When he traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, Masai Ujiri made a name for himself as an executive. There was nothing especially complicated about the decision itself, as Anthony made it clear he had eyes for New York in free agency. It was how he did it that earned Ujiri a reputation.
Anthony wanted to play for the Knicks, but Ujiri played them off New York’s other team, the Brooklyn Nets, to create a market for the scoring forward. With seven years in the rear-view window, the Nuggets’ haul does not look as impressive as it once did, but it served to decimate the New York roster with Anthony as the focal point: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov and a series of picks, one of which was eventually flipped for the pick that got Denver Jamal Murray, were sent to Denver. The move left the Knicks flailing to build a team around Anthony when they might have been able to sign him for mere money as a free agent. Ujiri held the Knicks’ feet to the fire until James Dolan capitulated.
Ujiri’s trade on Wednesday for Kawhi Leonard might have been an unintended consequence of that moment. Having seen what trading for a superstar just before free agency can cost you in depth and future assets, Leonard’s preferred team, the Lakers, nor any other team ponied up a significant offer to acquire the Finals MVP and two-time defensive player of the year. As a result, the Raptors trade for Leonard cost Ujiri less than anyone imagined.
That reputation did not really carry over from Denver to Toronto. Despite working with several of the members of the Raptors’ front office when he was one of Bryan Colangelo’s lieutenants, he cleaned house, bringing in key executives from other organizations, the league office and out of the NBA entirely. Other than that, though, Ujiri morphed from a ruthless killer to a patient observer, not to mention something of a hype man. His first two trades, the exiling of Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, were obvious palette-cleansing moves, and then he sat on his hands as the Raptors charted an unlikely course to a division title.
Before he was even a year into his tenure as Raptors boss, Ujiri was screaming “Fuck Brooklyn” in Maple Leaf Square before the team’s first playoff game in almost five years. It was a profane rallying cry that also served to underscore the franchise’s new marketing slogan, “We The North.” That slogan would transform into several others — “North Over Everything,” “Hustle Over Hype” and “Built Over Bought.” The purpose was to place the Raptors as an antidote to the things some fans hate about the NBA: the super teams, the glamorous, sun-drenched markets and the predictability. The Raptors positioned themselves as outsiders and underdogs. They positioned themselves as different.
They are not. They are an NBA franchise, one of at least 20 that do not have an inherent competitive advantage because of history, geography, tax breaks or some combination of the three. They play in Canada, and that is a strike against them for some players, but it means less now than it ever has before, lazy jokes in the wake of the Leonard trade notwithstanding. The Raptors are, like everyone else, trying to figure out the best and smartest way to championship contention. Agree or disagree with their methodology, but that’s the goal.
Ujiri’s trade on Wednesday signifies the end of the old way of doing things. It is, I believe, a good, sensible basketball trade, a risk worth taking in the quest to make this a better, more versatile roster with a more open future.
That is Ujiri’s job, and that is what fans who are dying for a contender should want from him. However, there is a tangible sense of loss here, one worth recognizing. What made the Raptors of the last five years different was not geography, but philosophy. With the organization’s Big Four of Ujiri, Dwane Casey, DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors eschewed the increasingly popular notion that you either needed superstars or needed to stink in order to get one to make themselves relevant.
If you take their action and inaction at face value over that time, the Raptors believed that a self-proclaimed “old-school” coach who came in preaching the values of a guard-your-yard defence could adapt with a changing game and become one of the league’s best. They believed that a short, stocky, relatively unathletic point guard who had vacillated between starter and reserve and clashed with multiple coaches could become an all-star if his basketball IQ and hustle were pointed in the right direction. They believed that an athletic shooting guard was not necessarily all that he would ever be at 24, that his limitations would not define him, that hard work and constant prodding could turn that player into something more. And they believed if you built shrewdly around those pieces, prizing development and smart asset management above all else, you could build a damned fine team.
It should be pointed out that they believed this at least partially out of convenience: DeRozan and Lowry were the all-stars that were available to them, and their value to the Raptors was greater than their value to the league until the moment it wasn’t. Casey’s strengths as a communicator, tactician, consensus-builder and steady voice were great until his in-game weaknesses were exposed one too many times. Regardless, it was how the Raptors shunned NBA groupthink, along with the franchise’s escape from a history of floundering, that united a fan base, that packed Maple Leaf Square in April and May.
The Raptors were mostly right in those beliefs, too. They had a .641 winning percentage in the regular season over those five years, winning four division titles, securing home-court advantage in the first round in the playoffs five consecutive years and winning their first four seven-game series ever, even if each of them came with a healthy helping of angst. By most measures, they succeeded, and the how was infinitely more inspiring than the what.
Ultimately, it was not enough, and now DeRozan is gone and Leonard is here. There have been reports that the Raptors told DeRozan earlier this month he would not be traded (which seems unlikely to have happened precisely as it happened, and probably will be disputed on some level by Ujiri). There was another report on Wednesday night that players around the league have taken notice that the Raptors did not thank DeRozan for his contributions to the team in their press release. Indeed, a throwaway quote from Ujiri acknowledging what DeRozan meant to the franchise and city would have been the easiest thing in the world to include, and would have earned the Raptors some points on a tough public relations day. The idea that no player will ever want to play for the franchise against is a bit bogus, as money and/or winning tend to trump everything else, and it forgets that the Raptors’ biggest free-agent signing ever up until this point was Hedo Turkoglu. I guess Kevin Durant won’t take a meeting with the Raptors next summer now.
With the departure of Casey, and even more so with the exit of DeRozan, the all-star who once proclaimed “I am Toronto” and embraced the city’s defining diversity, an era sails past the horizon. That’s fine: Ujiri did what he is paid to do. You might not like the manner in which he did it, but championship-chasing is a zero-sum game.
As Gord Downie sang, “This is all nothing but cold calculation.” We tacitly accept that when we invest in professional sports. Even still, the Raptors might need to find a new slogan. “The North” still resonates; the “We” does not.