The Toronto Raptors are firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack. This, by most accounts, is the worst place for an NBA team to be: not bad enough to receive good draft picks, yet not good enough to have postseason success.
It’s the treadmill of mediocrity.
Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri is tasked with getting his new team off the treadmill, but it won’t be easy. This is a roster devoid of any real stars, and the salary commitments are either too big (Rudy Gay) or too long (DeMar DeRozan) to have any real hope of returning fair value.
That being said, Ujiri somehow squeezed a future first-round pick out of the New York Knicks in exchange for Andrea Bargnani, a player who was deemed impossible to move by most. If anyone can fix Toronto’s current situation, it’s Ujiri.
To get the Raptors on the road to recovery, here are a few moves Ujiri might consider making.
Trade Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay’s situation isn’t all that dissimilar to what Ujiri went through in Denver with Carmelo Anthony. Gay has a $19 million dollar player option next season that he may exercise to land the security of a long-term deal elsewhere.
While Toronto would welcome the cap space, losing Gay for nothing would have to be considered a failure. At the very least, Gay should be able to bring back a future asset, whether that be a player or a draft pick.
Which teams would be suitors for Gay? Keep an eye on the Boston Celtics. Rajon Rondo has long expressed his desire to play with Gay, and bringing in one of Rondo’s closest friends may help keep Rondo in a Celtics uniform when he becomes a free agent after next year. Boston has a huge $12 million dollar expiring salary in Kris Humphries to deal but no significant cap room coming thanks to the other salaries on the roster.
Something along the lines of Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and a 2015 first-round pick (via Los Angeles Clippers) for Rudy Gay and Dwight Buycks would take the Celtics out of the luxury tax for this season and land a building block to pair with Rondo and Jeff Green.
Boston would obviously do this only with Gay and Rondo agreeing to stay in Boston long term, but it would be an interesting way to cash in a few assets.
The Charlotte Bobcats should be another potential suitor for Gay, and Ben Gordon’s expiring $13.2 million dollar deal should be plenty attractive for Toronto. A deal for Gay could include Gordon, Jeff Taylor, Bismack Biyombo and a heavily protected future first-round pick.
Ujiri may not want a lengthy rebuilding period, but getting future assets for Gay before he bolts in free agency should be his top priority.
Trade DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay overlap quite a bit offensively, as both players are post-oriented wings. That’s a problem on the court, but the books are an even bigger issue. Ujiri will need flexibility to impart his vision for the roster, and that means either Gay or DeRozan probably need to go.
DeRozan is owed $9.5 million over the next four seasons, and shooting guards who can’t shoot threes aren’t in vogue right now. Finding a trade partner will require Ujiri to find a team desperate for athleticism and potential and unafraid to pay a high price.
Another potential suitor for DeRozan could be Denver. You’ll see general managers often inquire about ex-players (Ujiri already brought over Julyan Stone), and Denver is going to start Randy Foye at the 2 this season, so the positional need is there.
A deal involving Andre Miller, Evan Fournier and Anthony Randolph for DeMar DeRozan would help the Raptors clear future cap space while getting a promising young shooter in Fournier to help spread the floor.
Everyone is expecting Ujiri to get busy and make a lot of trades, but perhaps patience is a real option. Jonas Valanciunas is the building block for the franchise, and he’ll be under Toronto’s control for at least another four seasons. That’s a big window of time to build a more competitive team with the right kind of players.
With Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson and Rudy Gay all coming off the books in the next two seasons, the Raptors can wait to build around Valanciunas and Terrence Ross with cap space and draft picks. Ujiri could very well accelerate that process, but outside of DeRozan’s deal, the future books are pretty clean.
Although it seems unlikely, perhaps there’s a chance that Toronto can make a move now to compete in this short window. Lowry and Valanciunas could have huge seasons now that a path to playing time has been cleared, and the last two seeds in the Eastern Conference seem to be up for grabs.
Winning now could foster a better culture than what we’ve seen in the past in Toronto, and it’s easier to sell a potential free agent on being the final piece to put a team over the top rather than the guy responsible for turning around an entire franchise.
No matter which path he chooses, Ujiri will have his eyes fixed on the future. In that sense alone, the Raptors have already started the building process, and they’re better off for it.