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The Raptors are a sleeping giant in the East despite a quiet offseason

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes was the 2022 Rookie of the Year. (Ashley Landis/AP)

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

The Toronto Raptors have been an afterthought this summer, mentioned occasionally in Kevin Durant trade rumors but otherwise overlooked in favor of their more active and more dramatic competitors.

After getting bounced from the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors didn’t add a first-round pick, make any splashy trades or sign any high-profile free agents. Their most noteworthy addition has been Otto Porter Jr., an unspectacular backup forward. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics traded for Malcolm Brogdon, the 76ers signed P.J. Tucker and the Brooklyn Nets have been embroiled in chaos thanks to Durant and Kyrie Irving.

John Wooden counseled not to mistake activity for achievement. The inverse holds true here: Don’t confuse Toronto’s inactivity with failure. Some franchises remain idle because they are paralyzed by a lack of resources or vision, but those flaws don’t apply to the Raptors, who have won more regular season games than every team besides the Golden State Warriors since hiring Masai Ujiri in 2013.

Toronto’s 52-year-old president has conjured sustained success out of thin air. Before Ujiri, the Raptors had managed just four winning seasons and a single playoff series victory since their 1995 founding. Under Ujiri, the Raptors have eight winning seasons, nine playoff series victories and the 2019 championship. Before Ujiri, Toronto posted a .407 winning percentage, good for 33 wins over an 82-game season. Under Ujiri, Toronto has won at a .625 clip, equivalent to a 51-win pace.

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The only losing season on Ujiri’s watch came in 2020-2021, when the franchise was forced to relocate to Tampa because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Yet even that temporary adversity could spawn another decade of winning, as Ujiri bucked conventional wisdom by taking Scottie Barnes with the fourth pick in the 2021 draft. Barnes, 21, was promptly named rookie of the year and mentioned as a possible centerpiece in a Durant deal. Assuming Barnes stays, he could rival DeMar DeRozan one day as the most popular homegrown player in Toronto’s history.

Selecting Barnes only furthered Ujiri’s case as the NBA’s top executive. Like a five-tool baseball player, Ujiri has displayed a complete game: He can draft at the top (Barnes) and unearth hidden gems lower on the board (Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell); he can win blockbuster trades (Kawhi Leonard) and savvy sell-offs (Andrea Bargnani); he can find and develop a future star in free agency (Fred VanVleet); and he can fill out a title-worthy rotation with targeted additions (Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol).

Ujiri also possesses charisma, guts and a sharp eye for talent, a rare combination of skills that helped the Raptors return to their winning ways despite losing Leonard in 2019 and franchise guard Kyle Lowry last summer.

Besides the Leonard trade, the signature move of Ujiri’s tenure was firing Dwane Casey shortly after he was named coach of the year in 2018 and replacing him with Nick Nurse, who went on to guide the 2019 title run and win coach of the year in 2020. While players and colleagues attest to Ujiri’s big heart, sentimentality doesn’t obscure his vision. Casey was popular and experienced, but he wasn’t getting it done. Ujiri stuck his neck out for Nurse, who had never been an NBA head coach, and that bet continues to pay off better than anyone could have imagined.

In hindsight, one suspects that Ujiri had weighed the Casey decision so carefully that its risks weren’t as severe as they might have seemed to outsiders. Ditto for the Leonard trade, which came before the 2019 Finals MVP bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency. Leonard’s refusal to re-sign, once viewed as a reason for teams to avoid trading for him in 2018, hardly left the Raptors in ruins. In fact, Toronto claimed the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed the following season.

What’s so intriguing about Ujiri’s current position is Toronto’s boundless optionality. The Raptors’ salary cap sheet is devoid of bad contracts. They own all of their future first-round picks. Their core group is composed of players who are under 30 years old. They have Siakam and VanVleet — all-stars in their primes who can driving winning seasons now — and a budding superstar in Barnes to carry their next era. Plus, their roster has a thoroughly modern identity built on athletic, active and interchangeable lineups.

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The Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks are the preseason favorites to win the East, and rightfully so. Boston has the conference’s deepest collection of talent, while Milwaukee has the best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Looking further down the road, both teams should enjoy an extended championship runway thanks to the relative youth of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Antetokounmpo.

Yet Toronto appears uniquely positioned among the conference’s second-tier teams, a sleeping giant capable of challenging Boston and Milwaukee as time passes. The Nets, 76ers and Miami Heat are already coping with age-related decline to key players, and all three teams have accumulated cumbersome contracts and sacrificed future draft assets to secure their current positions.

While Ujiri doesn’t have a headliner to match Durant, Joel Embiid or Jimmy Butler, it’s hard to imagine that he would agree to trade spots with Brooklyn’s Sean Marks, Philadelphia’s Daryl Morey or Miami’s Pat Riley given their looming headaches. By contrast, all pathways are wide open for the Raptors.

If Ujiri wants to reenact the Leonard trade and chase the 2023 title, he could almost certainly construct an unbeatable return package for Durant. If he instead decides to focus solely on building around Barnes, he could wait a year or two and then package picks and contracts to land a top-shelf sidekick. If Ujiri opts to split the difference, he could pay up to keep his current core together while betting that added seasoning, a Barnes breakthrough and some smaller moves around the edges will produce years of deep playoff runs.

For that reason, it’s best to view Toronto’s uneventful summer as a prelude. When Ujiri sits on his hands, the rational response is to wonder which trick he has hidden up his sleeve.

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