
Nevertheless, Ujiri has navigated himself to an incredibly flexible situation. He could cash out on Gasol and/or Ibaka at the trade deadline if the Raptors underperform early. He could spend next summer shopping Lowry rather than working through negotiations to re-sign him or losing him for nothing. And, in a worst-case scenario that doesn’t sound all that bad, he could even clear the decks and reshape the entire roster around Siakam.
In an upcoming HBO Real Sports interview, Ujiri explained why he chose to gamble on a Leonard trade in 2018: “I never do anything and say, ‘I regret it.’ You do it, you go. It’s that simple.” That line reveals the executive’s guts but also his greatest skill — one that will determine the fate of the post-Leonard Raptors. Ujiri never paints himself into a corner; he always leaves himself somewhere to go.