Constructing a unsuccessful NBA franchise is something that, as shown in my 10 simple rules to not mess it up, is something that in reality is very easy to do. Whether one carries false hopes of competing for an NBA title, overvalues a player that leads to a gross over-payment and subsequent salary cap struggles or just generally seems like he's making decisions based on a crumbled-paper-options-in-a-Heisenberg-top-hat draw, a lot of very smart people have done horribly with a general manager plaque on their desk.
If we think of the curse of a bad general manager on an NBA team as a spectrum of diseases, the Toronto Raptors history ranks up there somewhere between Werewolf Syndrome and Alzheimer's.
In other words, as a fan of this team for the past 15 years, it would've been easier to find some appeal in becoming a regular as a Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Race or becoming a pilot despite being color blind, uncoordinated, having no knowledge about how the general act of flight works and possessing feet as flat as Saskatchewan. Whether it was an incompetent basketball mind that drafted "Hoffa" and traded Vince Carter in the prime of his career for an expiring contract suffering from a potentially lethal condition (Mourning) and a Williams duo that had about as much combined talent as Slava Medvedenko or a guy who did all he could just to save his reputation of drafting Andrea Bargnani, we've had it rough for a long, long time.
With the introduction of Masai Ujiri into the Toronto Raptors front office, we just may have some hope after all.
Sure, the Denver Nuggets recent string of success was not all Ujiri's doing as he gained the general manager hat in 2010, long after Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Chauncey Billups led the first wave of Ujiri's teams to make it to the playoffs. With the aging of Billups and the inevitable flight of Anthony from Denver approaching the team, Ujiri pulled arguably the best series of moves with a team in crisis mode that we've seen in some time.
Carmelo Anthony wants to leave the Nuggets to go play in the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Usually a situation that would debilitate a franchise for up to a decade right? Not if you convince the Knicks to trade for him midseason while acquiring studs Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallanari, a 2014 first round pick and Timofey Mozgov.
Follow that up with smart gambles on Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Andre Miller, Corey Brewer (for a second rounder!), Evan Fournier and Andre Igoudala and we start to see a pattern in Ujiri's basketball decision making.
The man knows what he is doing.
With the introduction of Drake as a global ambassador and the newly acquired rights to host the 2016 NBA all-star game, not only is Toronto beginning to get some of the hype that Charles Barkley and others have preached for years but the before seemingly impossible task of building the Toronto Raptors in a championship contender just might be becoming a proposition that isn't along the same lines of crazy as following a science fiction writer's perspective on how we came to be as a religion.
As currently constructed, the Toronto Raptors are a team that potentially could even surprise a lot of experts and NBA fans and make a serious push towards the 2013-2014 NBA playoffs. The acquisition of Rudy Gay by then general manager Bryan Colangelo put into place a talented, albeit inefficient, scorer that can will a team to a few victories in a season. Similarly, the presence of a concentrated Kyle Lowry gives the Raptors the dynamic bulldog type of point guard that their horrific perimeter penetration defense has sorely lacked over the past decade. Finally, you throw in the gritty, tough workhorse that is Amir Johnson and the rising talent that is Demar Derozen into the mix and you start to see the semblance of a core that would make the Atlanta Hawks or Butler-Arenas-Jamison led Wizards squads jealous in terms of their title outlook.
Put another way. unless we have a "The Replacements" like year in the NBA with Keanu Reeves replacing Lebron James on the hardwood, the Raptors have about as much chance at winning the NBA title or as Chris Kaman does getting his own Head and Shoulders commercial as unfortunate as that is.
Masai Ujiri is a smart man. He realizes that all of the players stated above are talented and can drive the Toronto Raptors to a reasonable amount of regular season success. Fortunately, I believe he also realizes that not only is there no shot at winning a championship with the team as currently constructed but that he only has one true building block for just such a run.
That building block is named Jonas Valanciunas.
If Bryan Colangelo commited the basketball equivalent of a homicide by drafting Andrea Bargnani, signing Hedo Turkoglu and basically gift wrapping the expiring contracts needed to establish the Big Three Era in Miami, the decision to draft Jonas Valanciunas in 2011 was his way of absolving his sins. In Valanciunas, the Toronto Raptors posses an old school post player who is slowly starting to resemble Pau Gasol on the offensive end with his growing confidence and repertoire on the offensive end.
Trivia question: The downfall of Pau Gasol as a legitimate superstar NBA player has always mostly had to do with the fact that he has never made a truly meaningful and difference making contribution on the defensive end of the floor. Meanwhile, the presence of Valanciunas on the defensive end is something that cannot be understated as although he still makes mistakes that stem mostly on his inexperience playing in the league, the shot blocking and ability to deter opposing players from the basket is definitely present in his game. Now the question, if you add that quality to a player that's comparable to Pau Gasol what do you get?
In my opinion, a player like Tim Duncan.
He's pretty good.
Now does Toronto have your attention?
With the realization of what the Raptors as currently constructed are capable of, the Raptors fan base have a conundrum on their hands. On the one hand, Raptors Nation has preached tanking to acquire great talent for ages and actually could have succeeded in doing so had they not passed on arguably the next Dwight Howard in the NBA, Andre Drummond. With that, the roster as currently assembled has the chance at winning 35 to 40 games and giving fans two playoff games to go cheer their hearts out until halfway through the third quarter when the Heat/Pacer/Bulls finally make you look up at the scoreboard and realize you're down 20 points and have as much chance of coming back as Justin Bieber does at convincing anyone over 40 years old that he has a manly voice.
Or we could take one more shot to the chin as a collective fan base and give ourselves at least a shot at one of the tantalizing talents of the 2014 NBA draft.
To do this, the moves of trading Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry are essential for the team starting off on the wrong foot and staying there for an entire season. If you want to give yourself the best chance at winning the Andrew Wiggins Sweepstakes, letting Lowry and Gay even a quarter of the season and winning 12-15 games in that time could spell disaster for bottoming out when the Boston Celtics, Charlotte Bobcats, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns might not even win that many by season's end.
Whatever the return, it is not important. For Gay, the likely chips coming back will be expiring contracts and possibly a first rounder which should be expected since we did acquire him for Ed Davis and a guy who allows more penetration in his line of work than the combined daily feats of the women in the Amsterdam Red Light District. With Lowry, the return might actually be something that could prove to be a piece going forward.
Once again though, whatever these returns might be, they are totally unimportant.
In regards to tanking, the NBA fan base seems to be under the impression that the bottom dwellers of the NBA will take a massive step forward once one of Randle, Parker or Wiggins come walking through their arena's doors. And to those people I just ask one simple question: when has that ever happened?
The greatest player of this generation in Lebron James wasn't able to pull the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the cellar in his first season. Likewise with Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade or any other superstar talent that has entered the league in recent years. Simply put, whichever teams land these top tier talents in the top 3-5 picks of the 2014 NBA draft will be heading to another lottery the following season.
Realistically, let's say that the Raptors bottom out but have the more probable outcome of ening up with only the 5th pick in the 2014 draft occur. Sure, they do miss out on the lead dogs at the top of the draft but they would acquire the opportunity at one of the many players in the draft that have legitimate all-star potential scattered throughout the lottery. With the core of Valanciunas, TBD and possibly Demar Derozan, the team likely faces finishing within the lottery the following season which looks to be yet another great one.
As a franchise and city that has never been able to attract superstar level talent into it's ranks, it can become easy to start settling for results that are less than ideal. As a sports fan, isn't the thought of not having a chance at the NBA championship but settling for a few appearances to the playoffs as an afterthought team that very same concept of settling if one ever occurred.
We've come to a fork in the road in the franchise trajectory of the Toronto Raptors.
As a Raptors fan, I'm just praying the Masai Ujiri came with a GPS.