In his first true off-season as General Manager of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri has been efficient in setting about on what seems to be a clearly laid out plan. While most clubs have become paralyzed while waiting for some of the big dominoes – namely, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony – to fall, Ujiri and the Raps have acted quickly and assuredly to both retain and tweak last season’s Atlantic division-winning roster.
Although some (present company included) may have clung to a pipe dream that the franchise would chase a James or an Anthony (okay, maybe just a James), Ujiri has acted practically and reasonably while stabilizing a solid roster, filling holes and working creatively within the pre-tax level cap.
Let’s examine each of the off-season moves:
Raps draft Bruno Caboclo at No. 20
The “Brazilian Kevin Durant” might be a hidden gem, might be, as ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla famously stated, “two years away from being two years away” or he might be a bust. Anyone who made an evaluation on Caboclo based on a couple of Youtube videos or the last five minutes of a team workout really doesn’t know how the 18-year old will pan out.
My concern with what optimists would call a high potential pick and what pessimists would consider a reach at No. 20 is that it doesn’t appear to fulfill Ujiri’s knack for finding value. Even if you allow that Caboclo was always in Toronto’s crosshairs and that he wasn’t likely to be around at No. 37, there were certainly trade options available later in the first round. Miami, for one, was known to be looking to trade up from No. 26 and ultimately found a trade partner in Charlotte (No. 24) in their attempt to nab Shabazz Napier.
Could Caboclo become a star and make everyone forget the initial negativity associated with the pick? Possibly. But the way things panned out clearly wasn’t option #1 for the franchise (they were involved in trade talks with both Phoenix and Memphis in pursuit of Tyler Ennis), and even the path to Caboclo could have resulted in another asset or two.
Raps acquire Lou Williams and Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira from Atlanta for John Salmons
Now, this is how you maximize value! Salmons actually had some value to other clubs for the cap savings he could facilitate (his contract carries a $7 million cap hit for the coming season, but he can be bought out for just $1 million). So, Ujiri sent his cap savings to the Hawks in exchange for veteran combo guard Williams, a depth piece that might be a contributor if he can stay healthy.
The big get in this deal, however, is Nogueira (no, not just for his hair – although that doesn’t hurt), the prize for Toronto’s willingness to take on Williams’ $5.25 million contract. The 21-year old is just one year removed from being the No. 16th over-all selection and could develop into a force as a traditional centre. That he may also serve as a running buddy for fellow Brazilian Caboclo (if he comes over from Spain) is just icing on the cake.
Raps Re-Sign Lowry for Four Years, $48 Million
In my best-case scenario for Kyle Lowry’s unrestricted free agency, I figured that the club would be forking over five years as a trump card to hold over other rival teams looking to acquire his services. Instead, Ujiri played his hand perfectly, allowing Lowry to explore the market and see no ideal fits outside of Toronto.
In the end, it looks as though both the team and the player were motivated to extend a relationship that was beneficial for both sides last season. As SI’s Ben Golliver pointed out, Lowry wasn’t just the team’s starting point guard, but was the crux of the team’s scrappy, hard-nosed identity. His reasonable $12 million/year cap hit comes with a fourth-year player option, probably a concession by the team to help avoid a fifth year.
All in all, it’s a fair contract that ensures that Lowry will be around to provide a spark for the next few years. Sure, there’s a risk that he won’t be as motivated as he was in last season’s contract year, but he’s always had a good motor and represents far less of a risk than many of the other high profile, accessible free agents on the market (Lance Stephenson, anyone?). I’d certainly rather have Lowry for $48 million than Marcin Gortat for $60 million.
Raps Re-Sign Patterson for Three Years, $18 Million
Just as he did with Lowry, Ujiri struck a fair deal with a free agent who was reportedly considering other suitors. Of course, Patrick Patterson’s status was a bit more controlled on account of his RFA status. Still, it’s interesting that he would sign this deal while reports attached him to Orlando Magic, a team that could potentially offer him a starting spot and held enough cap space to make an unmatchable offer.
Instead, TwoPat is coming back to Toronto as valuable insurance in the event of an injury to starting PF Amir Johnson (and his wonky ankles). Even with Tyler Hansbrough’s option exercised and the possibility of Caboclo/Nogueira requiring minutes at some point, Patterson should see plenty of playing time behind Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas as the primary back-up big. That being said, his $6 million cap hit still looked substantial enough to hinder the club's remaining off-season plans, if not for…
Raps trade Novak and a 2015 second rounder to Utah
That would be Novak and the two years and $7.2 million left on his contract. It’s hard to see this deal having a losing side, as the Raps get the flexibility they covet to purse Greivis Vazquez and a big, defensive-minded small forward (Alan Anderson, maybe?), while the Jazz come away with a veteran shooter who is easily absorbed into their plentiful cap room and a second rounder to boot (oh, and Utah adds a white guy).
For the Raps, the deal leaves about $7-10 million of wiggle room under the estimated $77 million tax level, depending on the holds for the Brazilian youngsters. While Ujiri would surely love to unload the Chuck Hayes and Landry Fields contracts, he has done awfully well for himself and isn’t far from what looks to be a complete off-season for the club.
The Big Picture
It's interesting to see how the new realities of the state of the franchise have impacted Ujiri's over-all vision. Presently, he is stabilizing the core that broke through last season while also securing the pieces for long-term success.
With Vasquez still out there, just about all the key contributors to last season's run are back. The potent starting five of Lowry/Johnson/Valanciunas/DeMar DeRozan/Terrence Ross will remain unchanged, while Williams should represent an upgrade over Salmons and one more rotation piece (aside from Vasquez) could still be added.
Meanwhile, Caboclo and Nogueira represent the long-term projects that could produce down the line for the Raptors. As they grow, Ujiri has maintained the cap flexibility necessary to surround them with the right pieces. The Raps currently have just over $35 million committed to five key guys (Lowry, Patterson and DeRozan, with team options for Valanciunas and Ross) for the 2015/16 season and potentially as little as $18 million committed for the season following.