Give the Raptors an A-

The Toronto Raptors hired Masai Ujiri as their GM before the 2013-14 season. At that point, Toronto had endured five consecutive losing seasons, and thus a substantial playoff drought. But Ujiri has brought year-after-year improvement to the franchise, as the Raptors look to secure their third straight Atlantic Division title.

Ujiri’s first trade as Toronto’s GM was getting rid of an overvalued Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani was able to post three straight seasons of over 17 points per game from 2009-2012. But he is also a seven-footer who is subpar at defense, rebounding, blocking shots, and field goal percentage. Ujiri recognized that Bargnani’s liabilities outweighed his strengths, and dealt the Italian for a first rounder and two second rounders. (The first rounder is due this year, the NY Knicks pick.)

At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Ujiri traded away Rudy Gay for depth, which included Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, and Chuck Hayes. This opened up cap room, bolstered the bench, and rid the team of a volume scorer who was shooting under 39% from the field. Gay was good for 20 points per game, but he needed 19 shots to do it, and took fluidity away from the offense. Toronto was 6-12 before that trade was made, and ended the season at 48-34.

Ujiri was lucky enough to walk into a team that already rostered Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and young prospects Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. However, this team was unsuccessful until Ujiri built around them while keeping the core intact. He was able to sign Kyle Lowry on a bargain deal that is paying him $48 million over four years.

The Nigerian GM also extended Ross and Valanciunas for several years, making investments in their potential. Ross signed a 3-year, $33 million extension, and Valanciunas signed a 4-year, $64 million deal. These contracts contain risk, but they make sense. Both deals begin next season, when the salary cap will make a sizeable jump. Ross is an athlete who can play solid defense, and shoots three-pointers at a 39% clip. Valanciunas has shown consistent improvement, and is averaging 12.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks in just 26 minutes per game. None of Ujiri’s signings will be free agents at the same time.

The Art of the Deal Terms Options
Kyle Lowry 4 years, $48 million player option, 2017-18
Terrence Ross 3 years, $33 milllon no opt-out
Jonas Valanciunas 4 years, $64 million player option, 2019-20
DeMarre Carroll 4 years, $60 million no opt-out
Corey Joseph 4 years, $30 million player option, 2018-19

Toronto has made the playoffs in each season with Ujiri as the GM, but has not won a playoff series. Defense was the problem, as Toronto ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency in 2014-15.  As a result, Ujiri took the initiative of adding several defensive stoppers.

This offseason, Ujiri traded Greivis Vasquez, a poor defender, for 2015 second-rounder Norman Powell and a 2017 first-round pick. The Raptors also let Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams walk in free agency because of his defensive ineffectiveness. In the draft, they selected Delon Wright, who was known for his completeness at Utah.

The Ujiri Resume Points Opponent Points Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
Raptors, 2015-16 101.8 (15th) 97.4 (5th) 108.7 (5th) 97.4 (5th)
Raptors, 2014-15 104.0 (4th) 100.9 (19th) 111.0 (4th) 107.7 (25th)
Raptors, 2013-14 101.3 (13th) 98.0 (7th) 108.8 (10th) 105.3 (10th)

Ujiri’s biggest acquisition this summer was signing DeMarre Carroll to a four-year, $60 million deal. Carroll made a reputation in Atlanta of being a strong defender who hustles and can knock down threes. With Lowry and DeRozan running the show on offense, Carroll is exactly what the doctor ordered in Toronto.

The Raptors added backcourt depth by signing Canadian Corey Joseph to a four-year, $30 million deal. Joseph is putting up comparable offensive numbers to what Greivis Vasquez was doing in Toronto (9 ppg, 3 apg), while also playing solid defense. He has been an inconsistent shooter from outside, but otherwise, the production and potential is there for the 24-year-old guard.

The last significant offseason signings were Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola, who were both given short-term deals paying them $3 million per year. Biyombo is averaging 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on just 22.5 minutes per game, bolstering Toronto’s frontcourt defense. Scola has started every game this season; he is a sufficient stretch four who is shooting a career-high 43.2% from three.

The improvement has been clear, as Toronto ranks ninth in defensive efficiency this season. They also did not lose any steam on the other end of the court, as they rank sixth in offensive efficiency.

Ujiri has displayed a win-now philosophy, but has also built for the future. He administered the creation of the Raptors’ D-League affiliate, the Raptors 905. This club gives the team a better opportunity to develop their young talent, such as 2014 first-round pick Bruno Caboclo.

Ujiri likely reached for Caboclo, the 6’9” Brazilian small forward who was selected 20th overall. But now that Toronto has a D-League affiliate, Caboclo can log meaningful minutes within the Raptors organization, which will lead to accelerated growth. This goes for all of Toronto’s young players, including Wright, Powell, Anthony Bennett, and Lucas Nogueira.

None of Ujiri’s draft picks have panned out yet for the Raptors, but everything else has fallen into place. The club is on pace to shatter the franchise record in wins, and sits only three games behind Cleveland at the All-Star break. Toronto is 35-17, despite Carroll missing 29 games with a knee injury.

The next important step for Ujiri will be to retain DeMar DeRozan, as the All-Star is headed for unrestricted free agency this summer. DeRozan has proven his worth, averaging 23 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds in his age-26 season. He still has room to grow, as he is currently putting up career highs in points, assists, and three-point percentage. Ujiri will face competition for DeRozan. The Raptors have his Bird Rights so they can sign DeRozan to whatever they want, but will they want to pay the luxury tax? Otherwise, players will have to be moved.

Masai Ujiri and the front office have taken this team from a losing team to a playoff team to a contender in under three years. Toronto’s front office receives an A-, which will become an A if they can use their available cap space to re-sign DeRozan and add more talent at power forward. This April, look for the Raptors to win their first playoff series since 2001.

 

photo via llananba